Opening The Gates | New York, NY

Posted by on March 28, 2004
I’m sure everyone has read about the happening in Central Park, considering the blanket news coverage.  Christo, famous for covering things up, I mean big things, like the Reichstag in Berlin, and the Pont Neuf in Paris, finally got permission to put up 7500 pleated saffron panels along 23 miles of Central Park pathways.  Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, has succeeded in transforming Central Park into the most “happening place” in New York in February, of all things. All this is happening without costing the city any money, it’s free to all comers; proceeds from sales of photos, reprints of drawings, etc. will go charities associated with the park, and in the end, everything will be re-cycled It was one of those things that I just had to do – so off we drove at the ungodly hour of 7:30 am on a Sunday, to drive to the city, avoiding the crowds, to observe this huge public art project – the only time that a Christo project has been within shouting distance of Dutchess County.

I had heard about this strange man and his stranger projects for many years. My first memory of this man was in 1976, when he completed the “Running Fence” in Sonoma and Marin Counties in California.  It was 24 miles long – thousands of feet of white nylon fabric meandering through private land and public, like endless laundry flapping in the breeze.  Why would anyone do that, and how?  Most people have been trying to figure that out for a long time.

In 1985 he wrapped the Pont Neuf in hundreds of thousands of square feet of fabric, without disturbing the traffic!  In 1991, he organized the simultaneous unfurling of several thousand giant umbrellas – yellow ones in California and blue ones in Japan. Then, among other things, he covered up the Reichstag in Berlin. That was like wrapping up the Capitol in Washington. Wild.  And all of his installations are in place for limited times only. They are not meant to be permanent in any sense, except perhaps in the memory of those who have seen them.

So, naturally, I had to get down to New York before they were gone. I’m sorry to tell you that they’ll be gone when you read this, but the whole phenomenon is a reminder that we are very close to the Big Apple, perhaps the best city in the world, and it is the absolute zenith of day trips for Dutchess County residents.  Furthermore, I am sure that vestiges of this project will continue to be seen and to influence the park and its surroundings for a long time to come.

As you can imagine, it has brought huge numbers of people to the area.  I was told that last Saturday alone, 600,000 people visited the gates. What was not so obvious, and had to be experienced, was the attitude of the locals and tourists who were wandering along the paths.  Everyone was happy, and having a wonderful time. In addition they were talking to each other – they were smiling.  We were asked more than once to take a photo of a couple, and we were lucky enough to run into one of the 340 “gatekeepers.”  These are the volunteers who roam around the pathways with a sort of javelin like device with a yellow tennis ball on the end. Their job, in addition to being friendly and handing our saffron fabric samples to worthy visitors, is to unfurl any of the flags that get wound up in the wind, (using the harmless tennis ball.)  The gatekeeper we met was a six-foot tall woman, an Art and Architecture librarian, who volunteered for the job years ago, the minute she heard this event was to take place, and who was clearly loving every minute.

Our long walk in the park early Sunday morning was a great event for us.  I believe this is what Christo has in mind. Never mind whether you call it art, or decry it as some sort of un-esthetic nightmare, this project has certainly gotten a lot of discussion going, and has engendered much reaction.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened it’s roof, (usually closed in winter) for this 16 day period, so visitors could get an overview of the saffron flags weaving through the dreary winter landscape of the park.  We did get up to the roof toward the end, but I’m really glad we took a friend’s advice and got down among the flags, the paths, and above all, the people.

We also took our friend’s advice and spent a lot of time in the museum.  We saw a couple of the current exhibits, we wandered to the back windows to watch the people wandering through the gates, and to glimpse the reactions of people on either side of the massive windows which face on the park.  Everyone in the museum had gotten into the spirit of The Gates it seemed to us.  The guards were laughing, helpful, friendly, and as usual very knowledgeable.  We had a snack at the American Wing Café, and happened on a guard who gave me a very detailed lesson on how to work my digital camera.  She clearly knew more about the camera than I did, and we found out she was really a New York City cop.  I couldn’t figure out if this was just an extra Sunday job, or whether several of the police were put into service because of the larger crowds in the museum.

And by the way, you may have surmised from past writings that I have a real distaste for crowds, but this was very different.  Everyone was polite and friendly, a sort of metamorphosis of the usual New Yorker. I have concluded that the aim of Christo and Jeanne-Claude is just that – to evoke a reaction in those who see the projects – to raise the level of communication. Remember THE blackout?  It’s the blackout mentality without the blackout.

I urge you to take a day and go to New York.  We have trains on both sides of the county, and all roads lead to the big city.  I guarantee you will enjoy a day spent at any of the museums, most all of which have cafes inside or nearby.  And I’ll bet there will be not a few surprises to lift you out of your everyday life.

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