On a grey February Saturday morning, I headed out to experience the unfurling of the “Gates” installation at Central Park. When I arrived at Columbus Circle, the thousands of orange gates (7500 total) lined up in the walking path, greeting us. Before the unfurling, you could see through the gates like some op-art piece, each rectangle repeating itself, creating a visual echo. Through the winter trees, the skies began to clear, with wispy cirrus clouds highlighting the evanescent sky.
The workers, wearing their grey vests signed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, waited for the first moment of unfurling, all time coordinated with walkie-talkies and visual cues. Watching them work, I realized how much of this project must have been an extraordinary, communal experience. Their excitement and dedication were palpable in how they moved together, stumbling through the details at times, but definite in united hearts and enthusiasm.
Their cries of glee went up as the first of the gates was unfurled, the worker using a long pole to unzip the fabric, with a cardboard tube falling with a thud (the rolls are rather heavy, and they were warning each other to make sure no one got hurt with them). When the first one fell, I was standing but a few feet away, and the tube bounced with a loud bonk, and startled me. But then, these bonks were heard echoing through out the park, a colonnade for a visual feast to begin.
“Wow, just like the drawings…” one of the workers mused as they continued to work along the path.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude have done public projects for years, the most memorable ones being the Biscayne Bay, Miami pink surrounding of islands, and the ghostly enveloping of the Reichstag, Berlin. They fund their own projects by selling lithographs and drawings, making sure that the art is free to be enjoyed by the public. These drawings are collage-like, overlapping photographs and charcoal drawings. I have admired them for their connectedness to landscape and city drawings of twentieth century post-war Europe and nineteenth century Hudson River painters. But this morning, I could not but agree that the drawings themselves have the power to create reality before they happen. As part of their artistic vision, they impart expectation for the viewer to collaborate before the project takes place. And the actual, transformative experience is in realization of that suspended belief crucial to their work.
The art of the early 21st Century may be remembered for its collective move from inside of the studio to the outside. Andy Goldworthy, in his Rivers and Tides documentary (now available on DVD), recounts how he began to create his works at the beach on the way to his art classes, and realized that the world is his true “studio.” Christo and Jeanne-Claude certainly paved the way for this paradigm shift. The most significant contribution of their works will be to help all of us believe that the world is the greater and more significant studio or stage, and, more importantly, to see that our own creative vision can directly affect landscapes and cities. As we journeyed through Central Park this February we, too, can collaborate with them with our own desires and dreams. Just like the workers contributed so in synch, we, too, can collaborate with one of the greatest idealists of our time.
I met Christo and Jeanne-Claude at a gallery opening in Ginza, Tokyo during their installation of the umbrellas in Japan. When I complemented him, he insisted on giving credit to his wife, to make sure she was included as an equal partner. Born on the same day (he in Bulgaria and she in Casablanca), and later meeting in Paris, they still live in a walk-up loft in Soho. Their affection for each other and their life-long partnership in creativity seemed rather unusual in the ego-infested, greedy world of art.
They insist on not taking volunteers, but paying them, and for this project they paid for all the police overtime pay. They insist that they do not benefit from the proceeds of the sales of merchandize, desiring that their art be free from the consumer mentality that drives the art world today. An exile from a former Soviet bloc country, Christo seemed always to be a consummate utopian, and Jeanne-Claude his greatest champion. Perhaps the greatest ideal that they uphold is the belief in their partnership in life, and their hope for a pure collaboration and communion with the public.
Christo called this offering “A Visual River of Gold.” I looked up this morning, as I was meditating on this idea of “gates”, that the scriptures use the word “gates” 111 times and “gate” 222 times, so to note their cultural and spiritual significance. Revelation passages speak of many pearly gates, on top of the golden streets of New Jerusalem. The City of God will apparently be a visual river of gold. I am reminded of my mentor Matazo Kayama (see Refractions vol. 3 ) pasting a gold leaf upon a class room window telling us that “good gold, without much silver, is ever so transparent, and true pure gold is liquid.” It’s important to note here that pure gold, as stipulated here in the scriptures, is liquid and not solid. We will be walking through gates, literally walking on a river of gold. In that day, metaphors will be replaced by the density of Reality, the vision of hope unfurled into a true and lasting city. These orange gates, therefore, seem to me to symbolize a cultural and spiritual passage from a solitary life to a community, from devastation to restoration. When Christo and Jeanne-Clalude first imagined the project 26 years ago, Central Park, once so magnificently envisioned by Olmsted and Vaux, was a place of crime infestation and dilapidation. Though, I am sure, the artists will insist that there is no singular purpose attached to the gates, we can surmise that their utopian ideals cannot let one of the greatest miracles of city design, called Central Park, sit idly in devastation.
As the workers passed out swatches of the saffron fabric at the completion of the unfurling to eager partakers of this art-communion, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s utopian ideals sowed seeds of imagination into us all, already to tackle the next project, wherever and whenever that may be.