Regardless as to whether or not you’re a frequent visitor to London, over the past few months a huge structure floating in the famous Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park has been hitting the headlines of the cultural zeitgeist. The structure is known as the London Mastaba and is part of a series of large, colourful and temporary structures made with oil barrels.
The oil barrel structures began popping up in the 1960s and were part of a project by married artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude who are famed for their environmental works of art which are usually built to a large scale.
But what is the political, economic and environmental message behind this impactful flat top pyramid?
As is the case with a lot of modern art, interpretation is a personal thing, but usually the mind is steered in a certain direction. With the Mastaba however the artist Christo (Jeanne-Claude died in 2009) claims there is no deeper meaning; a comment that seems very unsatisfying to me.
So here are my interpretations…
The Oil Crisis
At first glance, the use of empty oil barrels signifies a nod towards the oil industry and the oil crisis. The first oil crisis began to simmer in the late 1960s and by 1973 the price of oil had gone up by 400% - an issue that we have seen happening with many fuels and gasses over the past 40 years, from natural gas to man-made refrigerants like R410A.
This oil crisis falls in line with Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s first oil barrel Mastaba in Philadelphia in 1968. In 2018, the year of the London Mastaba, the United States increased their oil production while battling issues with a weakening dollar. All in all however, fuel shortages, oil production and fluctuating oil costs across the globe is still a major political and economic issue under great scrutiny.
To strengthen this interpretation even further is the likelihood of Christos next structure which is planned for Abu Dhabi, located next to Saudi Arabia which has long been one of the largest oil exporters in the world (this Mastaba will also be the largest art structure in the world).
Marine oil spills
Another collective interpretation of the London Mastaba is the environmental effect of marine oil spills. Oil spills have huge impacts on the planet including polluting oceans, killing marine and bird life and affecting the economy.
Oil spills also gain large amounts of media attention due to scrutiny over government’s response, the economic effects and the social activism. Some of the largest oil spills have occurred in Kuwait and the United States, including the famous Deepwater Horizon spill which has since become the topic of a Hollywood film. Another knock on environmental effect of oil spills, both on land and in water, is oil fires which affect air pollution, a topic we discuss on the The Hub quite frequently.
Culturally, oil spills have featured in art for the past few decades from paintings to photography and even on the cover of Italian Vogue.
Fossil fuels and climate change
Potentially the alternative use of empty oil barrels could be interpreted to signify a move away from fossil fuels.
Is it time we eradicate oil barrels all together and recycle them for art or some other type of environmentally friendly use?
The world needs to shift towards cleaner and greener grids and each year the uptake of renewables increases as we move away from traditional fuels.
2018 has seen a great step forward when it comes to moving away from coal. In 2017 the UK had its first coal free day for over 100 years and this year we had 3 coal free days in a row! Even more exciting was that 24% of the power supplied in this period came from wind, while another 6.2% was from solar.
Rubbish in the ocean
Moving away from the focus on oil, the barrels could also signify the large amounts of waste and rubbish that is scattered across our planet. Plastic in the ocean is a huge topic of discussion right now, but plastic isn’t the only rubbish scattered on the ocean floor, metal and glass make up a significant percentage too. Of course plastic is the biggest cause of marine debris due to 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean each year.
This huge amount of plastic waste has caused further problems due to its accumulation into islands such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The garbage patch covers an area of around 1.6 million square kilometres – 3 times the size of France, making it the largest scale rubbish patch in the world.
The size and scale of this patch relates to Christo’s use of scale which allows his art to make an impact. Furthermore the juxtaposition of Christo’s London Mastaba against the backdrop of nature reflects the harshness and artificiality of plastic waste in the ocean.
Christo has made it quite clear that the London Mastaba is meaningless and is just meant to be enjoyed. However it’s hard to not see meaning in this structure, mainly due to the barrels that he has chosen to make it out of. Also the scale and colour of the sculpture makes it eye catching and demanding against the serene backdrop of Hyde Park.
As a piece of art which has been created to demand some element of media attention, not having a political message could highlight a waste of potential in a world where these types of messages need to be spread and heard.
Either way, it was spectacular to see in real life and it gets to be enjoyed for free which, in an expensive city like London, is always appreciated.