Magazine article Artforum International

Social Fabric: Jeffrey Kastner on the Gates

Magazine article Artforum International

Social Fabric: Jeffrey Kastner on the Gates

Article excerpt

AT THE TIME of this writing, workers are slowly making their way along some twenty-three miles of Central Park pathway, dismantling the 7,503 orange structures that only a few weeks earlier had sprouted into the most elaborate and talked-about artwork in New York City history, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's monumental sculpture, The Gates.

Even before the final arch is removed, it's clear that the project will be remembered as a genuine cultural phenomenon, an uncanny hiatus in New York's life as usual. The most expertly blase city in the world spent the better part of February swooning over the artists and their enterprise, mesmerized by the magic of its outsize ambitions and gargantuan deployment of materiel. Indeed, the arrival of The Gates was trumpeted by a characteristically art-averse mainstream media--which devoted an unprecedented amount of airtime and column inches to covering every imaginable piece of minutiae related to the project--with a litany of jaw-dropping facts and figures sure to get even the most mild-mannered civil engineer hot: over 5,000 tons of steel for the gates' footings (10,580,000 pounds, to be exact, two-thirds the amount in the Eiffel Tower); 315,491 linear feet (60 miles) of vinyl tubing for their superstructures; 165,132 bolts and self-locking nuts; 116,389 miles of nylon thread woven into 1,067,330 square feet of rip-stop fabric and tailored into 7,500-odd fabric panels of varying widths; etc.

The inspiration for this massive project, according to the artists, was Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux's original plans for Central Park, which included a series of functional gates designed to secure the space at night. In practice, The Gates turned out to be a curiously hypertrophic mode of Plop art, a colossal modular sculpture whose hulking forms seemed parachuted into place. With only the most rudimentary cartographic interest in its surrounding environment, the work's blocky silhouettes and alien-industrial color scheme produced an overall sense of purposeless dissonance that even the occasional moments of fleeting lambency, when sunlight met flapping nylon, could never fully dispel. (Considered in terms of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's own career, The Gates was probably most closely related to The Umbrellas, 1984-91, another array of slightly inexplicable objects situated to visually unify a large-scale spatial environment.)

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Yet if the constituent forms of The Gates owed a debt to familiar modes of modernist sculpture, their attitude toward landscape evoked a much older example--namely, the early era of European garden design and its vogue for follies, or fabriques, idiosyncratic sculptural elements distributed throughout estate lands to create visual variety and picturesque vistas for both those traversing the terrain and those viewing it at a distance. Like these precedents--often faux-classical ruins reflecting the then-prevalent Romantic taste for antique forms--The Gates also accessed a certain nostalgia, a wistfulness for a time when public art made no pretense of contextual response but was instead simply considered decoration, before theories of site specificity began to encourage substantive conversation between objects and the places they are put.

This isn't inherently a bad thing. There is a growing and probably healthy debate within the public-art community about whether the rhetoric around the socio-aesthetic qualities of "site" has become so prescriptive as to be meaningless. Yet there was no escaping the sense that The Gates represented a missed opportunity, a certain failure of imagination. Without the confrontational power of a work like Iron Curtain, Wall of Oil Barrels, 1961-62, which showed the artists thinking critically about the urban grid and its relationship to social dynamics, or the poetic resonance of Wrapped Reichstag, 1971-95, which engaged a host of complex historical resonances at a moment of vivid political flux, The Gates was a disappointingly primitive intervention, an underwhelming aesthetic payoff on a quarter century of preparation. …

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