|The following review of The Gates in Central Park by Christo and Jean Claude was published in the AIA CT Newsletter, March 2005|
The Gates in Central Park
Christo and Jean-Claude describe their work as "art, devoid of meaning". This stricture and denial lead us to naturally group the pieces with works we know that would be called minimal. Works by Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Sol Lewit. The work is also superficially related to the land works of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. But these associations don't quite fit. And it is not because the gates are lesser examples of these other works. It is because the Gates are not formed from the same kind of object making.
I went to see the Gates the day they opened and witnessed the unfurling. The installation brought us into the park at a time of year that we would not normally be drawn to it. We were able to view the work from the street at the periphery of the Park and from the top of the Belvedere. We saw them wrap around the great lawn and ramble at the edge of the Sheep meadow. Our exploration was facilitated by the enormity of the project and the fact that so many people were in the Park. Understanding the project's ability to operate as a mechanism of public interaction is, I think, the level at which the work can be critiqued.
7500 gates were installed over the 23 miles of Central Park walkways by 600 paid ($6.25/hr.) volunteers who came from different professions: software designer, book editor, teacher, artist.
If we try to look at the work in traditional sculptural terms, it falls short. The vinyl tubes used for the structure, the cast steel bases, the bolted connections are all rather crude, perfunctory and lifeless. The nylon fabric on the other hand actually has quite a bit of life to it, especially when it catches the sun and is blown by the wind. The pleating seamed to me a way of making the actual artifact resemble quite distinctly, drawings, some of which are now twenty years old. I wondered which came first.
The portals range in width from six feet to eighteen feet, their width determined by the paths they span. There is an arbitrariness to the placement, an inexplicable willfulness without conviction. For all the effort, there is so little tension between the pieces and the surround that it is hard to see the intention.
If the work is not significant as a work of sculpture, then what is it? For it is certainly successful in its ability to lure many, many people to the City and its Park.
Rather than the minimal and land works mentioned previously, the work really follows in a line of Surrealist pranks, works proposed as "anti-art", set up to challenge 19th century romantic notions of the role of art. The Surrealists thought they were challenging the historic meanings and structures accepted as the basis for art works. They sought to make tears in the continuity of historical replication that had been re-playing itself since the Renaissance. This strategy of rupture, I think, is the place at which the Gates become significant.
By their very size and the Herculean energies required to erect them, the works propose to equate themselves with nature-to make equivalent the work of artist and the world.
It could be that the imposition of any "object of consequence" into a social construct in crises will elicit strong meanings - most of which are unintentional and unpredictable.
Regardless of the value of the piece as a complex, resolved work of art, it does encourage a level of participation in the park and hence in the City that would not otherwise occur. It is similar to people randomly talking to each other when meeting in the aftermath of a large snow storm. The enormity of the event breaks down the barriers to social interaction which are the prevue of the everyday. Because the work is fleeting, existing only for a couple of weeks, we let down our guard and discuss it with total strangers. There is psychological safety in knowing that the orange will soon be gone, replaced by the chartreuse explosion of the coming spring that toughens the public membrane of the park and to a large degree, closes it down.