Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Gates in Central Park

The elaborate installation of Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York’s Central Park has drawn an extraordinary response. In joyous throngs New Yorkers happily mingle with out-of-towners and visitors from overseas. On Sunday February 20 so many people flocked to the site that traffic in the surrounding streets almost came to a halt. Despite this minor inconvenience, it is wonderful to see such a diversity of people coming together in celebration—in this very troubled world we live in. And of course unlike some other fabled pleasures of the Gotham the experience is totally free. It is truly democratic. At the same time visiting the Gates is a kind of secular pilgrimage in which one kinetically reenacts a dromos, a primordial rite. So, once upon a time, did anonymous, but immortal Amerindians tread the paths of Nazca in Peru.

Despite the popularity of the Gates, many still ask what the work means. Not to worry, say Christo and Jeanne-Claude, it is simply an aesthetic statement. There is no meaning. Fahgeddaboudit.

Still the human urge to find significance in forms—the gestalt principle—cannot be denied. And it may be that the statement of the artists was designed not to forbid interpretations, but simply to avoid closure, so as to permit a variety of them.

At all events here are some reflections.

Although the monument is inscribed on a vast landscape and one can walk through it, the Gates is an abstract work. There is a vein of discourse of modern criticism that insists that abstract art is about nothing. I believe that this view is mistaken, but there is no doubt that it is out there.

The Gates will only be visible for sixteen days. After that, it will exist only in films, photographs, posters, and descriptions. Little noticed in the response is that there is a long history of temporary works. These range from Renaissance joyous entries (marking the visit of a sovereign to a city) and funerary catafalques to fireworks displays. Contemporary examples are the Rose Parade floats in Pasadena and the Burning Man event held each September in Nevada. There is a large book in this set of topics for someone to write.

Some observers have suggested that maybe the real meaning of the Gates consists in the complex negotiations, over two decades, that were required to finally have it approved.

Why orange? Originally, when it was thought that the event would be held in autumn, the hanging cloths were to be white. As to hues, Christo and Jeanne Claude seem to have a preference for “strong” colors, primary and secondary ones, rather than off shades. Again this has been a preoccupation of hard-edge abstraction and of modern art in general. Use the pure unmixed colors as they come from the tube, said many. Perhaps it should be remembered that New York was originally New Amsterdam, founded under the auspices of the House of Orange.

On the night of February 20 the color white appeared—in the form of snow. The palette changed. A fine blanket of white overlay the Park’s normal wintery Brueghelesque base of gray and brown.

It seems to be tacitly acknowledged that the rectangular shape created by the stanchions and the cross-poles is an hommage to the outline of Central Park and the oblong shape of the typical Manhattan block in general.

The length of the Gates trajectories is estimated at 26 miles. That is the length of the Marathon race. Fortunately, the Gates are walked, not run. At least one person I know has walked the entire course.

The Gates are, of course, not really gates in the sense of installations that can regulate traffic, keeping people out if necessary. It is too easy to go around them. Perhaps the best precedent for such notional gates is the Roman triumphal arch, which seems to be a portal, but one that one can easily go around. In fact, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris there is so much traffic that it is hard to walk through—better just to stroll around the perimeter of the Etoile. At any rate, the collective unconscious yields an ancient sense of liminality, of crossing barriers. Traversing the paths reawakens this sense, over and over.

Not all the comparanda stem from history. A clear contemporary parallel is with earth art in the broad sense, such as the signature Spiral Jetty in Utah (Robert Smithson), and some important works by Andrea Blum and Robert Morris, my distinguished colleagues at Hunter College. Yet most earth artists strive to leave a permanent mark on the ground, recalling the prehistoric megalithic monuments that inspire them. The Gates, though, will be dismantled, without even so much as pole marks to show that they were there.

But for the pictorial records, it will all be as a dream. Be that as it may, many of us will retain this fabulous monument in fond memory.