Christo's Serpentine sculpture is a jaw-dropping wonder – The London Mastaba, review

5
This video content is no longer available
To watch The Telegraph's latest video content please visit youtube.com/telegraph

I’m walking through Kensington Gardens, London, minding my own business, when a glimpse of red, blue and purple dots rising among the trees stops me in my tracks. The fact that I’ve come here expressly to see, indeed to review, The Mastaba, a 20-metre-high sculpture by the legendary environmental artist Christo, formed from 7,506 oil barrels floating on the surface of the Serpentine, does nothing to diminish the sheer wow factor of this extraordinary work.

While the word “surreal” is routinely used to describe anything even slightly strange, this trapezoidal stack, weighing 660 tonnes, really does feel – even when viewed relatively close up – like an alien presence that isn’t quite occupying the same reality as the rest of us.

While the Bulgarian-American Christo became internationally famous in the late Sixties as “the artist who wraps stuff”, having encased everything from a humble bottle to an entire section of the Australian coast in fabric and rope, that is only one side of his artistic story. Since 1961, he and his wife Jeanne-Claude, with whom he collaborated until her death, in 2009, made equal use of barrels: specifically oil drums.

The Serpentine Gallery’s accompanying exhibition, which chronicles their work with barrels, makes essential background viewing to the main event. A collection of wrapped barrel structures from the late Fifties looms imposingly over the central room.

Considering they consist of nothing more than a few rusting oil drums and some lacquered and deliberately dirtied cloth, they have a disconcertingly anthropomorphic appearance, like totem poles for the industrial age, perhaps.

Christo at the unveiling of The London Mastaba Credit: PA

Seen in drawings, paintings and models documenting an extraordinary array of projects (some realised, but the large majority not), the barrel seems to represent, for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, both a way of blocking things off and a means of connecting things.

The former is apparent in a project that brought them early notoriety, in 1962, when they filled a Paris street with barrels in an apparent protest against the Berlin Wall (seen here in a wall-filling photograph); the latter, in a barrel barrage linking Israel and Egypt across the Suez Canal from 1967.

It’s tempting to see it as an attempt to reconcile opposing forces, but Christo and Jeanne-Claude have steadfastly resisted all attempts to interpret their work. “Our art has absolutely no purpose,” Jeanne-Claude has been quoted as saying, “except to be a work of art. We do not give messages.”

With that in mind, what are we to make of Mastaba, a work first conceived of in 1967, as a floating barrel sculpture for Lake Michigan? The work’s name and structure, referring to a trapezoid-prism structure used in ancient Mesopotamian tombs, don’t appear to have any symbolic meaning. Instead, the work is simply there, to give visual pleasure and make us think about our surroundings in a new way.

It certainly does that, as our sense of its scale, weight and texture change with shifts in light and atmosphere. Seen from the Serpentine Bridge, it looked to me at first flat and unreal, like an image cut out of the artist’s sketchbook and stuck onto the parkscape.

The tingling patterns of red, blue and purple, formed by the randomly positioned barrel ends (which Christo has likened to Seurat’s pointillism) alter in their intensity with the slightest change of light.

As the sky darkens, the great form takes on a brooding, ominous look; a sudden shaft of light, though, and its colours jump out at the viewer, with the brash, hyper-real clarity of some monstrous child’s toy.

London is full of ever-more monstrous structures, many of them serving no purpose other than to provide second and third homes for absentee buyers. All the more reason, then, to celebrate Christo’s fabulous folly, a plaything for the city that has no function other than to make us dream and wonder, before it is dismantled and its components recycled, at the end of the summer.