“The Gates”

Views on the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Central Park Project

OK, OK...I was too negative at first.  I now concede that the very number and intensity of the responses to my CULTURE ALERT—and to the project itself—resoundingly demonstrate that “The Gates” was successful on many levels.  My current feeling is that it has been an extremely successful “happening.”  And, assuming I'm proven wrong about it taking months before it is finally completely out of the park, I am willing to say I was wrong not to understand the desirability of having it happen.  Nevertheless, I stand by my judgment that it is not good artistically:  the objects themselves are dreadful, and the layout is somewhere between mediocre and ridiculously without aesthetic judgment; and I think there are any number of people who could have done it infinitely better.  (Of course, they wouldn't have done it in the first place, so all that is moot.)

I was wrong about something else, as well:  I could not believe that they would be taken out of the park in a timely fashion—and, having walked through a good bit of the park this afternoon (13 March Sunday), I have to admit that they are gone!  (There are still dumpsters full of the bases—but I shall not quibble about this, as I was convinced the bases would be on the ground for weeks.)  So, on this count, my apologies, and my admiration to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s efficiency and ability to keep their promise.

Here, in more organized form, is my critique and some of the many responses:

 

My original CULTURE ALERT:

I need to admit from the outset that I was prejudiced against Christo's project for Central Park.  I am an Olmsted fanatic, and I consider Central Park to be my favorite architectural work in New York City.  The idea of putting anything in it not part of the original conception is something I resist:  first, because I want to respect the perfection of the design and conception of this astounding work of art; and, second, for fear that permitting any encroachment is a very slippery slope that potentially endangers one of what I consider to be one of the great wonders of the world.

 

Putting this prejudice aside—to the extent I am able, I have attempted to evaluate the success of the project itself.  What follows is my assessment from that perspective.

 

First, what I consider to its main success:  The Gates has drawn people to the park--and in droves.  One of Olmsted's goals in planning the park was to have it be a place where people of all sorts would come together and have an experience different from the general rhythms of city existence.  And for anyone who has wandered in Central Park, his success in this goal has always been obvious:  one always finds the park filled with people from every ethnic, racial, and socio-economic group enjoying various aspects of what the park provides.  In a way that is more successful than any other park I know, Central Park has always functioned as a magnet for the City's residents; it is a destination that people travel to--and NYC has the public transportation which enables them to do so.  It was completely clear this weekend that The Gates was functioning as an event that was accomplishing a similar goal:  huge numbers people were drawn to the park--many of  whom were clearly not the sort one usually finds there.  (On a typical day, the park is full of tourists--many of them from other countries.  Many of these new visitors are clearly from out of town, but more who drove rather than flew to get here.)

 

A second plus is that The Gates has people looking and talking and trying to understand their experience.

 

Having said all this, it is my strong opinion that the project is terrible in any number of important ways.

 

To begin with, the individual elements of the project are horrid.  Each “gate” is a badly proportioned rectangular structure with a large piece of rip-stop cloth hanging from the crossbar at the top.  The entire structure is clunky, the bases are awkward, and the orange color is garish—and all too reminiscent of construction site orange.  In the midst of the organic forms of Central Park, each gate stands as an awkwardly proportioned, totally artificial, geometric eyesore.

 

Moreover, each gate straddles some stretch of park pathway, effectively narrowing the room for those walking on the paths.  This constriction, combined with the inflated number of visitors, makes walking in the areas of the project difficult and jostling.  One of the purposes of the park was to provide an expansive, open, bucolic experience that would be a natural counterpoint to the urban intensity and constrictions of city life.  Instead, moving through the gates actually give a sense of containment and artificiality.

 

Even given the ugliness and garish artificiality of the individual gates, my hope was that their repetition along some of the pathways of the park potentially might highlight some of the magnificent contours of Olmsted’s design.  Alas, the project fails on this measure as well.  Instead of visually composing in a manner that would accentuate the underlying structure of Olmsted’s creation, the gates are arranged in a way that just confuses the experience of it.  In the first place, the lines of gates were laid out without any real regard to the fact that from ground level one ends up seeing a meaningless mishmash of different individual elements from various contour lines all at the same time.  One sees different  layers superimposed upon each other, instead of seeing clearly defined groupings.  (There are small areas of exception to this:  places where only one line of gates is coherently visible at a time—but this is very much the exception rather than the rule.  And even more rare are those small segments that actually reveal the beauty of the Olmsted contour they follow)

 

One of the most distinctive features of the genius of Olmsted’s design was the creations of discrete mini-environments within the park.  An open lawn can be immediately adjacent to tree-lined promenade, and that to a narrow glen, and that to a hilly ramble—and each distinctive environment remains totally separate from and invisible to its neighboring environments, except where, in a measured and controlled way, Olmsted decided to provide a sight line from one into another.  One of the jarring problems of The Gates is that the height of the gates themselves and the poor choices that went into their placement result in one being made aware of multiple adjacent—and even distant—environments that one was specifically meant not to be aware of.

 

My last hope for some redeeming artistic merit to the project was that it might compose well seen from above.  I am afraid that I must report that, after having viewed it from high up in a building on Fifth Avenue and even higher up (25th floor) of a building on Central Park West, it fails on this measure as well.  What little coherent structure there is to the design is a more apparent viewed from above—but the sad truth is that it simply is not that good and not that coherent.  The plan is just not that well thought out.  The lines that have been created are too numerous, too random, and, in many cases, not created or continued assertively enough.  There are lines that simply don’t belong being there; and there are others that should be there that are not.

 

There are any number of artists who would have been able to create more beautiful or appropriate objects with which to populate such a project.  And, even assuming the project’s goal was to utilize particularly ugly elements, repeatedly laid out in a way meant jarringly to create a design, there are some masters who would have been able to have the sense of underlying structure of Olmsted’s masterpiece and have had the ability to understand and control the use of line and point of view enough to make art of this project.

 

Christo and his wife Jeanne-Cluade simply are not artists enough to pull this off.  They have created a happening, to be sure; but they have not created art.

 

We are promised, at least, that this installation is only for sixteen days—and in this, at least, there might be some solace.  But I do not believe it!  In the first place, it is pure hogwash that the installation went up in five days.  The ugly and intrusive bases have been being positioned for weeks.  What is more, and army of volunteers was involve in setting up The Gates.  I completely do not believe that they will be taken down with the same vigor or enthusiasm.  And God knows how long it will be until Central Park has been freed from the bases for each gate.  I am predicting we will be bothered by elements of this intrusion on our park for many, many months to come.

 

And let us not forget:  it is our park.  I do not remember us being asked for our consent to this project.

 

 

Henry Stern’s piece on the project:

A most interesting response to the Christo and Jeanne-Claude project written by former long-time NYC Commissioner of Parks, Henry Stern.  (My favorite line:  "The remarkable aspect of Christo's work is not its striking beauty, although it is probably as attractive and tasteful as orange vinyl bars with hanging shower curtains can ever be. With daubs of white at their centers, the curtains could well be creamsicles.")  Henry sent it out under the title, “Color Me Orange”; I forwarded it under the Subject, “”7000 Orange Schmatas.”

Link to get “Color Me Orange”:  www.nycivic.org/articles/050215.html

Link to responses that Henry received to his piece:  www.nycivic.org/articles/050215response.html

 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s own site on The Gates:

Link:  www.christojeanneclaude.net/tg.html

 

The first set of responses I received:

No CULTURE ALERT before has ever resulted in the outpouring (inpouring?) of responses I have gotten to my piece on "The Gates."  I have received many, many times the numbers of emails I have receiver about any previous one--and not a few phone calls!  I include here a sampling:

 

My favorite exchange in reaction to my piece:

 

Respondent:    Bah humbug!

Dead Parrot:   Christo a humbug, uncle?

 

Most thought-provoking "Gotcha":

 

Congratulations! You're thoughtful criticism is now part of the Christo project.

 

Most provoking thought "Gotcha":

 

Hey--you could be a really good Republican.  Give it a try.

 

(It actually was noted by several respondents that, on the issue of the preservation of Central Park, I certainly seem to be quite a conservative)

 

Most profound thought:

 

The fact that people enjoy them shows how much of a need for public engagement exists in this town

 

Most convincing positive view of the project:

 

I love Christo's "benevolent colonizations" of familiar spaces, changing our view of them and our experience of them, temporarily. What fun. In my view he is a genius.

 

Most positive put down of the project:

 

Let's welcome the raised level of citizen camaraderie that this banal project has aroused

 

Most punitive pundit's punishment:

 

I, for one, am in favor of shortening crisco's lard art career, at least limiting his low-price spread on the crust of mother earth.

 

Most promising humorous reply:

 

Ok, Ok...I'll have them down by tomorrow afternoon!

 

Best,

Christo

 

Most common criticism:

 

The gates themselves are poorly proportioned

 

Some negative reactions:

 

The fist things I thought when I saw them were:  communist china, and the obsession with mass production and emphasis of quantity over quality that is our culture today (at least in America). 

 

I HATE the damn helicopters he hired for security!  The noise is worse than how ugly the thing is.

 

It represents an unlawful taking.  How would it be if I decided to place a pile of horse shit in Bloomberg's living room, called it an installation, and charged admission?

 

Opera in the park is a much better experience in every way. That we have every year, and yet I don't see the press and public raising such hoopla about it.....

 

It is far from being a work of art. It is a commercial adventure. I hate it. It sucks.

 

Most common positive comment:

 

It brings people to the park

 

Some Positive reactions:

 

The best part is when the sun shines through the fabric

 

I like the pleats

 

It has people looking  and talking

 

I'll bet it will look great in against snow

 

Some fun thoughts:

 

They were pleated curtains, for god's sake!

 

Maybe they can sell them as shower curtains at Target?

 

Think of all the cheap sport-sacs the Hare Krishnas will be getting out of the leftovers!

 

Best relationship between two unrelated responses:

 

Yep.  The emperor has no clothes, and nobody wants to hear that.  Who wants to see a naked George Bush or -- shudder -- Ariel Sharon?

 

A Saffron Haiku

Gates, Schmates in the Park

Are they the emperor's clothes

Or shower curtains

 

The most interesting juxtaposition of two people's jarringly different takes on the same dynamic:

 

The entire enterprise is the work -- the 25 years of negotiations, the passions that have gone into that, the debate about the park and its inviolability.

 

Their ability to use charisma, persistence, and fanaticism to create a massive piece of crap that sacrifices the free movement of innocent people for the benefit of a misguided mass dynamic reminds me of various 20th century political movements.

 

Best story evoked by the CULTURE ALERT:

 

The Christo piece reminds me when there was a show at the Whitney--a recreation of that big fabric screen in the desert. The whole top floor naked except for one piece of cloth strung down the middle. I looked, then left to find a big searchlight truck parked across the street from the museum for the opening. Being mischievous I masqueraded as a museum official and had the guy point the spot in the window.  The truck light guy and I futzed with the light till I had it pointing straight in the upper window, probably took us twenty minutes to get it right.

Of course the NY Times review spoke of the brilliance of the lighting bringing the out side in and the inter play of the light and shadows,  etc., etc.--two whole paragraphs of the review. I was officially aggrandized as a lighting genius. Once again I became a famous artist.  I bet they didn't know that some Georgia hick did that as a joke. In the end, I decided that in New York, it isn't the work that is important as much as the publicity it gains.

 

One of three, eerily similar, Vietnam associations:

 

I had very odd personal associations to the Vietnam War:  Agent Orange, and the color of the robes of  self-immolating Buddhist priests protesting American involvement.

 

Best (and only) response to relate the piece to the Wallace Stevens poem, an excerpt from which was quoted at the bottom of the CULTURE ALERT:

 

You might try on a sombrero, per Stevens quote below.

 

The lines, from "Six Significant Landscapes," were:

 

Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses-
As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon-
Rationalists would wear sombreros.

 

Another (better?) version: “The Somerville Gates”

Unfortunately, the creator of this project, Hargo, has treated the time-limited nature of his project more seriously than I believe Christo and Jeanne-Claude will theirs; and he had taken down this wonderful, cat-filled online version, posted at http://www.not-rocket-science.com/about_gates.htm .  Here are a few of the images:

 

        

 

 

And here is the original project description and comparison to “The Gate” project:

 

The Somerville Gates

Often Hargo's "The Somerville Gates" has been compared with Christo's "The Gates", Central Park, New York City. These comparisons have been unfair; sometimes the media has exaggerated -- even lied -- about the similarities. Differences abound, and some of the most overlooked are listed below. 

The gates are not for sale. Neither is the cat.
And don't let anybody sell you tickets to these gates: it is free!
[Signed photos, however, are available directly from the artist in limited editions.] 

Images

Home

email Hargo

Thank you for visiting The Somerville Gates.
- Hargo.

 

Christo's
"The Gates"

Hargo's
"The Somerville Gates"

Location

Central Park,
New York, NY, USA

Village Street,
Somerville, MA, USA

Does the artist accept donations?

No

Yes

Years it took to make

26

0.002

Estimated visitors (people)

4 million

4

Estimated visitors (cats)

none

1

Use of recyclable materials

yes

yes

Number of workers involved in the installation

600

2

Viewing period

16 days

until the cleaning lady comes

Tons of steel used (in US tons)

5,290

0

Wood glue used (in ounces)

0 (est.)

4

Installation area

843 acres

2400 sq ft

 

 

 

© Hargo 2005

 

Hargo’s final words on his project:

 

The cleaning lady has come.

The response has been great, and I thank you. It certainly suggests -- among other things, and to paraphrase a famous Somerville neighbor -- just as there are too few women in science, there are evidently too few cats in contemporary art.

 

 The next set of responses I received:

The responses about "The Gates" continue to pour in!  I have to admit that, while I am still convinced the project is a failure from an artistic point of view, it is clearly a huge success as a "happening."  Here are samples from the recent ones:

 

 My next favorite exchange in reaction to my piece:

 

Respondent:    I feel like an Israelite amongst the Philistines.

Dead Parrot:   Does that mean you are planning to try and build settlements in the park?

 

(yes, yes...for you experts on the history of the ancient Neareast...I know the analogy is faulty)

 

Most positive new observation (by many people):

 

It looks much better with snow on the ground!

 

-the orange seems deeper and appears to be a better color

-The contrast improves things

-The details of the park's beauty were muted by the snow, and made it less offensive that the project was ignoring them

 

My favorite suggestion for a better shade of orange:

 

The orange of that Veuve Cliquot uses for its Ponsardin, non-vintage champagne

 

An interesting observations about the observers:

 

One curious fact:  most of the people taking photos get one of those vistas where you get a row of  the gates curving up or down a hill, and then wait for the people to disappear

 

Another alterative project:

http://www.smilinggoat.com/Crackers1.html 

 

More humorous observations:

 

We took a long walk Sunday through the park - it looks like laundry day at a Tibetan monastery.

 

PDQ Bach should write the Schmatta Cantata based on the Gates.

 

The New Yorker magazine wades in:

 

Click here for Peter Schjeldahl's article in this week's "Talk of the Town, "Gated"

 

Some excerpts from the article:

 

The crowd’s many-voiced sound had an indoor intimacy, like the bright murmur in a theatre, during intermission, when the play is good and everybody knows that everybody knows it. The over-all social effect, which was somewhat like that of an electrical blackout or a major blizzard, minus the inconvenience, was weird and terrific.

 

Those who deplore “The Gates” as ugly aren’t wrong, just poor sports. The work’s charm-free, synthetic orange hue—saffron? no way—is something you would wear only in the woods during deer season, in order to avoid being shot. The nylon fabric is sullen to the touch. The proportions of the arches are graceless, and dogs alone esteem the clunky bases. As for the sometimes heard praise of the work for framing and, in the process, revealing unsuspected lovelinesses of the Park—C’mon, people! You don’t need artificial aids to notice things.

 

Some more positive comments:

 

I found the piece grew on me with each walk I took through the park. 

 

It was something I wanted my children to remember that they had seen.

 

An explosion of color where least expected; an interior frame for the many exterior views of the park--the associations are endless. 

 

Some more negative comments:

 

It felt claustrophic.  I want to be able to feel expansive in the park, and this did the opposite.

 

There was far too much of it; it felt gluttonous.

 

My favorite association to the project:

 

The color reminded me of a television commercial from my childhood for some brand of tooth paste:  there were orange guardians which were that color protecting pearly white teeth, arrayed to defeat the armies of tooth decay

 

"So, where's the art?" --a story related by one respondent:

 

A very intense young jogger, early 20s, headphones on, stopped to ask me a few questions in a clipped tone. "Excuse me - hi. I was just wondering if there was anything going on with The Gates - any music, dancing, performances, something like that." I told her that I didn't  know of anything. "Oh. So, where's the art?" I pointed to a few Gates and said, "You're lookin' at it."  "Oh..." She said, before turning her IPod back on and jogging away.

One of many comments linking the color to the orange of construction sites:

There are places where it looks nice (vistas, where it accentuates the shape of the landscape; certain walkways where the light makes the schmattas appear luminous, and the breeze gives them the appearance of gently undulating  sculptures) and other places where it looks not so nice - for instance: the playground under construction near Central Park South, where the Gates blend in with the plastic orange construction site netting and your eye keeps catching it and you think, "Wow! There sure is a lot of construction  going on here," and then re-adjust your vision and remember, "Oh yeah -it's The Gates...around a construction site."

 

The third set of responses:

“It looked like some kind of giant car wash!”

(variation on this theme): “I drove my car through five of them before I realized it wasn’t a car wash...)”

“HELP! MAMMA WE'VE BEEN INVADED BY GIGANTIC "ALL LEGS" CRITTERS....”

                                                                

 

Isn't the color much more simply PUMPKIN than otherwise? And would be thinking of it this way make any difference?

A view from above (West Side in the 60s):

                                                                 

And, now, a gay perspective— The Gates Gaytz:

We were wondering whether or not any Christo-inspired porn was going to turn up before “The Gates” comes down this weekend: “This 23 mile long orange hanky in the back pocket of New York City announces to all the universe that Central Park is once again the place for ‘anything anytime’.” We’re grateful to this anonymous Craigslist poster for finally explaining the elusive “meaning” of the piece, though we’re still confused why the installation creates a huge, gaping hole around The Ramble when viewed from above. Er, on second thought …

th’Gaytz - 23 (newyork.craigslist.org)
See also: Fetish Club Hanky Code (sexuality.org; orange is indeed the color for “anything goes”—though there’s no listing for saffron)

Update Some cranky non-art appreciating members of the Craigslist community seem to have banded together and had the post deleted. Good thing we saved a copy for posterity—after all, “The Gates” may be ephemeral, but hot gay sex in Central Park is forever!

 

newyork.craigslist.org > manhattan > men seeking men > th’Gaytz
last modified: Thu, 24 Feb 17:28 EST

th’Gaytz - 23
Reply to: anon-61180***@craigslist.org
Date: 2005-02-24, 5:27PM EST

I highly urge you all to go see Christo and Jean-Claude’s phenomenal artistic celebration of gay sex in public parks before it is dismantled and sent away to the landfill.

This 23 mile long orange hanky in the back pocket of New York City announces to all the universe that Central Park is once again the place for “anything anytime”.

After spending the AIDS era of the 80’s and 90’s wrapping public monuments in fabric prophylactics, Christo and Jean-Claude are bringing back the reckless spirit of the 70’s in full-force.

This is just the first gesture towards making New York City the public sex and art capital of America. Already Rachel Whiteread has relocated to a studio in DUMBO and begun casting the negative space of urinals in Manhattan’s most notorious tearooms. And it shouldn’t be long before Anish Kapoor follows with a giant mirrored buttplug-shaped monument on the corner of 53rd and Third.

Only 4 days left…

 

[for a version with an illustrative photo—and for those over 18 and who will not be offended—here is a link to the original posting:  www.fleshbot.com/sex/gay/found/the-gates-gaytz-034152.php

 

Veuve Cliquot Gates:

                                                              

 

And, in conclusion, I repeat Hargo’s final comment on his wonder project, “The Somerville Gates”:

 

The response has been great, and I thank you. It certainly suggests -- among other things, and to paraphrase a famous Somerville neighbor -- just as there are too few women in science, there are evidently too few cats in contemporary art.

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