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The Gates in Central Park by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

kottke.org hooks us up with the photographic play-by-play.

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Arlene

http://www.nytimes.com/ref/arts/design/GATES-REF.html?excamp=GGGNcentralpark I like this picture

Bill Wilson

Christo Gates February 25, 2005
These notes are tentative, with sprawls and repetitions I don’t have time to correct. Primarily I respond to a general inability to give precise attention to the available visual qualities of a work of art, and to a failure to suggest its meanings. Comments and questions are welcome. I experience the beautiful as the desire to conceive something with it, so here is what I have conceived with the Gates: Bill Wilson [email protected]

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, by constructing the Gates in Central Park, Manhattan, have offered a model for experience and for later thought about experience. Given that we have done as we should not have done, what should we do now, how should we do it, and how are we to think? Their work makes a statement about meanings, values and modes of thought in 2005.

The Gates is “constructivist,” in each individual unit and in the whole composition. Constructivism here suggests that the Gates do not individually, and do not as a whole, imitate any pure platonic ideal forms that exist transcendentally. The Gates emerges from specifiable processes that have not existed before they were set in motion for this event. As an emergent novelty, the Gates is a self-demonstrating and self-evident something that was never seen before.

The Gates helps to delineate the history of Modernism as the story of constructivisms, not alone Soviet Konstructivism, which is one small example. Constructivisms include mathematics (L.Brouwer), ethics and politics (John Rawls), and theories of knowledge and of education. The same history shows that constructivism can be good or bad---Nazism developed as a political constructivism even while resisting aesthetic Konstructivisms. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Stalin’s plans for reconstruction of Soviet Society join Mao’s China as experiments that did not model themselves on ideal transcendental forms or even historical models. They were designed to use available materials and methods to construct a political entity that does not exist as an image or an idea until it emerges as itself.

For a century and more, a liberal enlightened imagination has in various ways attempted constructivism as a materialist process, while trying to disallow transcendental concepts like Good, Truth and Beauty, or letting them shift for themselves. Throughout Modernism, Constructivism was supposed to displace transcendentals such as a priori truth with immanences and materialities. Those constructivisms that experimented with separating the transcendentals from the immanences have failed.

A fiat here is that transcendentals, which are of various kinds that can nevertheless be predicable of each other, cannot be excluded from experience or forbidden to thought. Transcendentals tend to verticality, and have been opposed by immanences, which tend toward horizontality. The argument here is that, after constructivist, immanentist and horizontal attempts to exclude vertical transcendentals have failed, horizontal immanences again become answerable to vertical transcendences.

The Gates is as a model of a constructivism that works with co-operations between immanences and transcendences. The Gates in Central Park rise vertically, but they ascend in order to hold aloft two different horizontals, one of them an inflexible rectangular beam from which hangs a pleated expanse of cloth. The horizontal beam and the horizontal cloth are held higher than the heads of people walking in the Park. They become models for the qualities that should be looked for in experience, or, better, they become models for qualities that are worth constructing within experience. Together beams and banners are an image of a good style for a good life.

Horizontality divides into two horizontalities: the elevated horizontality of the beam, along with the broad horizontality of the cloth hanging from the beam. The banners have hemmed horizontal bottom edges that fluctuate to and fro as well as up and down. Their movements are specifiable and constrained within rules for fluctuations. The wavering horizontal line at the bottom of the cloth is a quality that is to be looked for in experience, as long as it acknowledges that it depends upon the beam. The beam obeys abstract rules that prevent it from responding flexibly to changing circumstances, while each cloth banner fluctuates freely as it responds to concrete immediacies like a breeze.
I am not mentioning many qualities that are evident in the experiences, in order to focus attention on the significance of wide horizontal shapes lifted above heads. Visitors become participant-observers by walking under two horizontalities, one fixed extended beam, and one banner open to winds of change. These horizontals acknowledge the verticals that could, but don’t, abstract themselves from actual physical and mental events.

As soon as I say that Constructivism is not in itself good, I have introduced a transcendental concept, good, that materialist constructivism has tried to suppress. Constructivism has experimented in behalf of immanences and in opposition to transcendentals, but transcendentals won’t go away. Now the Gates manifests constructivist immanence that is conveyed by familiar horizontality, but it raises the horizontals tall on vertical posts. Thus images of horizontal immanence are exposed to judgments of aspirant good, truth and beauty, versions of classic transcendental values. These criteria are not derived from experience, but are imposed on experience. The Gates, by not attempting pure constructivist immanence, and by not disallowing transcendentals, engage in a to-and-fro between horizontal immanence and vertical transcendence in which neither is antagonistic to the other. The opposites collaborate.

How does the collaboration between Christo and Jeanne-Claude combine with statements about transcendence and immanence? One person of genius is vertical, but a couple is horizontal. When Christo becomes “Christo and Jean-Claude,” his verticality is subsumed in their horizontality. With their team-work, each draws energy laterally from the other in an exchange between two people standing up with their feet on the horizontal ground. When Christo acknowledged their partnership by signing both names, he got the horizontals right. Thereafter ineliminable and unbound verticals can take care of themselves.

The Gates embraces horizontality, elevates it, and makes it answerable to transcendence. Sources for the Gates have been proposed, but analogies are only illuminating if they clarify visual thoughts about horizontality and verticality. Some people have judged that the Gates “look like” the Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. However, the peachier orange of Kyoto conveys different feelings from the redder orange of Central Park. Comparisons are also being drawn with earth-art and out-door installations made by artists in the United States thirty and more years ago. But the meaning of the Gates pivots on the unique sculptural installation of a simple orange horizontal beam and a banner raised overhead for observers to walk under, thereby becoming participant-observers. So far, nothing like the Gates does what these Gates do.

Little in Modernist and/or Constructivist art has been deployed on the ceiling, or above the head, if only because the physical act of looking up might imitate the metaphysical act of looking up toward transcendental powers. A “gate” with something overhead worth looking at is a structure with a minimum of interiority, but enough to give a sense of “within.” Of course interiors differ as their meanings differ.

Richard Serra’s torqued ellipses were inspired by a transcendental ceiling, yet they were brought down to earth where they can surround an observer who participates in the space, but do not close overhead. A torqued ellipse does not summon a visitor to enter in the same style in which an open gate calls a visitor to walk between posts, under a beam. The torqued ellipses have impressive verticality, but they are not troubled about vertical aspirations to transcendence. Such aspirations have inspired conflicts with transcendental religions and philosophies of immanence. The Gates imply that we can elevate immanence as a quality of existence, yet without doing violence to transcendentals in order to exclude them. In 2005, horizontality has been lifted vertically because constructivist attempts at pure immanence have shown themselves to be inadequate. Now verticality and transcendence, in spite of a history of destructive uses, must be revisited as frontiers to be probed with thoughtful feelings by observers who are enlisted as participant-observers.

The peculiar expression of “Gates” emerges from the elevation of a rectangular beam over the heads of spectators who are summoned to walk under it. A mobile by Alexander Calder offers a different experience, an elevation of mobility. A non-rectangular structure is set in motion above heads, often at a height where once a consolation that transcends the suffering of the world might have been visually available. In the 1950s, even the ‘60s, I could to reach up to give a mobile a twirl. The meaning of a curvilinear mobile overhead will always differ from an orange cloth that turns and twists as the wind blows. Happily I walked under several Gates where in succession the wind blew the banners into flat horizontal planes level with the beams.
The beams are over-head, not vertical, but horizontal. Anything overhead, like a ceiling, or the arch of the gate into a castle or a town, is something that comes between the head and the truth. That which is above the mind and/or the brain can be an image of the ideas that protect the mind/brain from harsh reality like the glare and heat of the sun. Examples include hats worn inside religious buildings where they are not practical, but are images that concentrate meanings. See the turban on the head of the taxi-driver on Central Park South. Fortunately an expressive hat or covering for the head can be put on or taken off. Also a visitor is free to stand under one of the Gates, and is equally free not to. The strong rigid beams are a necessary idea of one of the necessary styles in life.

Note Jeanne-Claude’s hair as an image of her imagination. Jeanne-Claude has a head that rules itself with rules as firm as an orange beam. Years ago she wrote me a note correcting my careless error in writing “Jean-Claude,” and more recently she troubled to mail a letter correcting my mistake in writing “Jeanne-Claude and Christo” rather than “Christo and Jeanne-Claude.” From her head rises hair that ascends somewhat as it spreads horizontally. The color, not inherent to hair, is not among original immanences, but neither does it aspire to a transcendental color, as in blonde approaching white. Blonded hair would begin a process of upward displacement in which blonde hair represents a crown, the crown represents the sun, and then the sun represents the Light, as in the Light of Truth and the Light of Goodness wherein God is Light. Hair, if dyed blonde, could be an attempt at transcendence. But hair, when obviously dyed a constructed color, is fully within this world, yet is not limited by nature. The hair expresses awareness of instant and unearned transcendence which it does not attempt. Jeanne-Claude bodies forth the values in Shakespeare’s line: “My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.” In such earthly walking, a person moves forward horizontally while using verticals to do so.

The Gates do not invite gazing upward into the sky, as in aspirations toward the transcendental. Again and again, the view of the Gates is a view of horizontal bars, higher than one’s head, under which one can walk. The specific philosophic wit of the Gates is that horizontality itself is lifted on high, in a limited verticality that does not aspire ever higher. In contrast with a Gothic arch, a Gate begins its vertical ascent, but then it spreads flat and level. The limited verticality is further bound, because instead of any part aspiring higher, like an aerial or a steeple, the cloth flows downward and spreads horizontally. Such horizontality depends on the verticals of the post-and-beam construction, so that a Gate as an image does not convey an idea of pure immanence, but the more fecund idea of tension between immanence and transcendence. Immanences, which are more self-contained than transcendentals that can overlap each other, get to inspire transcendence with the criterion of “life” as “the freedom of form within form” (F. J. J. Buytendijk).
That which is above our heads is an image of that which can protect our minds. In this specific installation, a rigid rectangular beam combines with a flexible orange cloth. By implication, these are the qualities to be sought, even constructed, in experience. We can do this, because the hard beam and the soft cloth are intelligible as synthetic materials arranged in structures devised by people.

The familiar browns and greens tend to merge as they recede at a distance, but orange advances visually, altering impressions of near and far. “Hazard Orange” is the least intimate of colors, but now an orange banner that is one hundred yards distant is seen in visual intimacy. In Central Park, a visitor knows about areas that cannot be seen. The presence of orange reworks relations between what can be known and what can be seen, bringing distant parts of the Park into visibility, that is, into neighborliness.

The paths of Central Park are purposely purposeless, appropriate for leisure and for non-directional thoughts and feelings. These paths summon a person strolling in the Park to enter and to follow the path, without explicit or obvious moral or political issues. But the Park, as a landscape that is itself decorative of the City, is a political product with political implications. A person may contemplate an artistic object with aesthetic disinterest, but the Gates are politic in their summoning of an observer to become a participant-observer by walking under horizontal beams elevated above the paths. When aesthetic objects invite participation, they encourage acts of will that go out of aesthetic bounds into the political and ethical, wherein action can be judged to be bad (destructive) or good (constructive).

A person in an aesthetic event who wills to choose a path combines the aesthetic good with questions of ethical good. Such use of the will to act implicates freedom, as in a visitor becoming free to follow or not to follow a path. What then are the relations of the-will-to-participate to ethics and to freedom, but also to illusions, whether false and deceptive illusions, or the trustworthy illusions of trustworthy art? For the Gates, and for citizens subject to political power, even benign aesthetic illusions might be too illusory to trust. The poorly asked question, Are the Gates art?, can become the question, How are the Gates an aesthetic illusion? Christo and Jeanne-Claude have made anti-illusion and non-illusion into an art-supply. After all, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was born in Bulgaria.

Wth the will and freedom to act on a choice come effects on other people and on a social landscape. So with the will to participate in an aesthetic event come both politics and ethics, as in taking the right path, or in constructing good social structures. Among the forking paths of Central Park, no path is more right or wrong than another path, unless for a visitor who takes a path in order to exit near a subway station. Even that visitor is doing what the Park encourages, constructing a path of one’s own. A function of the aesthetic Gates is to demonstrate that an aesthetic path is a political path.

The Gates emerges from resistances. The installation was proposed decades ago with awareness that it would be resisted by the governmental department of parks and by non-governmental agencies. The meaning of a proposal certain to meet resistance is in the resistance, then in meeting and overcoming the resistance of a closed system to being opened toward possibilities that have never existed before. The Gates includes awareness of resistance to its construction. Thus resistance overcome is part of the experience, with the meaning of resistance to be investigated in aesthetics.

Part of the aesthetic feeling of the Gates is that of emancipation, of a freedom to will and to do, of temporary rights that could only have been constructed by surmounting resistance. This project has been constructed not only in spite of resistances, but because of resistances, since surpassing resistances becomes an expressive resource for art, and a source of meanings that enhance experiences of other meanings.

The glee within an aesthetic event originates with a sense of emancipation from an oppression that has not been sensed as an oppression until it has been relieved. The proposal for the Gates prompted recognition of the oppression that the Gates are the emancipation from: innocent and glorious possibilities may not be possible.

The mood of the Gates is gleeful because resistances to the Gates have been overcome. Any specific resistance differs from resistance to wrapping the Reichstag, a different kind of impasse. The idea of a gate is the enabling of a person to gain passage through what otherwise might be an impasse. Even a triumphal arch, through which people pass, celebrates passage through a situation that might have been an impasse. “Gates” with their absence of impasses are reminders of the pathos and possible tragedy of gates closed for exclusions, and of the exhilaration and possible comedy of gates opened for inclusions.

In 1964, speaking with very few words of English, Christo drew a picture of a vertical object he wanted to use in his art. I showed him in the Yellow Pages where he could buy such an object. He had drawn an object that I understood to be a chimney, but not for a pot-belly stove, which he drew and crossed out. He wanted a metal chimney as a vent opening to-and-fro a system that might otherwise close over itself and suffocate even its own fire. Christo drew an image of a vent that would enable a building to breathe freely.

The Gates is a model for emancipation from resistances to glee. It demonstrates that overcoming resistances to glee is gleeful. In my experience, the sublime is experience at the spatial point where resistance gives way, or at the temporal point at which resistance to wide, high and deep experience is overcome. Even impersonal orange overcomes the resistance of the atmosphere and moves visually nearer. Experiences of resistancelessness, when resistance is not offered, is withdrawn or is overcome, are experiences of sublimity.

dan bennett

http://christoandjeanclaude.blogspot.com/

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