Christo and Jean-Claude’s latest mega (lomaniac) foray into the public eye takes its formal inspiration from the eternal houses of ancient Egypt. The idea is traceable in C. and J-C’s drawings from the late -1960’s, and like so many of their major projects, has a gestation, provenance and resilience that are difficult to contest. In writing this brief note, I came to the startling realisation that I have adored Christo and Jean-Claude’s for absolutely years, they were effectively the visual soundtrack to my late teenage years.
The Wrapped Reichstag (realised in 1995) and Pont Neuf (1985) were, and remain, poignant and abundantly meaningful; the Californian version of Running Fence speaks through history with enormous eloquence about division and territorialism and the arbitrariness of statehood. The very best works of Christo and Jean-Claude – and I also count some of their extraordinary drawings and maquettes in this category – have been simply wonderful for the greater part of half a century. They have been acclaimed and accused of much during this extended period, having outlasted, and in some cases outlived, their critics and commentators, their creative longevity and luminosity a rarity amongst artistic partnerships - though perhaps Gilbert and George and the Rolling Stones also co-exist in this rarified, perhaps defiant, space.
Unfortunately, where I am going with all this is that, whilst the London Mastaba at, (or rather in) the Serpentine in London, makes for some rather spectacular photographs, for me it fails to possess the poise or relevance that one has come to expect from this extraordinary pairing. The actual installed work, for once, doesn’t live up to the drawings and digital mock-ups, and its strangely pixelated appearance (which one assumes deliberately emulates the computer screen), only serves to diminish the physical presence, reality and gravitas of the work.
In comparison to their original proposals for other sites in the 1970’s such as Abu Dhabi or Texas, USA, Hyde Park’s aquatic location positively militates against interpretations that might be more environmentally pointed or sympathetic. Instead of empty oil barrels highlighting the obscene cycle of capitalist production and consumption, or paralleling the draining of natural resources and desertification, here I was more worried about the barrels themselves becoming polluters, both visually and chemically. The disappointment for me was that, perhaps for the very first time, their work rings hollow, here emptied not only of oil but equally emptied of meaning. Knowing their work as I do, I would attribute this emptiness in no small way to an assumption that such propositions might be seen as being infinitely moveable their suitability made malleable for an elastic range of contexts. But the Serpentine installation demonstrates the elastic limit: One only has to look at the range of unrealised proposals to understand that these are works looking for a venue, host or location that can afford to accommodate the huge logistics, planning commitment and costs involved.
The siting of public sculpture has been a hot potato for more than two millennia (so ‘tell me news not history’ I hear you say), but the difference here is that perhaps out of a sense of desperation and mortality calibrated against the scale of such colossal undertakings, time is fast running out.
It actually saddens me to not like this work, to feel that this time they have overreached themselves and misjudged the place, the time and the culture. The greatest sadness of all is that they have failed to recognise a mood and the zeitgeist.