Christo, The Gates, Central Park, New York 1979-2005, Drawing #047. Photo: Wolfgang Volz. ©2004 Christo.
Swaying like 7,500 Hare Krishna in a can-can line, the saffron-colored fabric panels of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Central Park gates are a lovely work of choreography designed by the wind. Yesterday, the inaugural day of the $21 million project, breezes made rippling waves or snackfood twists of the panels, sometimes in sequence, sometimes in unison. Thanks to their color, "The Gates" stood up to whatever sky happened to pass on a changeable February morning, be it fluffy white, seal gray, or Paul Newman ocular blue.
This is a project that involved a quarter-century planning but no chance for a dress rehearsal. Things were bound to go wrong. A volunteer confided to me that despite all the media hoopla, the international press corps managed to miss the unfurling of the very first gate at 8:30 a.m. Pity, that, because the cardboard tube that was released as the fabric dropped reportedly conked Mayor Bloomberg on the head.
At 10 a.m., another volunteer, grappling with an extendable rod near the park's West 106th Street entrance, set free a tangle of nylon that a gust had bunched at the top of a gate. Asked how often he's been called on to perform such rescue operations, the grappler said, "It seems like every five minutes." Pressed for an actual number of incidents, he conceded "three."
A clump of observers with cameras surrounded him. Another clump stationed itself near a gate whose fabric was still wound in a roll like a chrysalis, watching as a volunteer reaching with a pole took hold of a dangling loop, unzipped a Velcro strip, and released a swath of pleated nylon along with the fabric case that contained it. The audience clapped, cheered, and shuffled to the next gate like golf fans at a tournament making their leisurely way from hole to hole. Come to think of it, golf carts were there, too, conducting volunteers and their billowing loads of byproducts from the unfurling. There were security vehicles, driven by park officials. And there was a sound that many New Yorkers can't help linking to the events of 9/11, especially when it is coupled with flashes of emergency orange: the noise of helicopter rotors. Chop, chop, chop.
Yes, though Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Central Park gates have been planned with awe-inspiring grit and dedication and are blameless in every way though they will do no damage to the park and are composed entirely of recyclable materials; though they are constructed with paid, loving labor (except in the case of Jeanne-Claude's late mother, who insisted on working for free); though they cost the city nothing and are estimated to bring in at least $80 million from tourists; though proceeds through the sale of souvenirs will nobly benefit the Central Park Conservancy and Nurture New York's Nature; though the saffron-colored fabric is meant to connote peace and comes close to matching Jeanne-Claude's hair this miracle of efficiency, this triumph of persistence over municipal bureaucracy, this delicate orange grove, which an acquaintance rightly likened to an evanescent eruption of cherry trees in the spring, cannot overcome associations with hazardous conditions, at least not to my mind.
Something was fishy from the start. As I approached the gates from the Upper West Side near the park's northern edge, I spotted a bluff topped with orange flags. I had seen all the sketches and early installation photos and even pieces of the project being assembled near Central Park South, but still, my first thought was, "Oh, another construction site up here." It was Saturday morning. I was sleepy and squinty. And yet.
When I reached the park, I felt a wowza moment seeing the pathways redefined by the billowing fabric radiating in lines and curves. But the elation was short-lived. In contrast to the dancing nylon, the gates themselves have a tendency to plod. They march along walkways and circle ponds in a way that seems leaden and clumsy. They peter out and resume. The eye can only take in so many at a stretch in short, fluttery bursts, but knows there are at least 7,400 more. The urge is to rise higher for a bigger, more complex panorama. One finds oneself walking mechanically to the tower of Belvedere Castle whither all other park visitors have gravitated like the ghouls in "Night of the Living Dead."
How different is the spell cast by Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park. The biomorphic artwork reflects surrounding towers and people in a silver fun-house surface that is all pleasure without the mockery. You draw closer, closer to the sculpture's concave heart to see the effect, until you're entirely swallowed up. (Okay, maybe there's some gentle ribbing of your narcissism.)
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Central Park gates lack that magnetic, landscape-transforming power. Could this be owing not just to the way the gates drive viewers to seek greater heights of sensation, but also to the off-putting emergency color, the subtle grid of the rip-stop nylon reminiscent of quick escapes from troubled aircraft? After the theater of the unfurling, others quickly took the altered scenery in stride. Soon it seemed like any other Saturday in the park with New Yorkers chatting down the newly arcaded pathways, tugging at dogs and children.
"Look at the ducks, they're all puffed up," an elderly woman said to a companion, pointing to a huddle of feathery creatures standing on the icy surface of a pond, which was ringed by gates. "That's how they stay warm," the companion explained. Neither noticed the gates anymore, or that some of the ducks' feet were a peculiar color. They were saffron.
Julie Lasky is the editor-in-chief of I.D., the international design magazine. A former editor of Interiors magazine and managing editor of Print, she is the author of the book Some People Can't Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry.