Walking the Mastaba

The London Mastaba by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

While walking over the serpentine bridge I have seen the London Mastaba on a number of occasions and in various manifestations. In the razor sharp morning light after rain, as a photograph stuck onto the landscape, with its clearly defined braille patterns of red, blue and mauve circles. In the afternoon, with pedal boats approaching at different angles, blue hulls matching its blue dots, the structure exploding through the water in reverse. At night, in pulsing low frequency wavelengths, when the trapezoid shadow looks darker than everything around it, vacuuming the night. Over the shoulder of Christo, looking down onto the monolith like the protagonist from Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. With his wiry white hair and safari khaki jerkin — an explorer, not of unexplored places, but of unknown inhuman scales. It’s followed me around London — as is the way of most large forms in the city — rearing up from the grey landscape, as vibrant as a blue catering plaster mixed in with rancid food. The sculpture is landscape in a constant state of change and like most monuments, it’s not what it seems to be; its symbolic function is warped.

The shape of the Mastaba can be seen in different places too; inverted and cutting into the ground or rising to the sky in Egypt, and smaller versions used as seating outside homes in ancient Mesopotamia. When you see them now, they inhabit vast desert landscapes with nothing around them, reminiscent of American land art.

Growing up in a small city in England, I didn’t understand this style of art until I visited America. On arriving I realised the vast scale of the place, to which land art, with its massive structures and interventions, was a reaction. Scale is their artists’ real medium, and the artworks have to be big in order to compete with the dead space around them. Inserted into the English landscape, however, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s megastructure is a powerful ingredient and seems to cancel everything else out around it, imposing and forcing a vast object onto something small, a compression and expansion of scale similar to playing the sounds captured in a cathedral in a small bedroom, or the modulations of proportion apparent in a dream. It creates a breathing oscillating disjunction of space as you view the structure from a distance. Yet, it doesn’t seem to be the appropriate time to be reminded of the massive inarticulate spaces between people in America and elsewhere, and of masculine and dominating proportions.

Mastabas in their original form are typically tombs: what is buried in London?

London’s Mastaba is made of 7,506 oil barrels. One oil barrel contains 42 gallons of crude oil. If they were full, the sculpture would contain 315.252 gallons of oil, roughly the same amount of oil used to power the Philippines for a day — a sculpture then of a country’s daily power consumption. The form delineates the redactions taken from deep below the earth. A trace, a positive impression of the negative subtractions needed to keep the UK running for only five hours.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude initially envisaged the Mastaba to be located in the oil landscapes of Dubai some 35 years ago. In this location, its oil drum construction, although seemingly against nature, was vernacular and referential of the environment around it. Though, transplanted to London, the association becomes more complex.

Oil spill at sea

Oil is the originator of the Internet. Millions of years of Earth’s activity and energy has been rendered down into the slick darkly iridescent information archive that is oil, a substance fluid and shape shifting in the same manner as the Internet. All the Sun’s energy, all the plant and animal life that has been and gone is contained within the acrid substance. But the barrels are empty and show what has already been lost to entropy. So it is perhaps this that has been symbolically laid to rest in the oil drums that make up the London Mastaba.

If oil is the material and spatial equivalent of the immaterial spaces of the digital, then what is the online equivalent of an oil spill?

Surely the online world is a constant oil spill, a fissured and glutted tanker shedding its unordered foreign contents into waters that reject and separate from it. The way in which water separates from oil loosely contains some spills, it has modulating edges that are clearly boundaries, but unlike most boundaries, move as the oil struggles to separate itself from the water around it, from the world around itself — just how the digital mingles but eventually separates from the material.

Although pink, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ‘Surrounded Islands’ work in Miami also took on the appearance of a controlled oil spill. In the same vein as the London Mastaba — which is also a controlled spill — for all the beauty of its surface appearance, the piece contains something else much more sinister, which intensifies nature by seemingly being its opposite. This Mimics the unorthodox and frightening reading of oil spills by the protagonist in Tom McCarthy’s ‘Satin Island’. In his framing, the ocean’s surface is ‘made sharper, more momentous: it is amplified’ by the introduction of this pollutant. Animals and the other parts of nature it interacts with become ‘instant martyrs’ that are ‘infused with all the pathos and nobility of tragic heroes.’ He concludes by suggesting that it is only by way of oil’s iridescent inky stain that nature’s permutations are “augmented, transformed into monumental versions of themselves.” Taking this reading, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s sculptures aren’t just monumental themselves, but also make monuments — in the manner of an oil spill — of the nature that surrounds them.

Surrounded Islands by Christ and Jeanne-Claude

Oil, interestingly, is never mentioned in the press releases and artist talks, instead the project is presented merely as a beautiful artwork that can be enjoyed by everyone for free. This, however, is just the wolf’s clothing and taken literally, the Mastaba is a monument to oil and the wealth it creates, in the centre of a city that is completely corrupted by it. The structure — to rework Robert Smithson’s observations in ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’ — instead of causing us to remember the past like old monuments, voids the future. It’s a monument to entropy, not the erosion of itself, but of the eventual disappearance and perennial corruption of everything else around it. Sculpture is usually the object, although in this instance it becomes the ubiquitous all-seeing subject.

From the outside the form looks as though it is purely constructed from barrels, if you were to walk inside, however, you would see that it is hollow and would be met with its anatomy made from a cathedral of scaffolding. In Michel Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish: The Spectacle of the Scaffold’ there is a delineation of how scaffold structures, before the advent of mass media, were used to create a spectacle of public executions to reinforce social mores and norms. Oil seems to be in the dock here, raised high above the crowds in the manner of theatre set.

Drums of oil are the lowest common dominator of energy, just as pixels are the base units, the substrata, of our perception of the digital realm. The Mastaba’s surface is pixelated on two of its five sides. And looking at it from the edge of the serpentine lake at sunset, its pixels of red, blue and mauve mix with the water it floats on into a gently moving dark purple.

The London Mastaba from the edge of The Serpentine lake

Edward Burtynsky B. 1955 MANUFACTURING #17

People often mimic and act like pixels, conjuring digital screens from themselves to veil and buffer the harsh contrast between the digital and the material world. And increasingly, unlike the dark purple water noisily moving at the base of the sculpture, they do not mix to form a collective — in the same way oil tries to mix with water, but eventually separates its sinuous entanglements. The pixel collaborates to form an image, it may imbue a pixel next to it with colour variation but there is no direct interaction, it essentially does its job alone — like our increasingly individualistic culture and the heavily annexed and syncopated bodies that are its building blocks.

The London Mastaba isn’t in the landscape, I think as I watch it from the bridge again, blurred by fog; it is an abstracted landscape in itself — a reflection, a sound mirror — of the times we live in; a tomb-like echo chamber for the Anthropocene.

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