Late last month, artist Christo passed away at eighty-four years old in his home in New York City. His death was not coronavirus related. 

Christo was most well known for his larger than life installations featuring oil barrels and large swathes of fabric. Accompanied by his wife, Jeanne-Claude (who passed in 2009), the pair installed numerous installations on three continents. At the time of his death, Christo was involved in two projects: L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped in Paris and the Abu Dhabi Mastaba. The project in Paris has been pushed back due to COVID-19 concerns, but according to the artist’s office the installation is still on track to begin in September 2020. 

Born in Bulgaria in 1935, Christo escaped the grasps of the Soviet Union in 1958, and met his future wife soon thereafter. Together, they manifested installations in tandem with communities where their installations were placed. Through their art, they advocated for the importance of community level politics, the environment, and the pure enjoyment of art. 

I have a deep personal connection with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, their life, and of course,their art. 

During the summer of 2018, I was studying abroad in London. Wanting to visit all of the tourist sites in the city, my friend and I made our way out of the Lancaster Gate Tube Station and into Hyde Park. We made our way through the Italian Gardens and strolled along the Serpentine. It was hot. The fountains were flowing. The garden was at its absolute peak. 

After having an afternoon tea at Hotel Cafe Royal, we wanted to complete our evening with a stroll through the park before turning in for the night. However, our stroll quickly turned into a race, a contest to reach the purple and red object floating above the skyline. 

Finally, we arrived.

The installation consisted of thousands of oil barrels stacked upon one another to form a shape that wasn’t quite a cuboid or a pyramid––later, I learned that it was called a mastaba, referencing ancient Egyptian burial sites. The oil barrels were painted in distinct hues of red, white, mauve, blue, and purple contrasting the surrounding landscape in the park. The installation, which we quickly learned was actually floating on the Serpentine, was called the London Mastaba, which was made by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in tandem with an exhibition of their life at the nearby Serpentine Gallery.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work is meant to be seen––hence, the Mastaba’s placement in one of the world’s busiest parks. In order to fully see the installation, we rented a paddle boat, applied another layer of sunscreen, and began paddling towards the floating work of art. 

As we approached by boat, the project seemingly doubled, then tripled in size, casting shadows onto the water and the other boaters. Up close, the hues of the barrels were even more vibrant––even when obscured by its own shadow. Entranced by the juxtaposition between the stillness of the installation and the hubbub of other boaters, we were stuck between two worlds; one of the tumultuous sounds of London on a summer day, and one created by the installation of serenity and peace.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude had a knack for doing just this: creating worlds that come out of nowhere, carting you off to somewhere that you’ve never been before, and somewhere that you’ll never see again. I saw the London Mastaba countless times that summer, always bewitched by the project, but never for the same reason.

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