writers on dancing


Invitation to the Dance

The Gates
Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Central Park, NY
February 12-27, 2005

By Tom Phillips
Copyright 2005 Tom Phillips

Mayor Bloomberg, who helped make it happen, says it’s “whatever you want it to be,” and one thing it can be is a kind of choreography. Going under the arch, or through the gate, or in and out the window, is one of the most familiar moves in social and folk dancing, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude have all New York going through the gates in Central Park. This is social dance, for sure, in that it has brought together every class of New Yorker and tourist. But it is also pure pleasure, an aesthetic experience in motion.

The Gates are not for gazing at: they can look garish and klunky from a distance. They are constructed to go under and look through. And this is where the art happens—in the interaction of moving bodies and minds with a moving object, and the environment of Central Park, itself a work of art, and the city that frames it.

With the wind at your back on a blustery day, the saffron fabrics feel like sails straining ahead, pulling you forward. Going into the wind they can be the wings of a mother hen, gathering in her chicks. Looking up as one billows above you, you catch a calligraphy of black boughs against a brilliant blue sky. Looking ahead, you see a new brush painting, this one in shadow, a bare branch shifting on the sunlit canvas.

Then there are the parkscapes and the cityscapes: Around the Harlem Meer, the artists have placed gates at a right angle to the path, directly facing the water. Stop here and look at the lake, they tell you. It is flat water shimmering, with a thin skin of ice offshore, hills and trees in the near distance, then the changing sky. My brother and I walked the length and breadth of the park (the first time either of us has done that) and when we made our exit to Columbus Circle, the last fabric flapped high in a gust of wind, revealing the whole Time-Warner headquarters, two gleaming glass vaults separated by a slice of blue sky.

Twenty-five years of inspiration, planning and haggling between the artists and the city have yielded choices so well-thought-out that they seem inevitable. The prime example is the fabric itself: light enough to float on the wind, but strong enough to resist it; translucent enough to let the sun glow through, but opaque enough to shield our eyes; high enough to peek under, but low enough to reach on tiptoe and touch.

Maybe the best choice of all is the timing; there’s a reason why the birds begin to sing around Valentine’s Day. Mid-February in New York is a flood of light, the illumination that precedes spring. The slanting sunlight is similar to late October’s, but now the trees are bare. It’s the interplay of blue sky, sunlit orange sails, and black branches that provide the most brilliant effects.

If I had to express a reservation, it would be about the frames. The orange color doesn’t work as well on steel as on fabric. But I can’t really think of a better color, and I don’t feel like complaining, anyway. Christo and Jeanne-Claude have put me, and many others, in a mildly rapturous mood of compliance.

Two kinds of people don’t like “The Gates”: art snobs and nature nuts. Their arguments are unassailable. The art lovers say it’s vulgar, excessive, simplistic, dumb. The nature lovers say you can’t improve on trees. It’s true, but you can call attention to them, and that’s what Christo and Jeanne-Claude have smashingly succeeded in doing: The Gates are little in themselves, but much as an invitation—to walk, to keep walking, to look at the world for once through saffron-colored frames. Then look at it again after they’re gone, and you may see something new.

Zen riddle: When a flag moves in the wind, which is it that moves, the flag or the wind?

Answer: the mind moves.

Photos:  Angus Phillips.

Volume 3, No. 8
February 21, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Tom Phillips


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last updated on February 7, 2005