Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2005 | Features

The Gates

By Leigh Buchanan Bienen

It's the biggest public art project New York City has ever seen. Its 7,532 rectangular frames stand 16 feet tall and between six and 18 feet wide, while its nine-feet-long pleated vibrant orange banners dangle seven feet above the ground. It ranges over 23 miles of paths through Central Park, making curvilinear patterns and creating a living, breathing sculpture.

These facts describe The Gates, but they can’t begin to describe the experience of The Gates.

The Gates, 1979-2005, is the biggest public art project New York City has ever seen. It ranges over 23 miles of paths through Central Park.

Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude previously attracted international attention and acclaim for their grand experiments in public art that often involved wrapping entire buildings or landmarks—the Pont Neuf in Paris, a floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the Reichstag in Berlin—in fabric. For New York, they found a different use for one million square feet of textured nylon fabric.

For the duration of the project, February 12-27, I’m one of 340 monitors who interact with the public, hand out fabric samples, answer questions, and keep the gates and the surrounding park pristine. With their vibrant banners, the individual gates are undeniably impressive. But they’re not the work of art; the entire project is. The planning, the 25 years of negotiations with park administrators, citizens’ groups, and the city, the manufacturing and shipping of steel supports, vinyl tubing, and nylon, the installation, the reaction of the viewers, and finally the taking down of the gates—all these are part of the work of art.

Everyone wants to know the facts, especially what it cost. The answer: the artists used $21 million of their own money to create The Gates. None of it came from taxes, grants, or donations. Nor do the artists receive anything from the sale of related merchandise—the T-shirts, postcards, magnets, key chains, and the like. All of those millions of dollars go to the Central Park Conservancy, to Nurture New York’s Nature, to arts organizations, and to other parks in the city. Christo earned the money for the project by selling drawings, collages, mock-ups, and other works depicting his vision for Central Park. Beautiful as they are, those artworks are also not The Gates.

By the middle of the first week, more than a million people have already come to the park to see The Gates. Many are New Yorkers, but an estimated 250,000 travel to the city just to see this project. There is no admission fee, no tickets are issued. Once people start walking under The Gates, they often want to walk the whole thing.

So, what is it all about? Perhaps surprisingly, it isn’t about its creators, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, or the engineers, directors, and numerous other people who turned their vision into reality—although their efforts were monumental. Instead, The Gates is a quintessentially postmodern work of art, completely autonomous and abstract. It has no dependence upon language, no story, no reference to a national identity or to history. It’s truly international, or rather without national boundary. There is no representation of the human figure, or reference to human behavior, except insofar as its creation and the process is a public story involving real people in real time. It’s art that moves the viewer in a mysterious way, and it’s accessible to anyone. Children usually love it.

The color of the banners—saffron, orange, apricot, whatever you want to call it—is the sharpest imaginable contrast to the grey, the tan, the dun color of the park in February. It infuses brightness, zip, a little boogie-woogie.

The Gates is a work of art that rests lightly upon another manmade work of art, the glorious design of Central Park. The repeating, perpendicular outlines of the frames are a perfect counterpoint to the curves of the park pathways, which were designed with only one brief straight line. The project’s theme began with a reference to the 19 gates included in the original design for Central Park. The Farmers Gate, the Pioneers Gate, and other ornamented entrances ended up never being built. But now, 150 years later, Central Park has its gates—all 7,532 of them.

The color of the banners—saffron, orange, apricot, whatever you want to call it—is the sharpest imaginable contrast to the grey, the tan, the dun color of the park in February. The Gates was planned for this season, when the trees and bushes have no leaves, when the vegetation is asleep, when few people would ordinarily come to the park. It infuses brightness, zip, a little boogie-woogie.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude emphasize that the way to experience The Gates is to walk underneath the banners. The individual human observation is a necessary component for the experience. Every vista is fresh; The Gates under different weather patterns and at different hours is always new. But also, it’s the sheer scale of this incredible undertaking. No drawing, no newspaper or television report can reproduce the exhilaration of seeing hundreds and hundreds of orange banners marching over the landscape, against the backdrop of the city skyline.

To see people out there is as much a part of The Gates as the banners or the bases. Few people are on their cell phones; instead, they’re arguing about, looking at, talking about—experiencing—The Gates. Strangers talk to one another and smile. Visitors chat to the workers and the monitors, who in turn talk to the school groups and the park regulars, to the joggers and the dog walkers. My beat is in Harlem, on 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, and I see many school groups, high school kids, second graders. I see people walk under the banners on their way to work; others come just to pass time or to escape the winter doldrums by getting outside for a while. The Gates allows us to see a different side of ourselves. Many people mention 9/11 and comment that it’s good to see people outside talking to strangers about something positive. At least they aren’t fretting about the Middle East, or Iraq, or the latest murder, or complaining about their disappointments or aches. The neighborhood is bustling.

You can't buy a gate; they're not for sale. But they can be appreciated while they last. For the Gates is very much about time.

The Gates is a gift to New York City, to the visitors, to anyone who wants to come and look. It has no corporate sponsors, no advertisements, no logos to mar the banners. You can’t buy a gate; they’re not for sale. But they can be appreciated—while they last. For The Gates is very much about time.

The day the project went up, Christo stopped making drawings; the reality preempted the representation. The official title is The Gates, 1979-2005, but this ephemeral work of art lasts only 16 days. Then it will vanish, leaving no traces of its existence. It will not be reinstalled again in Central Park, or in any other city.

At certain times, The Gates has a special luminosity. In the evenings, the undulation of orange picks up and echoes the rhythm of the city. When it rains, saffron reflections in the puddles and ponds create another set of shimmering images. While The Gates is up, you can go to sleep knowing the orange is still marching through Central Park. And when The Gates is gone, it will be gone forever. I miss it now.