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Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Gates? How about The Subway?

Now that installation of mile after mile of steel support bases has begun, people are getting all worked up about the new Christo and Jeanne-Claude project for Central Park. The Gates officially opens February 12, but park visitors are able to get a sneak peak now. Carol Vogel from the Times even paid a visit to the park this week to officially kick off the media hype.

At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I’ll make an admission. I’m bored with this thing already.

Sure, it’s a great deal for the City of New York. Vogel reports that the city’s Economic Development Corporation has estimated that the project will bring more than $80M in new revenue into the city. Not a bad return on the $0 investment that art-loving Mayor Mike and his administration have made in the project. It’s not a bad return on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s $20M investment either. Well, actually, it is since it’s the city’s hotels, restaurants, museums, and other entertainment venues that will be the beneficiaries of the tourist traffic generated by The Gates. Christo and Jeanne-Claude will be lucky to break even.

Yes, I know, it’s not about the money for these two who fund their projects through the sale of artworks projecting how the final installation will appear. It’s about the work itself.

Well, as an aesthetic object, I’m afraid to say, this piece looks like it is going to be less interesting than most of their past work.

Their wrapped projects (Pont Neuf, Reichstag) were powerful because they took an iconic structure and forced people to look at it in a new way. Running Fence was interesting (rather than powerful) for the way it sectioned the landscape. In certain respects, it did what Fred Sandback’s string pieces do for space but on a macro rather than a micro scale. The Umbrellas project, though, was terribly weak. Placing kitschy forms in a landscape didn’t make the impression that their other work has made. The Gates, I’m afraid, will be closer in feel to The Umbrellas than to their better work.

Fans of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, realizing that the finished installations can be lackluster, often default to the rather specious claim that the work isn’t really about aesthetics. It’s about how these two manage to work existing political and economic systems to their own ends. The art, they claim, lies in Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ability to manipulate governments and capitalism to realize their projects.

That’s a great claim for art that’s purely conceptual, but Christo and Jeanne-Claude view themselves as formal artists. The object they will be giving the city with The Gates, I’m afraid to say, looks like it just won’t be terribly compelling once its initial impression wears off.

But the fact that they have stuck with this idea for decades and that it will be realized within a matter of weeks demonstrates certain talents of note. It makes me think that if these two want to undertake difficult, complex projects that require years of working the bureaucracy they could do much better for New York than two weeks of fabric gates hanging in Central Park.

Those of us who live on the east side have been awaiting a Second Avenue subway line for decades. The city government can’t seem to get that project done--let alone started. Christo and Jeanne-Claude ought to give it a try. If they were able to install a Second Avenue subway (they could wrap the trains in whatever the heck they want once they get them running), I would be really impressed. And grateful.

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