I. A Love Story in The Gates of Central Park
I am in New York City. It is a few weeks ago. The Gates, an art project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are being unveiled this morning. I have, at this point in time, no idea about what is going to befall me in this day.
I am up early. Awake. Dunkin Donuts on W. 96th and Broadway. Coffee and an everything bagel. Delicious. I approach Central Park from the upper west side. I cross Central Park West and see the giant orange frames lined up in regimental formations through the gray winter stick-trees of the park. Some people are already walking through. Some joggers. In the distance, I see a group of The Gates' workers opening the flowing curtains wrapped around the tops of the door frames. Children with parents smile huge underneath the enormous orange metal. With a pull of a Velcro strap, a brilliant, reflective orange curtain falls, a cardboard tube clanging to the asphalt in a hollow bang. The children scream with delight. I walk faster.
~ ~ ~
Christo's art is famous for its enormity. Its grandiosity. Its hugeness and weirdness. His wife, Jeanne-Claude, is typically the brains behind the ideas, while Christo is the one who draws the famous sketches and plans to actually carry out the ideas. For years they operated just as "Christo," while in recent years both of their names have been used. I believe the change came about as a new amendment in France's 2005 edition of their Constitution.
The collective minds of Christo and Jeanne-Claude (henceforth referred to as CJC) have accomplished some of the more famous art projects in recent memory. In 1980-83 they surrounded a chain of small islands with a pink, fabric-like material, giving the natural islands a sort of matting, like they were being framed in the ocean. They also wrapped the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in vinyl, or something like vinyl. Naturally, they had started out smaller than these two major works, wrapping, in plastic-like material, found-objects like fountains and trees.
Many people wonder why they do this. Purely aesthetic reasons? Just to be weird? (fucking artists, always thinking eccentricity is the same as genius). If one thinks of art's main goal as to do something shocking, or to elicit an emotional response, then CJC's wrapping of things is not any different than something like the Cubism of Braque and Picasso. By wrapping a tree, CJC gives the viewer an entirely new perspective of what a tree "is." By breaking his women up into different geometric shapes and perspectives, Picasso gave his viewers a new way of looking, an addition to the five senses. It is in this that artists are powerful; it is in this that artists elicit responses like "this is just weird."
By wrapping a bridge like the Pont Neuf, the viewer has a new perspective on a monument, a part of their national heritage. Like dressing Mickey Mouse up in drag. Think if they wrapped the Washington Monument in flesh-colored fabric and brought the phallic-nature of that American icon to the forefront of America's consciousness. It would be shocking, it would elicit an emotional response, it would be successful art. But probably thought to be an act of terror.
And so they look for things to wrap. At least, looking over their past works on their website, www.christojeanneclaude.net, that is the idea I get. And just to be fair, my subjective interpretation of what their art is meant to do is not at all based on what I've heard or read CJC say. I have no idea what they mean to be saying. But this seems to be a good enough interpretation, and subjectivity is and forever will be the most important part of the interaction between artist and audience.
~ ~ ~
I walk into the park at 96th Street. I walk through a path and make my way towards the group of workers opening the gates. Boom! Boom! Onomatopoeia echoes through the area as cardboard tubes clang against asphalt, gate after gate being unfurled, blowing in the wind. This is how CJC is wrapping Central Park. I reach up and touch the rough fabric of one of the gates. They are as beautiful as the sketches I've seen at the Art Institute in Chicago that Christo drew years ago, before the city gave them permission to go ahead with the project. I follow the group of black-peacoated New Yorkers watching the orange wings of the park take flight off their frames.
I walk to the reservoir. There are less gates here, as the artists knew the joggers of Central Park, each believing they own a bit of the park in some small way, would not like their daily jog around the reservoir to be invaded by orange-monger tourists. I cross a wooden bridge and find a bench. I sit.
From the bench I can see already opened gates blowing in linear formation across the reservoir downtown, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The skyline of 59th street looms behind them. Central Park is truly an amazing thing; in a city where space is so valuable, and even studio apartments on Avenue D have started to cost as much as used cars for just a month's rent, this enormous amount of space is reserved for a community park. Everyone from John Lennon to Jean-Michelle Basquiat has walked through these pathways. But none of them have seen them in orange wings. No one has seen Central Park look like this. I suddenly feel special.
On my iPod I listen to the Velvet Underground & Nico. "Sunday Morning" begins, with its soft xylophone and Lou Reed's breathy nasality.
There is a bench next to me, and by the time the record has played to "All Tomorrow's Parties," it is occupied. A man and a woman have sat down, holding hands and looking out at the reservoir and the skyline and the gates, the same thing I am doing. I look over and nod hello, and they do the same, smiling and laughing about something I cannot hear. The woman points at something, and when she does, I notice that they are not truly holding hands, but the man has instead of a right hand, a hook.
I find this remarkable. Some weeks before I was making cappuccinos at a coffeeshop in Virginia, and asked two friends of mine who were dating and seemed extremely happy, a question regarding the strength of their love. For confidentiality reasons, I shall refer to them as The Tortoise (my male friend) and Washington State (my female friend).
– So here's a question, I asked Washington State, while steaming milk for her and The Tortoise's identical lattes, If The Tortoise lost a hand in a terrible boating accident, and had to have it replaced with a hook, would you hold his hook?
The Tortoise laughed considerably at this, until Washington State replied immediately
– Ugh! No way!
The Tortoise seemed concerned, understandably, at how quickly Washington State had answered. Why? Why? Why would she not hold his hook, especially after a hideous, emotionally traumatic accident such as the one which claimed his hand? Is not this hypothetical time a time in which it is most necessary for the love that exists between the two of them? To Washington State, The Tortoise posed these questions. I nodded in affirmation and enjoyment.
– Well I would hold your other hand, Washington State said in her defense.
– But what if I had bought you presents? Heavy ones, multiple ones, and I needed my good hand to carry them in a large sack because they were a surprise for later and I didn't want you to carry them and peak? You still wouldn't hold my hook?
– No! I'm sorry, but that's gross.
I stepped in to ask my own question.
– Well what if the tables were turned? Would The Tortoise hold Washington State's hook?
– YES! Of course! said The Tortoise quickly.
Washington State, annoyed with hypotheticals, replied that
The Tortoise would be more interested in playing with the hook. Especially if it was a mechanical hook with a complicated system of levers and pulleys. I said no, that it was a classic pirate hook. The Tortoise smiled with glee at the prospect of a tortoise becoming a pirate. The hunted becoming the hunter.
– Well how would you hug me, Washington State asked, hoping that the prospect of being denied physical affection would dissuade the idea of a hook. You might cut me in my sleep and then I might die! Would you like that? If I were dead?
– Honey, of course I would put a cork on the end of it so I wouldn't hurt you.
The two of them left in semi-disgust with one another, but laughing, and knowing that neither The Tortoise nor Washington State could sail anyways, and thus the chances of a hideous boating accident were slim. They sipped their lattes and left holding hands.
Back in Central Park, the couple on the bench next to me was not thinking about a hypothetical. They were beautiful in love, hand in hook, hook in hand, and there was not even a cork on the end of the hook. Love is a dangerous thing, a risk they both knew they were taking. It could stab them or soothe them. And watching them get up and walk away laughing and looking at the beautiful orange flowing gates in the park, I knew then that art could exist in not only years of planning and huge execution, as it does in The Gates, but also in life. The perspective of love can be changed in something like two people, one with a hook and one with a hand, embracing one another, and getting past the absurdity of the situation. The moment of seeing this couple in real-life, amidst a Central Park, changed so that I would experience it in a different way, made me see relationships in a different way. And it elicited an emotional response of happiness in the beauty of it all.
I left the bench and walked south east, underneath the orange flowing river of fabric raised above me. When I reached the east side at 86th street, I saw a little girl and her mother walking into the park, the little girl smiling from blonde ringlet to blonde ringlet, face pinked from the cold, pointing out "look! look!" to her mother as they approached the orange-covered path from which I had just emerged. As she pointed, she dropped a blue shopping bag from the Met. I watched in confusion as a small turtle crawled out of the bag, over an unrolled map of the State of Washington.