Letter From New York: At The Gates
Oy. Perhaps you’ve been following the latest adventure of those mono-monikered artistes, Christo and Jeanne-Claude (she of the bright-orange hair), the ones who like to wrap things like bridges and islands and German parliament buildings in fabric, if only for a few days at a time. In 1978, they hit Kansas City, covering almost three miles of jogging paths in Loose Park with an orange-ish nylon fabric — the same material that is making headlines again.
I’m not sure what if any commotion this occasion has drummed up outside the New York cocoon, but here “The Gates” — thousands of 16-foot-high curtained portals evenly spaced along 23 miles of Central Park pathways — has been quarreled over as everything from “a work of pure joy” (The New York Times) to “a gigantic bust, a flopperoo, a head-scratching exercise in pointlessness” (The New York Post). The color, too — a so-called saffron hue that the creators purportedly chose not for Jeanne-Claude’s hair but because of the way it shimmers and darkens depending on the light — has drawn particularly, well, colorful descriptions, from “vomit” to “traffic-cone” to “Home Depot orange” (alas, not everyone’s wild about saffron). The fluttering nylon fabric, which has been acclaimed as “a billowy gift to the city,” has also been derided as nothing more than tasteless household curtains caught in a breeze.
Opinions in my own circle vary widely as well. “I love them,” says one friend by cell phone as she makes her way across the Park. “They make me happy.” Other folks I know have consciously been avoiding Central Park altogether — look at a map and think about that for a moment; how do you avoid something that takes up a third of Manhattan? “They look like Nazi banners,” observed another acquaintance, who can see them clearly from the window of his sky-high office.
But as the artists have insisted, the gates aren’t designed to be seen from above, but experienced on the ground. I decided to see what all of the flap and flapping was about.
Until I found myself in a crowd that grew larger as it approached the Columbus Circle entrance, I had given little thought to this whole scheme. I considered it sort of silly, because that’s what one generally thinks of an initiative that takes more than 20 years and $20 million to realize the “goal” of saturating Central Park with 7,500 saffron shmatas. I had trouble imagining where all that money went, even after reading about the required million square feet of vinyl and 5,300 tons of steel, as well as the hundreds of paid staff needed to assemble, unfurl, and guard the frames.
So how were the Gates? Oh, they were fine, but I was fascinated, as I usually am, by the people. I’ve never seen this many people in the Park before. And they haven’t come for a concert or a protest or for an exhibition in the traditional sense. Realistically speaking, if you’ve seen one (or a hundred) of the Gates, you’ve seen them all. People could come for two minutes and get a decent idea of what’s here — that was my plan. But most stay and wander for two hours or more, taking in the different perspectives across rolling hills and under bridges and appreciating the Park in a new way. This is not about seeing, but being.
“The object isn’t the end product, but the experience,” says Daniel Baltzer, an artist and one of the project’s modestly paid staff. He is standing at his post along one of the Park’s paths, clutching a tall mast that resembles a golf-ball retriever, only with a tennis ball on the end. (Should the wind blow any of the curtains up over its frame, he’s equipped to flip it back.) “Christo has a quote about ‘once upon a time’ that has stuck with me. I couldn’t pass on the chance to be part of this history.” Every interlude, he explains — such as these 16 days before the Gates are removed and recycled — soon becomes “once upon a time.”
Is it too much to say that something felt Jewish about the whole thing? Writing about his past projects, Christo has commented that his ideas were partly inspired by the Jewish practice of wrapping Torah scrolls, “in order to remind us of the preciousness of what they contain.” And some recent press reports have mentioned that Jeanne-Claude was born in Casablanca to a French Jewish mother. Whatever.
I think there’s something to the idea of staying with a concept, a belief, in the face of mass denunciation. When the pair first proposed the installation in 1979, the city responded with a 107-page rejection, and there were times when it seemed unlikely they would raise the needed money — solely through the sale of other works — within their lifetimes.
And, of course, there’s the emphasis on the fleeting nature of time, the intersection of the temporary and the permanent. “That’s an important spiritual teaching,” says Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, who led members of his congregation at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (Mordecai Kaplan’s original Reconstructionist shul) on a Shabbat walk through the park and taught a session on the role of gates (shaarim) in Jewish tradition. “Judaism is all about seeing things anew. The Park and the people will still be here, and we see them in a different way.”
A few days later, rooting around in my backpack, I found my saffron swatch — team members like Baltzer had one million to distribute, most of which were gone after the first weekend. I thought, if we can’t all agree on the color or the exact meaning or the sanity of the artists, there’s something Jewish about that, too.