Recalling “The Gates” & Jeanne-Claude

Back about twenty-five years ago we had the privilege of attending a lecture by Christo at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania. Up to and including that point we had never seen any of his efforts in person, only slides projected or articles written about his work. Despite his thick accent, the artist was very articulate about his process, but what we came away with that day were two things: that his huge engineering feats were extremely collaborative (not only with his partner Jeanne-Claude, but also with governments, local authorities, teams of construction crews, riggers, groups of arts helpers and seamstresses); and that his drawings of the projects were not only exquisite but helped to fund the final installations. We were also struck with his seeming facility in maneuvering within systems, layers and layers of them, well beyond the scope of the typical individual artist controlling his tiny, self-absorbed world. Not all of his projects have been realized, and so many of them were negotiated over so many years that it is sometimes hard to imagine how he kept up his interest in them. There must be in Christo and Jeanne-Claude a tenacity beyond all reason. Thank goodness.

It must be admitted here, pretty much up front, that, for one of us writing this, what Christo and Jeanne-Claude did and called “art” first seemed like silly, conceptual stunts and not much more. To wrap a building? To stretch material across a canyon? And the point is …? But as time has gone on, and this concept of placeness as art has taken hold of us, it has become clear that the Christos may be among the pantheon of artists exemplifying that way of thinking. What they’ve done – everything they’ve done – has created a placeness, and magnified it to a level approaching philosophy. To wrap the Reichstag or Pont Neuf helps us to see these two iconic structures better in the absence of their details than in their presence, and creates an entire new thing to look at. To surround islands with pink material, to hang that curtain across the canyon, to install a ribbon of umbrellas throughout a landscape – these create “placeness” by defining the edges of a thing and smudging those edges at the same time, all the while inventing a new “place.”

With the death of Jeanne-Claude just a few months ago, and with the five year anniversary of The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005, it is time to revisit the one installation by the famous team that we actually had the chance to see and experience. It was a cold day in February and the timing for an outdoor event in the park seemed odd. What we learned is that it was perfectly timed – for cheering up a dreary sort of mid-wintry day, for providing an environment of interaction and excitement – a work of public art that, oddly, both opened up a massive place to new ways of exploring it and, at the same time, functioned as a brilliant crowd-control device. Again, new ways of seeing what we had taken for granted and no longer saw, really.

There was something so ceremonial, almost militaristic about the gates – rectangular arches, really – as they straddled the meandering paths, 23 miles of foot paths, weaving in and around the park, accompanied by the triumphal marching they induced in the spectators. (It was not a loopy thing to imagine oneself as a croquet ball rolling under hoops that flowed to the horizon.) Also martial, too, was the emotional feel of the orange (saffron)-colored fabric suspended from the arches which, especially on a good windy day, flicked flag-like; and, yet, it was, more softly and resonantly, reminiscent of what happens when a warm gust blows curtains through a window on a summer’s breeze.

The Gates: A manmade allee extending for miles and miles, providing both the comforting structural “posts” of tree trunks and the moving, ethereal canopy above. The sense of theatricality in walking under curtains, both into and out of, creating a kind of performance space between. A film strip of framed shutter exposures, capturing the landscape in quick succession. On such a sunny day as we had, the shadows created by the low sun bouncing off the trees were “painting” changing linear shapes onto the orange canvases. In retrospect, the gates resembled Jeanne-Claude with her tall thin build and her trademark orange hair – a sad reminder of her loss.

What was both surprising and enlightening was the interplay that these installed, manufactured elements had with the landscape, a running stitch of orange thread. First, seeing them in perspective dotting the grounds gave such a different feel to the park, making it seem mapped rather than natural. And, of course, we know that Central Park is not natural, but our tricked eyes accept that it is. The effect was like having a virtual picture of the park and then, using an orange marker, outlining and emphasizing the topography, its plan and flow. The addition of these emphatic signposts made us “see” our world more vividly – the changes in grade, the shrinking perspective, the intersection and interplay of routes, the circuitous nature of the layout that creates a far vaster feeling parkland than really exists, and the views created and enhanced by the twists and turns, hills and dales. Despite the number and frequency of the gates, the park became more comprehensible, simultaneously more focused and more open. With no attempt to hide their artificiality, these huge, repetitive outlines seemed perfectly in place. In the unnatural environment that is New York City, within it the unnatural nature that is Central Park, and then the applied unnatural framework of gates; like nesting Russian dolls, all together had a perfect synchronicity of meaning and focused the mind’s eye, just as any good art can. It opened up a new world by framing it, and manifested an eye-opening placeness where a new one didn’t seem to be needed, but was.

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