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Wearing a hard hat and cargo jacket, the artist Christo stood on a platform looking over the Serpentine lake one April morning and watched his latest creation come to life.

As ducks glided across the water, men in orange jumpsuits began assembling the installation, a crane hovering above their heads.

Artist Christo attends the unveiling of his first UK outdoor exhibit, the London Mastaba, in Hyde Park.

Photo: Dominic Lipinski

The London Mastaba, Christo's first major outdoor work in Britain, is now floating in the middle of the lake in Hyde Park. A trapezoidal pyramid of 7506 painted and horizontally stacked barrels, it is 20 metres tall – as tall as the Sphinx in Egypt – and weighs nearly 600 tonnes.

Named after a flat-roofed structure with sloping sides that originated about 6000 years ago in Mesopotamia (the word "mastaba" means "bench" in Arabic), it is a test for a mastaba roughly eight times as high that Christo hopes to put up in the desert in Abu Dhabi.

This is less ambitious than past projects by the Bulgarian-born Christo, 83, who, in 1969, famously wrapped the coastline of Little Bay, in Sydney's south, with 90,000 square metres of fabric.

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He has also extended a 40 kilometre fence across parts of Northern California, as well as wrapping fabric around a bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf, and around Berlin's Reichstag building.

Installing the London sculpture has not been plain sailing, however. Christo had to fund the project himself, at a cost of $5 million. (Christo does this for all his projects, through artwork sales.)

He then spent a year securing permits from local authorities and from the body that manages Hyde Park, and had 2½ months to get everything done.

"Each work of ours is like an expedition, something incredibly invigorating," he said. "I love to be here with the workers. I like that process. That journey is so incredible, unforgettable."

The materials for the sculpture had to be transported into the park by more than 70 trucks, which were ordered to drive at about a mile an hour because the park is full of pedestrians.

The London Mastaba rests on a floating platform anchored to the lake bed. This is topped with a steel scaffolding frame to which the barrels are attached.

The Serpentine's artistic director, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, said he had approached Christo after seeing his 2016 Floating Piers installation on Lake Iseo, Italy, for which walkways made of fabric were laid out on the surface of the lake.

"There's always been this thought that, somehow, Christo is missing in London," Obrist said.

Christo denied his massive projects were signs of an oversized ego. "There's a lot of humour there," he said. "They're bombastic, they're very simple," and "not something intimidating".

Now the next big thing for Christo is the desert mastaba. He has no idea whether it will materialise, he said, "but we are advancing".

"I am like a chess player. I hope to live to when the project has happened."

The New York Times

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