When I first conceived the crazy notion to go to New York City for a day, I was smitten by the idea of seeing Central Park, one of my favorite places on God’s green earth, decked in festive saffron splendor. I wasn’t a particular fan of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: although I like art, contemporary art is not something I’m well-versed in. But being a long-time admirer of Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th-century landscape architect who envisioned an enormous public park where naysayers saw nothing but swampland, pig farms, and decrepit wood buildings, I was curious to see Christo’s 21st-century handiwork overlaid on Olmsted’s creation.
At first glance, it seems strange to see golden-orange gates sprouting from Central Park’s “natural” landscape, even when the reddish-yellow tint of flowering witch hazel complements the hues of Christo’s creation. But truth be known, Central Park is entirely man-made. According to my favorite New York guidebook, the creation of Central Park required 10 million cartloads of rock and soil and 500,000 transplanted shrubs and trees. When you consider how grand a scheme it was to sculpt an 843-acre park from the ground up, Christo’s vision seems less grandiose, the act of adding saffron icing to Olmsted’s stone-and-soil cake.
Traversed with nearly 60 miles of trail, path, and road, Central Park is a pedestrian paradise. How fitting, then, that Christo and Jeanne-Claude would envision golden gates as being the proper ornament for Manhattan’s green heart, for gates (unlike solid sculpture) are intended to be walked through, not merely observed from afar. Like the installation pieces I blogged after visiting Mass MoCA last summer, the Gates are a work of participatory performance art. The Gates aren’t designed to be looked at; the Gates are designed to be walked through. The great beauty of the Gates isn’t their color or even their number: it is the great undulating wave of supple saffron juxtaposed with the festive intermingling of crowds of anonymous strangers, much of the city and folks from around the world coming out to promenade together under billowing gold shadows.
Given the communal nature of the Gates–the way this particular artwork involves the movement of strangers through public space–it seemed the perfect setting to meet two bloggers I knew only virtually and get re-acquainted with a third I’d interacted with only once last October. When I first announced to some online friends that I was thinking of taking a quick trip to New York City this weekend, Leslee said she’d be interested in car-pooling, Elck said we could stay at his apartment, and Dave said he might have a friend with whom he’d carpool from Pennsylvania to join us. At first blush, it seems crazy to drive two hours to stay overnight with a woman I’ve met only once and then drive three more hours to sleep in the living room of a man I’ve never met. Would Leslee and I drive each other crazy on the road-trip down? Would Elck turn out to be an obnoxious jerk and Dave an arrogant jackass? Having read Leslee’s, Elck’s, and Dave’s blogs, I thought I knew them pretty well: having exchanged many emails with them on a variety of subjects, I thought we’d be like-minded and compatible. But viewed from a sceptical perspective, the act of going to a strange city to meet-up with strangers is just as crazy as building a park on a swamp or draping miles of pathways with breeze-billowed fabric.
Now that I’ve been through the Gates with them, I can say these three “virtual strangers” are now cherished friends; having traveled 10 hours round trip in order to spend just over 24 hours in the Big Apple, I can say that any trip to New York, no matter how short, is time well-spent. I might not know much about contemporary art, but I’m a longtime admirer of the Art of Possibility. Where naysayers saw soggy sinkholes, Frederick Law Olmsted saw a pastoral retreat for world-weary citizens; where critics saw a waste of money on silly spectacle, Christo saw an opportunity for community, an afternoon’s walk in the park turned into Art.
Call me crazy, but I think you sometimes need to go out on a limb–or travel 10 hours round-trip–to meet a stranger, view art you don’t necessarily understand, or step out of the Known and Normal. Central Park with gates is no different from Central Park without…except now I’ll never see Central Park in exactly the same light again. Now that I’ve been swayed by saffron, I’m a believer: the Art of Possibility might seem foolish at first, but its ultimate dividends are pure gold.
- Update: Check out Leslee’s account of our whirlwind trip, including an extreme close-up of a swatch of the cloth used to drape the Gates.