April 24, 2009

Open The Gates: NYC’s Memory of Color

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“We live in a terrible century of banalization and trivialization, of repetitious things; all our world is surrounded by…bombastic things. And we the humans like to experience something unique, once in a lifetime, if never again. All our works have this quality that if you miss them, you will never see them.”
This documentary film on the (in)famous Central Park installation The Gates follows the two artists behind the work, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, over the course of their twenty-five year struggle to realize their grand scheme. Filming began in 1979 when Christo and Jeanne-Claude started to present their proposals in community board hearings, to park officials and in public forums. Because of the monumental nature of their idea, primarily its vast physical scale, the project was continually met with controversy.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are no strangers to colossal undertakings. Running Fence, arguably their most famous work preceding The Gates, was a long unraveling of fabric in the form of a wall that followed the topography of the Sonoma County landscape, from the farms to the beach and into the ocean. The duo is also responsible for Surrounded Islands, a scheme that consisted of floating a wide band of polypropylene around eleven different small islands in the bay near Miami. In these works, the goal is to use the pleats and folds, which form as the fabric adheres to the planes and curvatures of the structure being covered, to create new ways of reading and viewing the structure.
In a process and method similar to the events surrounding, and in many ways characterizing, many of their works, the road to the realization of The Gates was long and lurching. It addressed the ethnic, racial and economic divides that used to dissolve into the park unconfronted and largely ignored. It appealed to the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the human and the animal. Yet, at the same time, it roused anger, confusion and suspicion from many. Much of the contention came from the southern and eastern ends of the park, the more affluent areas, while the majority of northern residents around the park, namely denizens of Harlem, were in favor of the project.
Because Central Park, an entirely manmade piece of land where all the trees were manually planted and the soil brought in from other sources, spans across such a large portion of Manhattan, it encounters and intersects a variety of different neighborhoods. As described by a Harlem resident, this “invisible yet effective wall” in the park divides the rich from the poor and continually reaffirms racial and economic divides. When The Gates were physically manifested along and across these lines, it became a sort of unifying structure — a work of art that highlighted, pronounced and melded together extant disparities that were once purposefully lost in the labyrinth of the park.
Many negative reactions viewed the expensive endeavor as superfluous and vague, an artists’ ego unfurled and imposed onto an urban mecca. One official asked “Why put landscape art over landscape art?”, calling the erection of The Gates as a defacement to the park and to the city. Another called Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s creation an “act of cultural dictatorship …which does physical violence to the park.”
In response, often directly in public outreach discussions, Christo and Jeanne-Claude defended their work as a piece of art that is simply beautiful to look at. They stated that it does not necessitate a certain understanding, though there are certainly multiple meanings and intentions behind the project. But by simply walking through the project and enjoying the shapes of the rectilinear steel frames disintegrating into the landscape, hearing the fabric flutter as they undulated with the slightest shift in wind, rain or snow pattern, and watching others interact and become affected by The Gates that surrounded them, the artists hoped to at the very least inspire and awe.
The documentary follows Christo and Jeanne-Claude from the beginnings of drawings, paintings, meetings and bureaucracy, through public opposition and critique, and finally through the processes of creation, assembly and physical manifestation. The entire second half of the film shows The Gates being experienced in real life, transforming the entire nature of the park, and thus the city. Through rain and snow, through religious rituals and weddings, they reinvigorated the spirit and soul of a colorless, lifeless park.