I’ve been meaning to get this post out for weeks, before the open water swimming season came to a close for those of us not seasoned enough not to wear a wetsuit. I need to remind myself that this is short form writing and that it only has to be good enough. Maybe I am being too hard on myself? Is having a 3-year old a 6-month old and having a new job on the horizon excuses enough? Nonetheless, I managed to do the Swim Serpentine open water swimming festival at the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park this September. With my kids in tow; not on or in a tow float – maybe this is the future?
The weather had gone from warm and sunny in the week to cold and wet. And normally I would say that the water is the best place to be when it is cold and wet, however snuggling under my duvet with my girls sounded pretty nice on that freezing, drizzly day. My driving force is usually the amazing freedom to just swim, however on this day there was another magnetic force drawing me to the water: Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s London Mastaba, a massive temporary floating sculpture constructed of A LOT of hyper-coloured oil barrels on the Serpentine lake just in front of the lido. All I could think about was getting to swim around it. What a treat. Had I been better organised I would have signed up for the Super Six, so I’d get to swim around this sculpture six times instead of one, but I didn’t. One circuit was going to have to do, and so I did my one mile, savouring it. Boy oh boy was it cool.
Imagine a pyramid nearly as tall and wide as a standard 25-meter swimming lane, with the apex snipped off one quarter from the point, like a flat-topped triangle. Now imagine that this shape is three-dimensional, well four- dimensional because it is in the physical, public arena with sight and sound and splashing and tactility. It is in the air and lives and breathes with the swimmers and flora and fauna surrounding and living underneath it. Now imagine that this enormous shape, right out of a box of building blocks or Lego has a pixelated, mosaic appearance, red and white dots on the east and west sides and blue, mauve and red dots on the north and south sides; from afar the north and south sides look hot pink. Depending on the weather and the light the entire construction might look like a dark creation of science fiction emerging from the lake, the tip of the ice berg.
While the swimmers were reminded ‘not to touch’ (the birds can poop on it, how typical), the kayaker/invigilator safety crew got to hang out and sit on the edges of the sculpture, watching us as we swam around, making sure we stayed out of trouble, and presumably didn’t touch it. I even saw a few with thermoses drinking warming beverages, reminding me of a wetter version of the 1932 photograph of workers eating lunch on a beam of the ascending Rockefeller Center skyscraper.
We made it out to the lake in good time for my 1.15pm one-mile swim, which was a good thing as compared to last year, the organisers seemed disorganised this year: the women’s changing tent was overflowing with ladies elbow to bum getting suited or tow-floated. The queue to drop our bags was long. My red-capped wave was overpopulated. Likewise, after 35 minutes and 11 seconds of trying to swim away from inexperienced open-water swimmers and avoiding the Las Vegas style photo points on the lake including the one on the finishers’ gantry (I do not need photographic evidence of my chin covered in proverbial brown pond scum thank you very much), I waited over 10 minutes in the queue to get my medal and then waited again to pick up my bag. The bag drop area reminded me of those stuffed toy arcade games, where you have to position the dubious metal grabber over the desired toy, that you inevitably never manage to grab anything with. Bags clobbering other bags, tumbling upon unfindable, piles of renegade bags with useless humans unable to match our registration numbers with the bag tags. I ended up with one in the end. Thankfully it was mine. I did change next to a lady whose bag was lost. She didn’t swim in a wet suit either, and so stood in the changing room in front of a fan heater and a borrowed towel while one of the volunteers personally searched for her belongings.
The dis-organisers of Swim Serpentine could have celebrated swimming around the sculpture. In their ‘Final Instructions’ PDF information pack there is a simple, objectively written account of what we were to be swimming around, as if it were an oil spill or weather warning with a touch of irony: “This year, you will be swimming around The Mastaba, which is a 20m high and 30m wide sculpture of 7,506 barrels stacked on a floating platform in the Serpentine Lake. The creation is by world renowned artist Christo and is a sight to behold. Please do not attempt to swim up to The Mastaba as this area is only for the safety boats.” It could have said “This year you GET to swim around The Mastaba!” And the writers forgot to mention Jeanne-Claude, Christo’s wife and life collaborator, who certainly would have given them an earful for such a dull description and for omitting her contribution.
Serpentine Gallery could have joined forces with Swim Serpentine to promote and make more of this opportunity. What a unique way to experience this sculpture. I can’t find numbers for 2018, but over 4,500 swimmers swam in 2017. If we imagine even more entered this year, then that’s a lot of loops around Tthe Mastaba and what an inimitable, shared experience? Maybe most swimmers didn’t take the time to look up, to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the Mastaba? Maybe they were paying close attention to their time or trying to avoid getting a novice foot in their face? Maybe the majority of the over 4,000 swimmers also thought swimming aroundThe Mastaba was equally cool and a novel way to experience public art?
I visited New York City in February 2005 and got to see Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s Gates in Central Park.
I imagine for the regular commuters walking in the park or for joggers, on opening day The Gates made the mundane interesting, a foil to the workaday jog. But over time, they became lived with and part of the furniture. From afar The Mastaba reminds me of passing a big red barn off a Midwestern American highway.
The Gates, like The Mastaba, were temporary, and now exist in the memory and as a marker of time, place and shared experience. For a limited time, we got to see and swim the world a little bit differently, to swim a lap around a towering, colourful architectural impasse rather than colourful bobbing buoys (also reminiscent of arcade games). For me swimming is about freedom (more of later). Jeanne-Claude and Christo are masterminds of prepositional physicality, an affinity that they share with swimmers: swimmers swim up and down, through and under, over, in, by. This artistic collaboration challenges and makes visible the freedoms we take for granted and exploit. They cover and wrap bodies, and the body politic (think the Reichstag).
The Gates were about openings, looking and moving through, like metal detectors with no agenda and no policing. Their Paris oil barrels in the 60’s was a protest to the Berlin Wall. In a worryingly, and increasingly intolerant world, The Mastaba is a statement about and a stand on tolerance and freedom. Being created and displayed in London where we are reminded by the Mayor of London that everyone is welcome, is a joint statement empowering those without voices and freedoms. What we know from our artist friends Turner and Monet, when it comes to the confluences of clouds, water, and floating objects, they merge and refract and meld. It’s a wall, but you can go around it. And maybe even under it.