I’m walking Uptown.
I hear a most peculiar sound
Like a seashell in my ear
Like the ocean was near.
I go inside this store to get my head clear.
— Jim Carroll, “Freddy’s Store”
I have an unstoppable urge to do this project.
“During these trying times, when our natural instincts are to retreat to the comfortable and the familiar, we have to reassert the daring and the imaginative spirit which really differentiates New York from any other city in the world.” Smiling and confident, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stands before reporters to announce the resuscitation of The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s much debated, much delayed art project for Central Park. In this moment, recalled in the documentary also called The Gates, a journalist poses a question left over from the first time the project was proposed, back in 1979: is this a kind of “Let them eat cake” project? Bloomberg looks briefly exasperated, then asks back, “Why would you think that art is ‘let them eat cake’?”
It’s a good retort to an ongoing dilemma, one The Gates came to represent, for the 25 years of its planning, as well as the two weeks of its fluttering, flapping existence. When Albert and David Maysles began filming The Gates in 1979, the project was waylaid by community dissent. Some of this debate appears in the film, providing a kind of socio-ideological context for shots of the project in place (as Christo’s lawyer Theodore W. Kheel puts it, “Christo keeps a record of everything he does in the making of a work of art on the basic theory that the creation is as much a part of the final product as the art itself”). This context complicates and raises questions about the art. Even as Christo submits that the art exists as such, to be observed and absorbed, the film makes a case that politics is inherent in and constitutive of art. (The case applies to documentary, as a genre, a case made plain in each Maysles brothers film.)
As Jeanne-Claude and Christo prepare to take own case to then Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, Kheel lays out a related context, having to do with money: “Public officials are more concerned about what is bad about a project rather than what is good,” he cautions. This “attitude” doesn’t come easily to Christo, whose work is determinedly abstract and overwhelming, not conventionally celebratory, but weird and giddy, whether disconcerting or enthralling.
Indeed, an early objection has to do with money, or more to the point, the perception of cost (to be paid for materials and labor by the artist). Davis initially questions “the idea of spending $5 million for a temporary experience” (these 1979 dollars would become $21 million in 2005, when The Gates was finally realized). With The Gates stretching across the park, reshaping the entrances on all ends, this argument goes, it affects different populations differently. Termed an “act of cultural dictatorship,” The Gates will eat up money that should be spent elsewhere. “We don’t have no high-rise to look down on, to see, all right, first of all,” objects one man. “Second of all, you understand, it seem like they can always find $5 million to do something in the Park which don’t mean anything to this community. But they can’t find any money to make sure we stay here. Seem like the white folks want to enjoy this and we’re not going to enjoy anything.” To counter this argument, a social psychologist submits that “the proposals of the Christos is a unifying use of art,” a way to bring disparate communities together.
As the matter of art’s relation to consumers is broached, the arguments become simultaneously more conceptual and more material. “The Park is a piece of landscape art,” argues one protester. “We need to install another piece of landscape art over it? It’s like Picasso painting Guernica over the surface of The Last Supper.” The flipside of this argument, ironically still anti-Gates, submits that the project defaces the Park’s “nature.” This last frustrates Christo, who points out that the Park is in fact “completely manmade.” “With enough money, we can do it again, exactly again,” he says, “It is a completely anti-theoretical, anti-historical, almost idiotical discussion.”
The questions remain unanswered even when Mayor Bloomberg okays the project in 2003. The film hints that such lack of resolution is in fact the work of art, as brings together objections and delights, doubts and affirmations. The film is its own art, related to and separate from The Gates. Christo notes, “Nothing can replace The Gates. That unique experience cannot be repeated. The important thing in the film,” says Christo, “is it offers something that nobody knew about the early years, the hidden part of The Gates.” (Some irony might be found in the loss of the very public 1979 debate over time, so that it might now seem to be a “hidden part.”)
The second part of the movie documents The Gates’ unfurling for two weeks in February of 2005, amid wind and snow, and on brilliant sunny days. Its effects are at least as compelling as its bright orange billowing. These effects range from pronouncements by Christo (“We live in a terrible century of banalization and trivialization, of repetitious things. All our world is surrounded with Olympic Games, another Walt Disney’s, and other bombastic things. And we, the humans, like to experience something unique, once in a lifetime if never again”) to reactions voiced by tourists and New Yorkers. “I see a picture of these Gates from above,” says one woman, “and it feels like blood vessels are going through the Park, energy all around back and forth.”
The film shows faces upturned, kids and adults, joggers and dogwalkers, religious ceremonies and documentations, via cameras and cell phones. Backed by striking blue sky or reflected in puddles, the ribbons are mobile and temporary, and very very orange (“saffron” is the term most often applied). Interviewees include detractors (“Absolutely deplorable,” says one, “I mean the Park was really beautiful, it’s a park, it’s nature. It needs this?”) and admirers (“It looks like a big worm!” a child exults). A storyteller enchants young listeners with a tale of a woman, pushed off a rock in the Park by a man, whose orange dress was all that was left of her: “So that is why they made all this stuff,” he concludes, “symbolic of her dress.” When Kheel observes to the Christos that it’s a “beautiful merger of nature and art,” Jeanne-Claude gently reminds him, “[The Park’s] not nature, it’s manmade.”