Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Right Way to Unlock "The Gates"

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's latest work of art-cum-landscape architecture-cum-media event is now dismantled; the bolts of orange fabric are probably on their way to be recycled into curtains, sheets, pillowcases, scarves, robes for Hare Krishnas and club wear as I write this; and all the art critics that matter have delivered their opinions on the project, most of them negative.

Ed Sozanski in The Philadelphia Inquirer pronounced "The Gates" out of scale with the Central Park walkways they straddled. And the high priest of High Modernism, Hilton Kramer, trashed them even worse in The New York Observer.

The problem with both of these critics' comments was that by focusing on the two-week-long physical installation, they failed to comment on the work as a whole.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are as much performance artists as they are visual artists. The work of art begins not with the actual wrapping or installation of the fabric, but with the initial proposal to call our attention to a physical object or space by accessorizing or packaging it. With that, the public--and the local officials whose assent is usually necessary for the installation to proceed--become collaborators. By arguing over whether a Christo and Jeanne-Claude project is a thing of beauty or a defacement; by either embracing the artists and basking in the 15 minutes of fame they bring to the site they alter, or by throwing up roadblocks to their project on whatever grounds--as happened with "The Gates" for nearly two decades--we actually advance Christo's ultimate goal, which is to force us to take a good, hard look at the environment around us--whether natural or man-made--and, one hopes, see it for what it is, and perhaps even what it might become.

For a little while, at least, Christo and Jeanne-Claude ask us to stop taking for granted the objects that define the places where we live, work and play, and think about their significance. Whether the fabric they use as the stimulus for thought is "appropriate" for the site or not is actually somewhat beside the point, for the fabric is not the work of art--it's the thing it envelops and our reaction to seeing it in a different light.

1 comment:

Paul Westhelle said...

Well said.

Your comment about public officials acting as collaborators reminds me that too often quite the opposite is true. An unfortunate and unintended consequence of heavy-handed bureaucracy, process-based planning and permitting can often dissuade the implementation of good projects (artistic, land development, or other)

Having just moved back east, this theory of mine is just beginning to crystallize: but I am of the (preliminary) opinion that (in the land development industry) blue-state land use planning often translates to the survival of the most obdurate. Developers willing to embrace wholesome and innovative projects give up on these markets and go elsewhere, leaving the pricks behind to squabble over the scraps.

We can be thankful that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have found a way to shine a light on their procedural burdens, documenting and incorporating these events into their art. Have your ever seen his documentary film of the Valley Curtain project? Even though the project was in the middle of nowhere, Christo had to contend with all sorts of permitting and approvals up through the final days of the project’s installation.

I can’t help but feel that there is something profoundly shameful, embarrassing and sad about the nanny state mentality when it stifles innovation and creativity such as this. This is especially poignant with Christo and Jeanne-Clause because their projects are so short-lived. For example, it is my understanding that the original proposal for The Gates was originally submitted sometime during the Dinkins administration. Mayor Bloomberg finally approved it with a 43-page contract. Oye veh.

Granted, the unintended deaths associated with 1995s The Umbrellas would cause any public official to pause before giving Christo a key to the city. Regardless, there is only so much prescience and risk management that can be leveraged with such projects. In the cases of the two deaths on this particular project, I tend to think that no one could have forseen or prevented them. Moreso, no ordinance, law, rule or policing could have prevented the Japanese man from getting electrocuted, or the American lady from getting crushed by a wind-swept umbrella.

Conversely, the level of public scrutiny on the projects that the public must live with for decades one end is a disappointment. Witness, for example, the litter of parking lot fronted commerce and honky-tonk shill along the majority of America’s suburban arterials. Alas, only the obdurate have survived in this case. Man, don’t get me started on this!