The View From Sea Level

Mindful Ramblings on Topics from Silly to Sublime

The Gates: Follow the Saffron Road

I first became aware of the artist Cristo in the early 1980s when he and his wife Jeanne-Claude surrounded some islands in Biscayne Bay with bright pink fabric. I thought it was ridiculous.

Over the past two years I have been developing a new appreciation for modern art. I have made trips to London's Tate Modern and Bilbau's Guggenheim for the express purpose of immersing myself in the modern masterpieces on display there. I've kept an open mind, and I have, in fact, come to appreciate far more eclectic works of art than I expected.

So I was excited when New York City approved Cristo's installation of The Gates early in 2005. After all, since those islands in 1983, Cristo has created massive fabric constructions all over the world. Like it or not, he's a major figure in modern art, and this was an opportunity to gain a better understanding of his work.

The cynical side of me couldn't help noting that the 16-day exhibition in Central Park coincided with the International Olympic Committee's visit to review the city's bid for the 2012 games. But that's another story entirely.


I drove into Manhattan (my tolerance for the subway in from The Bronx is almost non-existant) on a cool, sunny Sunday and made my way to the 72nd Street western entrance to Central Park.

The great orange rectangles with their swathes of swaying fabric dominated the landscape. Every path was a surreal, modern colonade, every view a scene of marching orange figures.

Central Park has certainly never been so crowded on a winter day before. I went north through the Ramble seeking vistas of the strange scene.

On a rustic bench someone had created their own commentary on the "art": a row of bright orange Cheetos. I wondered how Cristo would feel about this amusing contribution to the event. I hope that he can appreciate a gentle send-up of his work.

The gates were sized to match the paths over which they marched -- some were very wide, others narrow. On a wooded hilltop a row of gates intermingled with the trees created an intimate setting. For a moment I was alone with them, the light fabric rustling in the breeze, reflecting the sunshine. And I was able to appreciate Cristo. Certainly his work was challenging many viewers -- I heard many strollers asking "why?" and "what's the point?"

But just as many were strolling and looking and watching one another. Get out into the world, his Gates demanded. Interact with one another. Interract with this strange phenomenon. Be challenged and see what comes of it.

And then my naturaly curiosity about the construction of things was satisifed. I'd tapped on a few of the frames, reached up and touched the fabric, examined the heavy steel bases. But near the southern end of the park I joined a small crowd gathered around a "fallen" gate. Not fallen, really, but taken down by some of the many workers maintaining the exhibit. The fabric, they explained, had become torn. While we visitors looked on the workers disassembled the gate in order to replace the top -- a single unit of frame and attached fabric. They stood the gate back up on its based and fastened it down. And then one of them pulled the Velcro strip that freed the new fabric panel.

A mini-unveiling just for those of us gathered 'round. The new fabric was creased and stiff from its packaging. It looked very different from the gates on either side. I climbed a rock overlooking the repaired gate to study new and old. Jarring. That's what it was. I wondred how long it would take for the new fabric to uncrease and blend in.

I wondered why it mattered so much to me. And I decided the cold was getting to me.

Do I appreciate Cristo's work more now than in 1983? A little. The combination of a physical installation with the visitor's interraction give the work a temporal dimension. The contrast of the natural environment with the artificial challenges ones assumptions. Does the bright orange interfere, or enhance the wintry landscape? What would it be like during spring, or summer, or autumn when the trees compete with the saffron cloth?

We'll never know, of course. The Gates are already gone, their components sent off to be recycled into mundane items like kitchn ware, cars, and thread. And that's part of Cristo's message too.

Experience the moment.

And then let it go.