Sumer in London

The meteorological summer 2018 is over. What a summer! Soaring temperatures, record forest fires, warm arctic circle and heated debates over Brexit. For me, the hottest wave was the art in London: the desert heat, brought by the light from the East gracing the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square and engulfing Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Mastaba in Hyde Park in an ethereal shimmer.

On the fourth plinth, the Iraqi American artist Michael Rakowitz placed his recreation of a sculpture destroyed by the Islamic State. The work titled ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’, made of around 10,500 cans of Iraqi date syrup, is a replica of ‘Lamassu’, a winged bull sculpture of an Assyrian protective deity destroyed in 2005. What is interesting about Rakowitz’s work on the plinth is not just the political message, but the way the work is constructed. It is a mosaic sculpture made of metallic tesserae, which provided the work with a luxurious glow. The refracted light bouncing off the tessellated surface alludes to the glimmer of hope echoed in the title. The historical parallels are embedded not simply in the message but in the medium as well: every individual bit coming together to create a consistent whole. Sumer provided the world with the first mosaic works ever created such as ‘the Standard of Ur’ in display at the British Museum, where a selection of winged bulls can also be found.

The London Mastaba, a monumental temporary sculpture by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, floating on the Serpentine Lake further connected London with its Imperial past. In the shape of an ancient Egyptian burial monument, the Pharaonic Mastaba sends a clear and colourful message: the British Empire is dead! A fact that a lot of people seems to forget. Once again, the constructive nature of the work reveals how mosaic principles have infiltrated contemporary art practices. The 7506-painted-barrel units of the work took over two months to be stacked up. They resemble Sumerian terracotta mosaic cones. The juxtaposition of independent units of colour such as in the Mastaba makes the work feel much lighter, despite its 600 tons. It is an effect called optical lift-off, associated with Byzantine parietal mosaic. Depending on the viewpoint and approach, the Mastaba looks very much like a mirage, or a digitally rendered image on the landscape. The Mastaba was erected to coincide with Christo’s retrospective exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery.

 

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2018) by Michael Rakowitz

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The London Mastaba (2016-2018) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

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Michael Rakowitz | Christo & Jeanne-Claude | Fourth Plinth | Hyde Park | Serpentine Gallery | Sumer | Summer | Lamassu | Mosaic | British Museum | Mastaba | Islamic State

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