This weekend, husband/wife art team Christo & Jeanne Claude’s most recent work The Gates appeared along the pathways of Central Park in New York City. Like with many other public spectacles, the numbers capture most of the media attention: 26 years from conception to completion; 7500 individual pieces; 119,556 miles of nylon thread; over a million square feet of woven fabric; a 25,000 square foot warehouse and assembly area; 23 miles of pathway; and everyone’s favorite, a total cost of 21+ million dollars, all raised by the sale of preparatory drawings. That’s right, no corporate sponsorship. Nada.
While free of any accusation of sellout, Christo & Jeanne Claude have displayed innate branding skills. They went through a proper research phase; hiring sociologist Kenneth Clark, who according to New York Magazine, “interviewed 660 (New Yorkers) and found, among other things, that The Gates was more popular among the poor than among the rich”. They remain on message during every interview; always emphasizing how the project is a whimsical gift to themselves and the city — in fact, it will attract tourists during a traditionally slow month. And you will never, ever hear them use the word “orange”. Please, it’s “saffron”.
When asked what it means, they reply that it doesn’t. In fact, they say, it’s totally “irrational and irresponsible”. There is no symbolism, no ownership and no meaning.
If you are slightly familiar with Central Park, the first thing that strikes you about The Gates is how busy the park is for February. You can overhear a good amount of German and see quite a lot of orange — sorry, saffron — clothing.
Construction sites in the area get caught up in The Gates — even if unintended. As I was on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum to get an aerial view, I noticed that the safety netting on their current expansion project seemed fortuitous.
Because it means nothing, and because there’s no corporate sponsorship, The Gates is an open opportunity for any company to hold an event. Local restaurants that are well situated, like Tavern on the Green, are booking large corporate functions.
From there, you could join docent tours given by the Municipal Art Society and have explained that which doesn’t need explaining.
The docents do a decent enough job repeating Christo & Jeanne Claude’s spiel: named The Gates after the entrance gates to the Park, 23 miles, 20 million dollars, don’t call them “wrap artists”, etc… all information which is easily found in the press and on the web. But what they don’t do is tell you to not think about it and just enjoy yourself.
The beneficiary of a wide-ranging education; I consider myself to be pretty quick on the critical draw. I instantly saw the connection to Japanese torii gates and their suggestion that we can always enter “sacred” space, if we allow ourselves. This was triggered by the saffron color, worn by Buddhist monks and Hindu saints to mark the renunciation of materiality. The path under The Gates resonates with the Buddhist method to overcome attachment, the Eightfold Path: right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration — which kind of sounds like Christo & Jeanne Claude’s aesthetic existence.
I was making mental correspondences between the role of decorative cloth on our bodies — ties, scarves, bandanas — and the decorative fabric of the piece; to the red carpet processional of a movie premiere; and to the flags in front of the United Nations. I saw the flattening of meaning in a typical Andy Warhol in Christo & Jeanne Claude’s repetition of a simple form. I saw the expansion of meaning in the work of say, Anthony Gormley, in Christo & Jeanne Claude’s repetition of a simple form.
All overthought aside, The Gates ultimately are a small idea writ large. They are simply an amuse-bouche that creates the true work: social sculpture — Christo & Jeanne Claude emphasize the “poetic dimension” of dealing with governmental bureaucrats, and Albert Maysles documents the circus atmosphere which accompanies the work’s completion. The Gates is an impressive branding exercise. Simple, repetitive, and meaningless; it’s an effective call to action for community and reflection. Already, restaurants are full, traffic around the park is snarled and every third person interviewed on the local news has a European accent.
And here is my favorite part: one’s opinion absolutely does not matter. Whether you think it looks too much like orange safety netting or whether you come to meditate, if you speak about it; if you think about it; if you bitch about it; if you happen to pass by on a bus; you’re part of the social sculpture.
Christo & Jeanne Claude came of age when Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” and Walter DeMaria’s essay Meaningless Work captured the absurdity and the community of Post-War life. Seen through more jaded eyes, filtered through our age of media bombardment; the show about nothing ends up meaning something.
“The meaning is the use” — Ludwig Wittgenstein