Remembering The Gates in Central Park

Earlier this week, we at NYU Abu Dhabi were treated to a visit by the artist Christo, who spoke about one of his signature projects — The Gates — which took place in Central Park in February 2005. The project was conceived in the late 1970s by Christo and his wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude, who passed away two years ago tomorrow. The city repeatedly refused Christo and Jeanne-Claude permission to mount the project, until Michael Bloomberg became mayor. He gave it the go-ahead immediately, once the pair reapplied for a permit.

I fell in love with the Gates project and went to see it — no, experience it, immerse myself in it — as many times as I could. I made sure to see every bit of the park during the sixteen days it was up and reintroduced myself to areas I had visited since my childhood. The Gates transformed the Park’s bleak midwinter with its explosion of color; it compelled many New Yorkers who had become blase about this jewel in the midst of Manhattan to see the Park afresh. On one visit to the Northwest corner of the Park, I was lucky enough to coincide with a visit to the area by Jeanne-Claude and Christo themselves and was able to watch them — from afar — enjoy their creation. Both of them refer in the film to the works of art as their children, and it was a parent’s joy that they seemed to exude as they looked at what they had done.

The process by which the project was conceived, planned, and ultimately mounted is beautifully documented in a film called The Gates (2005) made by Antonio Ferrera and Albert Maysles and originally shown on HBO. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were meticulous about documenting their work, not only by preserving drawings and other artifacts, but also by having the process of approval and construction filmed. The documentary work on The Gates was begun by the legendary documentary team of Albert Maysles and David Maysles, who first became famous for their legendary film  Gimme Shelter (1970), an account of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour, which ended infamously at Altamont Speedway in California at a free concert during which Hells Angels killed a concertgoer. Christo and Jeanne-Claude became close friends with the Maysle brothers, who would document five of their projects.

Christo joined us at Sama Tower for a showing of the documentary, which was completed by Antonio Ferrara (who was also present) and includes early footage shot by the Maysles. Watching this footage is a little like watching outtakes from Woody Allen’s great films of the 1970s,  Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). Jeanne-Claude and Christo take pains to remind — or, perhaps, simply inform — the culture vultures moaning about defiling the sacrosanct space of the Park of something that all Writing New York students realize by the end of our account of Alger and the Park: that it is a man-made space, domesticated nature, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to create a particular kind of pastoral experience. The Gates is a beautifully made documentary that is sadly out of print at the moment. Find it at a library or a used DVD store and watch it: it’s a wonderful slice of New York history and will remind those lucky enough to experience the gates six years ago of the wonder of the experience.

Christo gave a second presentation during his visit to NYUAD, speaking at the NYUAD Institute about his latest project, “Over the River,” which was approved just last week! Christo will cover a length of the Arkansas River with white fabric. Like The Gates, the project will be mounted for about two weeks. I’m going to start honing my white-water-rafting skills.

He also spoke about an as-yet-unapproved project, conceived around the same time as The Gates, which he hopes to mount in the Liwa desert here in the UAE: “The Mastaba,” a work of art made of approximately 410,000 horizontally stacked oil barrels secured to an inner structure. Unlike The Gates and “Over the River,” “The Mastaba” would be a permanent installation.

Christo began his question-and-answer period at the NYUAD Institute presentation by remembering Jeanne-Claude, whom he met in Paris in 1958. “We immigrated to the United States in 1964,” Christo recalled, before correcting himself: “No, not immigrated to the United States in 1964 … we immigrated to Manhattan, New York City, in 1964.” After letting the audience chuckle at that remark, he explained it: “She was very proud of that. She insisted all the time to say that from 1964 to 1967, we were three years illegal aliens in Manhattan. We came as tourists and we disappeared in the crowd. Only many months and years later, we became residents.”

[Photo Credits: I took the photos of The Gates that accompany this post. Thanks to the NYUAD Institute for providing the video from which the still of Christo is taken.]