It may seem pointless, and in a lovely way it is, to install a series of frames containing large hanging saffron rectangles over twenty-three miles of Central Park pathways. But after years of trying, in February the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude managed to bring it off. Called The Gates, the project involved the installation of 7,532 frames, and the fabric was hung so high that the tallest people could walk along the paths easily. The money was raised by the artists, and much of it went to pay those who installed the work, and to pay monitors who directed people to interesting routes and also used poles to unfurl banners tangled by the wind.
A gate is an entrance point, and in the Christo/Jeanne-Claude installation one gate is the entrance to another, and another, all leading eventually to divergent points-do you go up this hill, down that one, or straight ahead? The light changes as you walk, shining through some panels, shadowed in others, and the winds change the vista. All is transitory, and by the time you read this, The Gates will be gone.
What you notice entering Central Park (we started at the south end, where the horse and carriage rides can be hired and even on a cold winter day the scent of horse manure perfumes the air) is how many people are smiling. They are uncommonly polite-maybe because so many are visitors and not New Yorkers-and a lot of them are taking pictures. I’ve never seen Central Park so crowded. The only negative note was a mad ranter who stood on one hill and shouted his message that everything about the world was lousy, but he may have been hired by the project to remind the international visitors that this is, after all, New York.
One of the most pleasant aspects of The Gates is that no one sponsored it. It really was free to the public, and not “brought to you by [fill in the corporation].” It sold nothing but the artists and their art. It was free to all, and given the quietly festive atmosphere, it plainly delighted most of the participants, all of those who walked beneath the bright hanging saffron.
It was also, I am sure, a delight to the owners of the Central Park Boathouse, which, according to a friend who frequents it, is often nearly empty in February. We went there for a drink and found it packed. We left the park by walking down the path where telescopes have been set up to follow the storied falcons, Pale Male and Lola. They were expelled from their nest near the top of a tony Fifth Avenue co-op, but the outcry that followed led the co-op to construct a new nest. The falcons have in fact returned and are doing well.
Some of those who dislike The Gates object that it doesn’t mean anything. Neither does good music, or good abstract art. But I have noticed-listening, for example, to John Cage-that his music can teach an acute and refreshed listening. When leaving the Museum of Modern Art after a couple of hours of the attention you have to bring to art, I have found myself seeing the colors and forms of the city outside with new eyes. It is this reawakening of the senses that makes many forms of art important, not any message. No good art is ever propaganda, even for the most noble cause.
The Gates reminded me of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition: monks construct a beautiful mandala in a frame with colored sands, an elaborate, intricately patterned work of art that symbolizes the fullness of the universe. When it is finished, the frame is taken to the edge of a river and the sands poured into the flowing water. The point is, in part, the passing nature of everything, as well as the fact that those things that pass are wonderful and can be sources of joy and enlightenment in the present. There is a Western echo in Yeats: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes, / What more is there to say?”
As far as I know, no Buddhist connection has been claimed by the artists. A couple of people have pointed out the resemblance to paths at the Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto, where post and beam frames, colored saffron, have been placed over paths. Christo and Jeanne-Claude say no lessons or points should be drawn from their always temporary works, and I know what they mean. But I think of the mandala, and The Gates, which likewise were there for awhile and then, deliberately, not there, and I’m grateful.