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The Meaning is The Use

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.



Here’s the view from atop the Met. It’s not worth standing in the lines to the elevator.

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.


Hey, cool! They’re serving hot dogs!


A beautiful nova platter on a saffron spread.


Saffron shrimp cocktail

From there, you could join docent tours given by the Municipal Art Society and have explained that which doesn’t need explaining.


First, make sure to wear your saffron wristband.

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

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Feb.14.2005 BY m. kingsley
Bryony’s comment is:

As we walked from path to path yesterday (armin will post some photos later I am sure), I found it impressive to observe thousands of people doing exactly what they are supposed to do. That is the one thing that really struck me.

Also, you could see some confusion every now and then, as people seeked higher vantage points. Wanting to see it all at the same time. Did they really think they would see the entire map they held in their hands live? Or was the purpose of its immensity to navigate through the gates until you absorbed its immensity?

On Feb.14.2005 at 08:20 AM
Armin’s comment is:

A few of the many, many photos we took:

On Feb.14.2005 at 08:53 AM
Armin’s comment is:

>the numbers capture most of the media attention

One of my favorite numbers so far, from today's NYTimes, [paraphrasing] Dennis Roman, a Hot Dog seller, usually makes about $100 a day. By 3 p.m. yesterday, he had already made $1,000.

The Gates are impressive. Not breath-taking as I had thought, perhaps I had over-hyped the installation in my head. But as Mark says, and I sincerely agree, it doesn't matter what I think. The sheer happening of this is reward enough. While walking through the park there are moments where you are just walking, oggling at the frolicking puppies and bundled-up babies: so cute. And so many. The installation becomes almost invisible, you are enjoying the fresh air, looking at the sky, working up those desk-ladden legs and sharing your time and space with hundreds of thousands of strangers… although it was funny to notice all the chance encounters.

Because of the amount of people it is quite interesting to see the huge differences in the crowd. On one extreme you have the wealthy, upper-crust of the upper-east and west sides and then you have the homeless, sitting in their benches. (I do wonder what their thoughts are, not on the exhibition, but on what is happening to the place where many of them live). The Gates brings New York contrasts to one place.

On Feb.14.2005 at 09:30 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

"We believe that labels are important, but mostly for bottles of wine"

--christo and jean-claude from this fabulous and hysterical link.

On Feb.14.2005 at 10:30 AM
Andrew Twigg’s comment is:

Debbie, thanks for finding that page. Hysterical indeed.

I'd love to see it in person, but I'll never make it to New York by the 27th.

On Feb.14.2005 at 10:49 AM
Sam’s comment is:

Some crappy video I made of a gate being unfurled.

Viva los Gatos! Oh no, wait...

(Viva los gatos anyway)

On Feb.14.2005 at 11:25 AM
Diane Witman’s comment is:

This is too ironic.

This "exhibition" was brought to my attention last night on a telephone conversation between my sister and I. She is planning a trip to New York for this purpose. I had never heard of Christo or Jeanne Claude or The Gates. But since yesterday it has become a very, in my face subject.

I hope that I can make it up to New York to see the saffron lining of central park. Pennsylvania isn't too far away from NY. The photos posted are great! If I can't make it atleast I was able to see it through someone elses eyes. Thank you!

On Feb.14.2005 at 11:26 AM
Lorenzo’s comment is:

Mr. M. Kingsley,

You're critique is very well written and quite insightful.

. . . . . . . . . . .

This is an event that I had heard of from a while back and I never even thought the turnout would be like this.

Did the nylon make any sound from the breeze (probably too loud to hear)? Anybody experience the works during the dusk hours or dawn?

Thanks to SU contributors for sharing photos and experiences of this event. As you know this critique and the images only gives an idea of the impact; experiencing it is key.

On Feb.14.2005 at 12:32 PM
ps’s comment is:

i guess in order to "truly experience it" you'll have to be there. the photos nor the drawings impress me that much. i wonder how that changes when you actually stand there.

past installations by the team did not seem to depend as much on that. i'll never forget the documentary about them wrapping bridges, islands and building. they worked out beautifully even in photographs and prints. but then, experiencing the umbrellas live in soCal was certainly amazing.

i wonder how the gates will hold up. fabric 7ft high up might be too tempting for many not to bring home a souvenir...

On Feb.14.2005 at 01:19 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Another great review, perhaps a bit high on the sarcasm but I may be wrong…

"Now I realize we all were pulled into a kind of mass hysteria orchestrated by a couple of charismatic snake-oil salesmen — also known as the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude — and their pretentious booster, Mayor Bloomberg."

> the photos nor the drawings impress me that much. i wonder how that changes when you actually stand there.

To be honest, not much. Other than there is a lot of people. In a few places online I have seen overhead shots and that is where it looks really amazing; from above you can really grasp the immensity of the installation. But on the ground, it's not a whoah sensation.

On Feb.14.2005 at 02:09 PM
ps’s comment is:

But on the ground, it's not a whoah sensation.

maybe should have wrapped the empire state building instead. oh, wait a minute, that would not be good, debbie could not see out of her corner office anymore.

On Feb.14.2005 at 02:49 PM
JonSel’s comment is:

from above you can really grasp the immensity of the installation.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are quite clear (see Debbie's link) that their installations are to be experienced best from ground level and are not "for the birds." I intend to take a jaunt up there and check it out myself. Speak Up field trip, anyone?

On Feb.14.2005 at 03:07 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Without being there, and without being inundated with the hype/spin, and so acknowledging a lack of first-hand experience and just interpolating...

What I do find compelling is that the art is not the art. The artwork, which is the same structure and color repeated over and over, seems to be more about people experiencing the artwork within its contextual environment, rather than the specific objects themselves. So that the artwork transcends objectivism or specific meaning. One is then left to focus outwardly upon the ever-changing context and space in which the artwork exists, which gives focus to experiencing the "now" of existence.

Very Zen. Very cool.

On Feb.14.2005 at 03:56 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Separate from the real or imagined urban reverence for A-r-t, these seem to be nothing more than expensive drapes...stating the obvious: several schools in Brooklyn or the Bronx could have used that money for repaired plumbing or books. A Zen experience, indeed.

On Feb.14.2005 at 04:58 PM
JonSel’s comment is:

stating the obvious: several schools in Brooklyn or the Bronx could have used that money for repaired plumbing or books.

I really hate this statement. It's especially grating when it comes from within the "design community." You presume that nobody's life is even slightly enriched by experiencing this exhibit? I certainly wouldn't. Fixing a school in Brooklyn is certainly a worthy cause but so is public art. I can't wait to go experience it.

On Feb.14.2005 at 05:36 PM
mandy’s comment is:

Re: "this money could have been better spent"

Would you say the same of MoMa, who just spent nearly half a billion upgrading the museum? Or of St. John the Divine, which soaks up millions every year and still isn't finished? This is the artist's own money and they have the right to do with it as they choose. They have made substantial donations to the Central Park Conservancy, not to mention the $80 million the city is expected to earn because of all the additional tourists. Very few people ever earn this much money; whether you like their work or not, this is an admirable way to spend one's wealth.

On Feb.14.2005 at 05:51 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Ditto JonSel and Mandy.

On Feb.14.2005 at 06:27 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

No JonSel, I really don't care what statements you hate. I also believe in art solely for art's sake, but this work, like all of Christo's work, is dramatic and, in my opinion, overrated. Don't condemn opinions as phistine without understanding that maybe some people just don't like his personal bombast. I like other artists' work but not his. Is that OK?

And Mandy, I wouldn't say the same for MOMA. It's a great institution. Of course these people have the right to do whatever they want, that's not at all what I was saying, but it was a thought that crossed my mind about funds and public benefit.

Ah, nevermind.....

On Feb.14.2005 at 06:29 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I saw the Claudes interviewed on 60 Minutes about the Gates and they were really smug about their accomplishment. I love public works of art, but even I was turned off by their attitudes. They too easily dismissed questions re: public acceptance and understanding of their installation.

But that's the dichotomy w/ some works of public art — that while it's accessible and created for the public, the experience is often lost on the majority of those who experience it. The Claudes admitted that there is no meaning to be had by the public. If that's the case, then I thought to myself — what a stupid waste of $21 million dollars.

And while there's nothing wrong with art that's created for art's sake or the artist's sake — why make it a public installation and have such fanfare when your intentions is to ignore or dismiss public interpretations? Is it an exercise in futility or a worthwhile art experience?

Just a thought.

On Feb.14.2005 at 08:26 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Hey Pesky, for what it's worth, I've never been much of a fan of Cristo either... until this installation.

But, because one walks through and along it, engaging in the space around and within it, engaging in the social interaction of people looking at people "experiencing" the artwork (which in itself is fascinating), and with the art itself having no specific meaning other than framing the context of the experience... With all of that, this particular installation works for me in ways that his other pieces never did.

On Feb.14.2005 at 08:42 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Tan, missed that interview. That's too bad about their attitude, though, because art in a public space has to be about the public in some way--by definition alone.

Oh well... Sometimes the meaning of art is beyond the intentions of its creator(s). In fact, I had a dear friend who was an artist. (I speak in the past tense because he died of AIDS a number of years ago.) He would always reply when people would ask about the intentions of his figurative abstracts: "It doesn't matter what I think about the painting. I just painted it. What do you think about its meaning? That's the most important thing."

That blew me away at the time, and still makes me smile now.

On Feb.14.2005 at 08:57 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Steven, That's a fair opinion based on direct experience. I can respect that. More power to ya......though I still hold to the opinion that he and his wife are underwhelming as artists. (At best, it makes me think of Tibetan prayer flags - the saffron yellow, I guess - only without the genuine transcendence.) Public art has a place in the urban environment, I never disagreed with that premise.

Ditto regarding that interview, Tan.

On Feb.14.2005 at 09:19 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

no comment necessary...

so cute!

On Feb.14.2005 at 10:23 PM
Mitch’s comment is:

i have expressed my thoughts about Christo, et all on another site I write for, but just to jump in the conversation here, i find Christo's rather self-satisfying and gleefully admitted lack of meaning to his work to make it fall flat and be basically far less interesting than it should be. I think of Christo as a decorator, not an artist. Semantics aside, its really all he is doing; decorating the park. Thats fine. thats cool. people like it. great. but when people refer to Christo as a "brilliant artist" it makes me laugh and think to myself "WC Fields was right — people will buy anything if its sold the right way"

(at least i think it was WC Fields - it could have been Bruce Mau. ohhhhhh snap!)

On Feb.14.2005 at 11:05 PM
Rob’s comment is:

Haven't seen it yet in person but sure to make the trek up from B'more to take it all in in-person. I really enjoyed the review of on the NY Times web site, which really took the time to explore not just the installation but also how it appeared to one viewing it. It's meanderings following the paths of the park just as they were designed to do in contrast to the structural nature of the city. And maybe, while the saffron blowing in the wind holds no innate meaning, it's existence in this space and time, becomes deferrential to the park in the winter. A place seldom packed with humanity in the dead of winter, springing to life for the simple pleasure of taking a walk through the gates.

So in having no innate meaning, it becomes whatever it wants to be to each visitor who comes in personal contact with it. And isn't that really what art should be about?

And Mr. Kingsley, as usual, the depth of your fortunate education is always a joy to experience through your insightful, saffron-colored glasses view of the world. Much appreciated, really. Thanks.

On Feb.15.2005 at 12:22 AM
agrayspace’s comment is:

I am inclined to think that the real work of art is the gathering of people and the discussions that are inspired. That is the purpose of The Gates having no official purpose or meaning.

On Feb.15.2005 at 10:02 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Christo and Jeanne-Claude are quite clear (see Debbie's link) that their installations are to be experienced best from ground level and are not "for the birds.

Whate v e r… This looks pretty darn impressive to me.

On Feb.15.2005 at 10:13 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Stunning photo, Armin. Who says birds don't enjoy aerial views?

On Feb.15.2005 at 12:28 PM
mogo’s comment is:

you're right about the torii similarity... the first thing that came to my mind was the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. they have some 10000 torii, spaced a couple feet apart going all the way up a mountainside. very awesome.

On Feb.15.2005 at 03:53 PM
Shahla’s comment is:

Either here or on the Design Observer thread someone had a problem with the pleats.

At least they’re not French.

On Feb.15.2005 at 05:00 PM
Miss Representation’s comment is:

Some quick notes: go to the North Meadow -- this is the closest you can get to the 'whoah' moment. I worked the week, and was frustrated as well that the sheet scale that was evident in the granular preparation (hundreds of cart loads of material, cases and cases of bolts, etc.) did not overwhelm the first time I got to walk around. So go to the North Meadow, or the Meer, then head south. The south is best in the evening (safe, quiet, and the artificial lighing contrasts with the dusk nicely). As to durability: you can do a pull up on the fabric. But that can't stop people from cutting into the leftover peices, as happened Saturday (along with a fair amount of vandalism in the form of stolen materials destined for recycling). I did not speak to the CJC, but I found them to be far warmer than I expected, and it was the seeming genuine kindness and trust of their entire team that made me stay on, not the slightly standoffish NY crowd at training (though my team was great fun). I'm a prickly and cyncial person. I would not have stayed on if I thought they were craven marketing tools. I would know, since that is what I am. Regardless, if you live within a day's drive, I'm not going to chide you for speaking of this without seeing it. I'm going to say I'm disappointed you haven't or won't make the trip, because it's the most inclusive (because of the broad range of interest) work of art I've had the chance to see.

On Feb.15.2005 at 09:45 PM
michael’s comment is:

um, where is all this left-over fabric going to go when this is torn down? is there a use for it, or is it more junk for our landfills? maybe home depot could buy it for some sort of campaign. i loved the post article by the way.

On Feb.15.2005 at 11:32 PM
Nary’s comment is:


Everything is recycled afterwards. Everything.

I think there's a breakdown of what the materials are and how they'll be recycled on their site. Go to the FA Gates Q link.

On Feb.16.2005 at 12:11 AM
Nary’s comment is:

Armin & Bryony:

Beautiful pics, by the way. Thanks for this. Wish I coulda been there, but I'll live it vicariously through SpeakUp instead! I love it, absolutely stunning.

On Feb.16.2005 at 12:14 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

Really interesting reading here, by former NYC Parks Commissioner, Henry Stern.

On Feb.16.2005 at 05:46 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> um, where is all this left-over fabric going to go when this is torn down? is there a use for it, or is it more junk for our landfills?

I overheard a volunteer saying that a big part of the fabric would become carpet lining.

On Feb.16.2005 at 08:21 AM
Armin’s comment is:

A different kind of Gates.

On Feb.16.2005 at 10:03 AM
Kirsten’s comment is:

But that can't stop people from cutting into the leftover pieces, as happened Saturday

that is unfortunate. The people working The Gates wearing the grey vests have swatches of the fabric to give out to whoever asks. snagged one on sunday.

On Feb.16.2005 at 02:30 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Orange pants for the pantless? Now there's a conceptual idea....

On Feb.16.2005 at 07:05 PM
JonSel’s comment is:

I finally made it in on Thursday. If anything, it just felt like something I needed to experience, and I'm glad that I did. I have no idea if the park is often that crowded on a very cold workday afternoon, but there were plenty of people, tour groups, businessmen/women and tourists, all with still and video cameras clicking and whirring away.

My biggest impression is that you are simply overwhelmed by the mass of color. Everywhere you turn you see it, off in the distance, in your face, in puddle reflections. You see it inadvertently in orange construction fencing on highrises around the park. There was fencing about 10 stories up on a Central Park South building that seemed to match the Gates fabric exactly. People decked their children in "saffron". One woman had her Great Dane puppy (huge at 4 months!) in a big orange sweatshirt. Even the taxicabs seemed like they were participants in their similar hue.

My other impression was the way the entire exhibit changed with the light. Initially, it was a fairly gray, overcast day. After about 30 minutes in the park, the clouds cleared and the sun came out. What felt almost funereal became festive as the fabric lit up and the long afternoon shadows stretched across the walkways. I quite enjoyed the experience, even if I'm left wondering about the meaning of it all. My feeling is that is simply served to wake people up. In the dead of winter, when we feel the most dreary, this got the mind working again.

If anyone is interested, I've posted some of my pictures here.

On Feb.19.2005 at 01:00 PM
Theo’s comment is:

JonSel’s comment is:

My biggest impression is that you are simply overwhelmed by the mass of color. Everywhere you turn you see it, off in the distance, in your face, in puddle reflections. You see it inadvertently in orange construction fencing on highrises around the park. There was fencing about 10 stories up on a Central Park South building that seemed to match the Gates fabric exactly. People decked their children in "saffron". One woman had her Great Dane puppy (huge at 4 months!) in a big orange sweatshirt. Even the taxicabs seemed like they were participants in their similar hue.

I'm actually somewhat disappointed by the color. "Saffron" sounds lovely, but when seen in person, it looks a whole lot more like Home Depot/Ing Direct Orange. I realize this has been in the planning for decades, I guess its just an unfortunate coincidence that the color they chose so long ago has since evolved into one of the top five corporate branding colors.

On Feb.22.2005 at 09:56 AM