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Friday, June 24, 2005


The Gates: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s New York Extravaganza

Twenty-one million dollars. That’s what it cost Christo and Jeanne-Claude to line 23 miles of walkways in New York’s Central Park with more than 7,500 tall gates of saffron-colored fabric. (This cost was supported by the sales of their drawings, but it was also reported in the media that the amount exceeded, by far, the actual expenditures, which were calculated by the New York Times to be $10 million, at most. So, like the experience itself, an atmosphere of hype and bloated extremism accompanied the estimation of the actual cost.) Still, while the numbers were extravagant, they could not hope to compete with the thousands of people who took part in the display, many of them coming from abroad. The wondrous profligacy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s other projects—the 24-mile-long Running Fence in California and the Valley Curtain in Colorado—made their design for New York seem almost ingenuously toothless. Nonetheless, the project was first proposed in 1979, so it took 25 years and a sympathetic mayor to realize it. This meant that The Gates had to be vetted by local boards charged with oversight of parts of Central Park. In the event, the final configuration of materials—plastic poles supported by metal trestles, from which hung nylon curtains that ended a few feet above the heads of visitors—was remarkably close to the original vision depicted in collage drawings dating to 1980.

Since the time during which The Gates stood was limited to a bit under two weeks, the event had the additional aura of being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude in action. For those of us who until now had encountered the pair’s art only in the photographs of textbooks and monographs, this was the chance to view an actual work by the artists, whose emphases on size and on the repetition of form have never been visually fulfilling in reproduction. So, on a cold mid-February day, this author and his students from Pratt Institute first negotiated the saffron gates from a position above them: we took the elevator to the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the bright, more or less industrial, orange color of the sets of gates stood out in contrast to the muted grays, greens, and browns of the park itself. The acrid saffron of the flags themselves produced a complicated experience for many viewers: some were taken with its vibrancy in an otherwise colorless park; others were bemused by the hue’s tie-in to Buddhism, whose monks wear robes of saffron. In actuality, the curtains felt slightly disturbing in their high-tech brilliance; while they transmitted light, so that the outlines of trees became visible in bright sun, the cloth itself felt thick, nearly impenetrable: the opposite of an esthetically appealing surface. Hoping for a diaphanous material as part of the display, The Gates’ spectators must have been disappointed, as I was, by the lack of a lightly billowing fabric. But one must also be fair to the artists; most likely the thicker cloth was needed for technical reasons, perhaps for resistance to the wind.

The lack of relatively delicate materials set off further scrutiny of the installation’s visual effectiveness. Gathered in groups, the gates were repetitions of each other: there was nothing to differentiate one from the next. So the process of walking through a gate was visually redundant, with only the changing aspects of the park serving to differentiate the experience. It appears that Christo and Jeanne-Claude wanted to emphasize a manmade structure in nature, but we must also acknowledge, at the same time, that the park itself is the creation of human beings, having been heavily altered from its very beginnings as a public space. Consequently, what we really have in The Gates is a manmade intervention within a manmade intervention, so that the notion of artificiality is actually doubled, belonging to both The Gates and the park itself. Often, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art involves the notion of the manmade operating in a natural setting, which The Gates appears to be doing. In fact, however, it constitutes a façade erected in, and surrounded by, a spurious natural context; as a result, upon consideration, the supposed contrast between the manmade and nature falls apart. This is important to note because the intervention becomes strangely unreal, involved as it is with a notion of the natural that only seems to be genuine. Central Park is a highly modified environment, and the presence of The Gates only intensified that modification, no matter what appeared to be the case.

The contrast between the artificial and manmade was therefore moot. But that does not necessarily mean that the installation lost its effectiveness entirely, only that its essence as a work of art was more complicated than it seemed, given the industrial nature of the intervention. Still, it posed problems for the purist: what is one to expect if the meaning of the contrast does not do justice to the facts? Like so much that happens currently in New York’s overexcited artworld, the hyperbole surrounding The Gates gave the project a nearly circus-like ambience. The entire intervention was justified more for economic reasons than artistic ones, creating a hole in the integrity of the work. This is not to say that The Gates was entirely unsuccessful; a likable consequence was its ability to bring together people from all walks of life. So, as social modification, The Gates rather succeeded—even though its visual cohesiveness was in fact a disappointment, given its intentions. The lack of focus, visually speaking, was underscored by the artists’ rather vague insistence that the project spoke for itself, being a kind of art for art’s sake, which lent the work an estheticism that conflicted with the inevitable involvement of the public agencies and myriad individuals needed to realize it. For whatever reasons, despite the high rhetoric of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the major service done to the audience took the form of a momentary community rather than a landmark visual experience.

The question of The Gates’ effectiveness consequently opens up a debate along two lines: the achievement of social bonding and the achievement of the work itself. Arthur C. Danto has spoken of the “political sublime” taking over much of contemporary art. That is, the social nature of an object, working in conjunction with a democratized view of art, takes on greater meaning than any formal analysis might lend it. In this sense, one can agree that the spectacularly democratic nature of the installation proved to be an unusual success. People from all backgrounds (class, ethnic, or racial) got together for a few days and enjoyed the spectacle put together in the park. Even so, it is impossible to deny that the visual impact of The Gates was stilted, without surprise. In a way, it went up against the beauty of the park itself, which is formidable even if it is artificial in its creation. So The Gates seemed to be too much a one-trick pony, repeating itself in an endless stutter of unnatural form.

Along with the social sense of community formed by The Gates came its economic impact: the project supposedly brought more than $250 million in revenues into the city, which is an impressive figure if one’s interest is only in money. Since the cost of The Gates to New York City was nil—Christo and Jeanne-Claude raise the money for their projects through the sale of drawings and other art—one can only praise the outcome’s financial success. Yet looking at The Gates in this particular way only underscores the power of late capitalism over art, seemingly the most resistant medium available to us, the one means we hope can withstand the coarsening of the culture. In fact, the emphasis on the economic aspects of The Gates inevitably reminds us of the towering power of the market, whose financial center in America is New York. One hesitates to dwell on profits and money spent, but that was a large part of the project’s attractiveness—at least to some people. One would have hoped for a less mercantile presentation of things, but it now seems that just about everything must be justified financially, a practice that harms not only the aura surrounding the object but the object itself, which loses its dignity as art.

As a result, it was hard to see The Gates as innocent. It too easily meshed with both physical and metaphysical aspects of late capitalist New York. In that sense, it was merely an extravaganza in the three-ring circus New York has so often become lately. If the project was meant to dazzle, it did so under circumstances that tended to emphasize the aspects of a spectacular whose final meaning was economic rather than spiritual. Somewhere in middle ground was the heart of the installation, which turned out to be the recognition of a common cause: a sense of community opened up between the many kinds of people who attended the show. In the midst of the changes rung down by The Gates, formal issues were neutralized within an atmosphere of general good will. And indeed it would be too easy to smile away entirely the work’s visual aspects, whose crowd-pleasing ambience resulted in a lack of critical scrutiny. But to say that the project was simply great, that everyone had a good time, inevitably relied on a naive reading of what actually took place. The Gates, in its final discernment as a work, offered scant comfort as art even as it succeeded as social construction. Indeed, its failure as art makes it hard to describe in visually accommodating terms; we are left with the warm but fuzzy reality of a community that very conceivably can be construed as false, the result of social manipulation rather than good will. It remains hard not to be cynical about an intervention whose financial numbers seem better suited to the time than its artistic merit, which remains problematic, even naive.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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