We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The Gates at Central Park, 2/11-2/27/05 · 21 February 05

My dear Nobody,

Jim and I got back from New York City early this evening, and I
write to recommend anyone who lives within the New York City
area to go experience Christo and Jean-Claude’s The Gates.
Like many other people walking under or through and around
these structures in Central Park seemed to, I found the experience deeply pleasurable. Like some others I heard talk about it, I think it’s a significant art event. So probably were their other staged public art works, viz, Running Fence, The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Umbrellas. The Gates went up February 11 and will be taken away February 27

Here’s a page about them and their earlier works:


What does The Gates consist of? Although called gates, and said to have been inspired by Olmstead’s original plan to have gates at the entrances into larger paths in Central Park, they do not have internal turning doors, nor are they large archways. They are standing rectangles of hard vinyl colored orange. Hanging from them are heavy linen cloths in the same orangy color. These hangings (or awnings) look like they have many tiny pleats or lines across them (reminding me of kitchen towels) and are hemmed double at the bottom. When they hang, they come down no lower than 7 feet from the ground.

Christo and Jean-Claude call their chosen color saffron, but I am not alone in thinking that up close they may be more plainly (frankly) described as colored Home Depot orange, which seems appropriate enough for things which are the products of modern industrial art and design. The color can also be described as the color leaves can turn in fall—I saw an early reference to the color by Christo and Jean-Claude as apricot or apricot-orange; originally they proposed to install the exhibit for 12 days in fall. However, this color does not appear just one shade of orange, as depending on the time of day, angle of the sun, shade, and wind, the orange changes. Sometimes you see the branches around them and against them, and they grow dark orange as the sun goes down, bright orange as the sun shines through, and light yellowy-orange as the sun comes up. Also somehow bluish. Greenish too. Slightly. Somehow.

These standing orangy hollow rectangles with their hanging linen cloths are bolted into very heavy grey steel box-like rectangles. The standing rectangles are 16 feet high. They vary in width according to the width of the path. There are 7500 of these structures. They are put up in rows of anywhere from 3 to 4 in a row to many many, and stand in the major paths of the park from 59th to 110th Street. They are not in the really narrow serpentine rock paths, e.g., there are none in the Ramble. Nor are they in the central squares. There are none by the bandstand—which made me a bit sad as I have memories of being happy listening to music there. Everyone who can is welcome to come through these in the the park during
the time they are up.

It’s not hard to imagine why it’s so pleasant to walk through these standing rectangles. They are set in a beautiful park whose paths were originally set up to be serpentine, circular, grandly straight and beckoning, and these paths outline beautiful places: they are surrounded by trees, bushes, grass, rocks, and all sorts of pleasant human-built structures and places (squares, stone bridges and stairways, fountains, lakes, several theatres, bandstands, a museum, playgrounds). They attract people, lots of people. And the people process under them. Some people attempt to get a general or whole picture of the work but cannot. You can see them climbing high on rocks, onto castles, and up to the fifth floor of the Metropolitan Museum and a couple of high
towers nearby. As someone who attempted this I can vouch
for the reality that you see much less higher up. The structures
are lower than the trees so mostly hidden by the trees. At any
place you can only get a particular angle and you only get a small piece of the work. Cristo and Jean-Claude have beaten
Walter Benjamin’s thesis: their work is the result of technological
reproduction but it cannot be technologically reproduced by
photographs. People may be seen to be photographing one
another under the rectangles, often with their arms stretched
up high as if to reach the bottom of the cloth, but of course this
is a very partial tiny view, and work as a souvenir or anticipatory
personal memory. The work of art can only be experienced
by being in it and from below. People are an essential
part of this work of public art.

I particularly loved the processing. The Metropolitan Museum from inside and all around it was so filled with people, it
reminded me of an IRT station during rush hour. People were
going every which way and doing all sorts of things (stands
for selling items attract buyers right around the museum),
but when they got to the rectangles, the rectangles formed them
into harmonious patterns. The rectangles ordered the people
naturally. Since the people are bipedal animals they walk forward
more or less symmetrically—or are pushed in chairs with wheels. People were smiling under these awning-like objects.
It was a very cold sunny day that we was there. But they looked pleased to be walking in procession this way. It did
make of individuals something special, a kind of specialness
was invested in you as you walked underneath and all around. It can’t be called royalty quite since the objects are so plain.

Chance plays a big role in the experience. Also change and time. Near the Delacorte theater Jim and I saw a fallen rectangle. A group of people gathered about it looking worried or distressed—rather like one might hope people would were a tree to suddenly break and fall down. At the same time we saw a group of young people dressed in special outfits (with the insignia gate) gather round the fallen rectangle; they carried long poles with tennis balls at the top to distinguish them. They
immediately picked up the fallen rectangle, but they didn’t put it back; rather they took it down and you could see how it was put together. Within a few minutes, the rectangle was gone and all the people dispersed. I saw no graffitti anywhere, but it could
be that any defacement upon being noticed by these people with their halberds was rubbed out. There are police people about—as there usually are in central park. I have an impression of far fewer people bicycling than usual, but maybe I just didn’t notice them.

Impermanence and particularity are central to this work of art. This is an art work which critiques monuments. It is peaceful and harmless. It is for free. You don’t need a ticket to get in. The objects are not set off from anyone or anything. At the same
time while the sixteen days last you can go round and round in and out as you please as long as your strength and feet hold out.

I heard three very interesting talks on The Gates given at the Williams Club on 39th and Madison. The first was savvy politics. It was given by Gordon Davis who was Commissioner of Parks during the time Christo and Jean-Claude first tried to get their
artwork installed. This was 1981 and Ed Koch was Mayor. Mr Davis is now famous for turning Christo and Jean-Claude down. He had a 110 page book with him which he had written explaining why he said no—albeit (he claims) very reluctantly. In brief,
it was a bad time for it: the city in a fiscal crisis, the park in disrepair. Mayor Koch would not have been keen. Mr Davis underlined how art and power are intertwined in this project: Mayor Bloomberg has long known personally and when he was on the Board of the Met championed the art projects of Christo and Jean-Claude. Mr Davis told his audience that when Christo and Jean-Claude first showed up in his office they brought a film crew, and they had a powerbroker in NY phone him several times.

A second talk was given by the present Chairman of the Art department at Williams College. I’m not sure how to spell his name and can’t find it on the site for Williams College on the Net: Michael Glier? Professor Glier talked about the art work as a celebration of human perception and its pleasures. He talked a lot about light, wind, color, chance, space, and offered
precedents in art from stained glass windows to the paintings of John Singer Sergeant.

The third talk was to me remarkable and went to the heart of why this art work is significant. It was given by a professor of religion and humanity at Williams, Mark Taylor. Among his subjects was the modernity of this art work (modernity being defined as using the characteristics of a discipline to criticize
that discipline). He suggested this art work resisted the traditional boundaries of art; took art out of the museum (its recent sanctuary) and made it temporal; revealed and recharacterized the familiar (in other exhibits by hiding things,
wrapping them up); was centrally about impermanence, the vulnerability of things, their passing away. I loved how he said that art which does not transform one’s awareness is trivial; life is too short. He contrasted The Gates to Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc which imposed itself on people: it was gloomy, dark, oppressive, coerced people within its sphere. He was both profound and witty: he called the color of the awnings Home Depot orange; he also said that the color saffron connected them to Buddhist art. He talked about 16 kinds of emptiness. The work was nomadic. It was here today and gone tomorrow like us.

I can’t begin to do justice to Professor Taylor’s talk, but I did have the courage to ask a question of him afterwards: I asked him to talk about the uses of photography which would seem to turn this idealistic work back into a commodity as photographs
are what people seem to prize and show one another (as if they owned the experience and can now share it as owners); photographs function politically, and they are of course sold to support the work and make a profit. Christo and Jean-Claude have made books of photographs about their projects. Since only a limited number of people will experience the work and they may buy the book of photographs, the ephemerality
of the work is lost to these buyers at least. (At this point Mr Davis repeated how when Christo and Jean-Claude first showed up in his office they brought a film crew.) I didn’t say but do think the photograph lighting of the pictures I’ve seen on the Net and elsewhere also make the rectangles look gorgeous and linen
look plush—neither of which is accurate if literal experience be a criteria.

Other people asked questions which elicited comments about the art work as performing a ritual in which many people can participate. People like ritual; they like to be in a special
place and part of a community. Apparently in February hotels in New York are often somewhat empty; this weekend the hotels
were full. The art work was put up in February because the city authorities in charge of the park found this time to be the one where what was necessary to be done would interfere least with other public activities. It turned the park into a huge public theatre.

We found it irresistible and walked and walked and walked. I wish Ani and Izzy could have seen it. It was a thing to remember. I did see a charming parody on the Net where someone drew a cat near its catdish and a mousehole. Coming away from the mousehole was a series of tiny orange gate-like structures.

It is also to be noted that Jean-Claude’s hair appears to be the same orangy color as the gates.


Posted by: Ellen

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