Saturday, February 19, 2005

Seeking Vision

I finally finished rewriting my research paper late on Friday and resubmitted it to the journal editors so, to distract myself from obsessing about the possibility of enduring yet another rejection, I went to Central Park to see The Gates. As a regular birder in the Park, I couldn’t forget my bird companions so I replaced everything in my coat pockets, including my gloves, with a jar of shell-less sunflower seeds. Of course, this meant that I wandered the familiar pathways, each populated with its own little communities of birds, for several hours until my fingers were numb and aching from the cold.

What was my first reaction to The Gates? Well, um .. I thought it looked silly and unnatural and extremely .. orange .. and then I thought it looked a bit like a giant croquet set.

Based on my conversations with other attendees on Saturday, it seems that we were approximately equally divided as to whether we understood it, whether it had any meaning to us, and even, whether it was a work of art. However, almost as if they all had entered into a secret pact of silence, the other half was surprisingly unwilling to share what they thought the meaning was, even when directly asked. Their benign Mona Lisa-esque smiles were sometimes annoying. Even though the artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are chatty and flamboyant, they also have refused to speculate publically about this work.

“This project is not involved with talk,” Christo said in a recent newspaper interview. “It is real physical space. You need to spend time walking in the cold air - sunny day, rainy day, even snow. It is not necessary to talk.”

“It has no purpose,” Jeanne-Claude stated flatly in a radio interview on WNYC last week. “It is not a symbol. It is not a message. It is only a work of art.”

After spending nearly $21 million and investing 26 years in overcoming Park and City Officials’ resistance to defacing Central Park with a huge work of art, it seems that there should be some sort of purpose or reason for The Gates’ existence, some meaning, some message, some .. something!

Nevertheless, The Gates intrigues me. During my frequent birding forays to Central Park in the past few months, I followed the progress of this work as it came to life. Construction began in early January when forklifts plodded over thick sheets of ice, carefully stacking hundreds of dark gray, rectangular bases weighing between 615 and 837 pounds each (5,300 tons of steel for this project in total). These squat steel bases, resembling monstrous skateboards to my eye, were later placed lengthwise along the park pathways to anchor The Gates to the ground.

These bases represent one of several compromises agreed to during the past 26 years of negotiations. The artists’ original plans would have drilled 15,000 holes into park pathways to support the gates, which City and Park Officials adamantly refused to allow. The final design instead relies on these sturdy bases that rest on the ground, leaving the park unscathed. In fact, after The Gates are dismantled at the end of this month, there will be no sign that they were ever present; no holes in the pathways and no missing limbs from trees that were trimmed to make room for them because, if an individual gate might have touched a branch or a limb, the gate was moved to accommodate the tree.

Two steel bases support one bright saffron orange Gate that is 16 feet high. This was another compromise: Instead of using steel poles as first proposed, the gates are square vinyl poles. Additionally, the size of the entire project was sharply reduced: There are 7,532 Gates straddling only 23 miles of Central Park's pathways instead of 11,000 to 15,000, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude had first envisioned. These gates were decorated with pleated fabric -- 116,389 miles of brilliant orange rip-stop nylon imported from east Germany. This fabric was not attached like shower curtains as originally proposed, but is connected directly to the frames -- another compromise.

This project is the result of two and a half decades of persistence and negotiations between the artists and the City. Remarkably, in 2003, Mayor Bloomberg's administration finally approved the permits necessary to allow the project to proceed. All these compromises were collectively transformed into saffron-colored reality by Vince Davenport, the innovative engineer who worked closely with the artists.

“I’m not an artist, and I never envision what Christo and Jeanne-Claude see as far as the beauty of the thing goes,” states Davenport. “I'm too concerned with making it come to life. The challenge to me is, how do you build it so that they aesthetically like it? Where do I get the parts? How do I manufacture it?”

Despite the fact that Christo and Jeanne-Claude raised all the money required to purchase the necessary components for this work, ranging from dry goods such as 165,000 bolts and their self-locking nuts to the wages paid to their “volunteers”, to their nocturnal security force and to extra city police, it is the City that will profit handsomely from it. Even though the project will be present for only 16 days by the time it is dismantled at the end of the month, the city’s Economic Development Corporation predicts that 4 million people will visit the project and will spend approximately $80 million, $2.5 million of that will be city taxes. Everyone from hot dog venders and horse carriage operators to mobile bookstore carts selling books about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work will benefit. The Boathouse Restaurant, which is located in Central Park and usually closes for dinner during the winter, is filled every night. Hotels, particularly those near Central Park, report dramatic increases in visitors. All this, during a month when tourism is traditionally very low.

So what is the magic that I see in The Gates? As I have hinted throughout my entire essay, the sheer scale of the collaborative effort required to make this community project happen is truly monumental. I am amazed that the artists could raise the millions of dollars necessary to realize their dream. I am surprised that all the supplies necessary to build this project actually arrived in the right place and at the right time. I am impressed with all the compromises that were made with the City over the decades. Most of all, I am intrigued by the power of their vision to inspire and motivate a large group of strangers, many of them unpaid, to join together to construct a temporary, experiential work of art that has no purpose or message for other strangers to enjoy. Without all these people, the artists’ work would not exist. (This is alluded to by The Crackers, shown here. You can click on the image to see a larger version). Certainly, the vision necessary to a successful collaborative effort is difficult to communicate and the collective effort is difficult to manage, especially one that relies on the combined efforts of thousands of individuals, most of whom do not know each other and who will never meet.

So what is the meaning of it all? The artists state that The Gates is “a celebration of the processional, ceremonial walkways of the park.” They envisioned the saffron colored fabric as “a golden ceiling creating warm shadows” within the park, as “a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees.”

I think they forgot to mention that it is a celebration of people.


More information about The Gates;

Official website about The Gates by Christo and Jean-Claude.

NYC’s official website for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates project for Central Park.

The Gates @ Central Park, a free-for-all Critique of Christo's Central Park Art Exhibit.

The Somerville Gates.


Thanks to my friend, C, for sending The Crackers to me so I could share it with you. Also, thanks to K for sending the Somerville Gates link to me.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

7 Peer Reviews:

Blogger Tabor said...

Like you I am more impressed by the process than the product. I also tend to be practical and think that like sports the cost may not be worth the product.

6:15 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Heh, well, Christo and Jeanne-Claude don't appear to be egomaniacs, at least. But if the hockey league is a forwarning, it is possible that the world of sports will implode into a steaming pile of greed, more greed and hubris.

8:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yesterday, mostly, I was eating sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, and cashew nuts. Would these go down well with your lories?

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good luck with your paper submition..

5:15 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

anonymous the first .. lories are nectar-feeding birds and so nuts clog up their plumbing like rocks in a pipe. But this is fine because these "nuts" would have gone down quite well with me, especially the cashews and pinenuts! Yum!anonymous the second .. thanks for your good wishes for the success of my paper. I am trying not to think about it very much right now because it means so much to me for them to finally publish it.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Dr. Charles said...

I too wish you good luck, and thanks for the perspective on the gates. i'm definitely planning on checking them out before long. i've heard over a million poeple have already. i too enjoy birding, although i am pretty lame about it so far, just watching my birfeeder. one of these days I'll escape to the woods to do some real spying. thanks for the post

7:42 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Hello dr. charles! It's good to see you here and thanks for sharing your good luck with me! Regarding The Gates .. I hope you plan to check them out this weekend because the last day is 27 February!

9:20 PM  

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