Last weekend I made the trek to New York City to catch the final two days of The Gates, the audacious and improbable installation art project created by Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude (what are their last names?). A friend had said that a person’s reaction to The Gates is essentially diagnostic; it reveals what sort of person you are. If so, The Gates re-confirmed me as a commoner. The project reinvigorated my delight in welcoming public spaces.
It was a cold and dreary February afternoon, with snow on the ground – and there we were, thousands of us, promenading through the magically transformed Central Park in festive spirits and excitement. Central Park itself is, of course, a crown jewel of a commons – a gift of unimaginable foresight from an earlier generation. But the addition of 7,800 gates somehow made the park utterly new and interesting. It added whimsy. It invited reflection and provoked simple joy.
The Gates varied in size, but each was a rectangular frame holding a saffron-colored curtain. (Someone walking near me pointed out that The Gates were actually persimmon in color, not saffron – more orange than yellow.) Sometimes the fabric was absolutely still; sometimes it fluttered lightly. Sometimes a whole row of gates flapped riotously, like celebratory flags. When the sun came out the next day, the play of light and shadow gave the spectacle yet another dimension. The Gates gave the park-stroller new focal points to see the unseen (wind and light, for example), but also to see the park itself in a new perspective.
The people-watching made possibly by the Gates must surely be counted as another element in the artistic tableau. In this sense, the project amounted to a kind of performance art – us. We, humanity, on parade. There were wealthy women in mink coats and runners in shorts; cozy foreign tourist-couples speaking French, Russian and other tongues; and entire families with strollers and young children. We even saw a just-married couple – she in her bridal gown and he in his tux – gliding through the Gates en route to pose for a wedding photo. The mood was so convivial that strangers were talking easily to strangers. Volunteer “guides” handed out swatches of Gates fabric. The rancor and viciousness that defines our daily political culture and insinuates itself into our souls somehow melted away. One could imagine again, if only for a moment, the reality of a civil society…even a congenial, gracious society.
Which got me to thinking: what our culture may really need in order to rejuvenate itself, and point the way to better possibilities, is more visionary public art. One can only hope that Christo’s German publisher will not try to ban unauthorized commercial depictions of The Gates, as reported earlier. It would only diminish the meaning of this landmark work of public art. Here’s hoping we learned something from The Gates. I did.