Twenty-six years to put the curtains up

What it took to realise Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates in Central Park

Twenty-six years in the making, The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installation of saffron-coloured banners lining New York’s Central Park in 2005, became a self-confessed obsession for the artists. Originally conceived in 1979, the project was immediately bogged down by city politics and a tide of negative public opinion, and was rejected in 1981. It took two decades and four mayors for the artists to finally receive approval for the work. Following them from the beginning are documentary film-makers Albert and David Maysles, whose original footage forms the early and most interesting part of the documentary “The Gates”, recently aired on HBO, with an upcoming museum tour and subsequent DVD release. Following David’s death in 1987, Albert finished the film with co-directors Antonio Ferrera and Matthew Prinzing.

The documentary opens with a press conference where Mayor Bloomberg announces the project with the usual politician’s praise. When one reporter invariably brings up the question of cost, Jeanne-Claude answers by saying: “It is very much like bringing up a child, it will cost whatever it has to cost.” When the reporter persists, asking for an estimate, Jeanne-Claude replies: “Ask your mother if she had an estimate on you.”

This theme of The Gates as the artists’ baby persists throughout the film, and like any child, it proves more expensive than anticipated. When they first pitch the idea to city officials in 1980, Christo and Jeanne-Claude stick to a projected estimate of $5m, all raised by the artists through sales of drawings and paintings of the final installation, but when work finally gets underway in 2003, they claim the cost is over $20m. Since the project is entirely funded by the artists, there is no way to know how accurate this is.

The film then flashes back to the artists’ first meeting with lawyer Theodore W. Kheel, who they hope will help them get city approval for the project. At first Mr Kheel seems tremendously uninterested when a idealistic Christo and demure Jeanne-Claude show up, ushering them in with one hand while talking on the phone with the other. But while he slowly warms to the couple, most of the city officials and committee members the artists approach during this period respond with a combination of disbelief and hostility when they hear of the plans. Early on their lawyer warns them to “assume the worst”—and they get nothing less.

Gordon Davis, then Parks Commissioner, effectively dismisses the couple from their very first meeting. While he claims to not be “hostile” to the artists’ project, he makes no effort to help them, allowing them to flounder in the mire of city bureaucracy. Christo pleads: “I’m not talking about destroying Central Park. I only want to have it for 14 days.” “You can’t have it for a minute,” says a committee member, “because you create a precedent.”

Jumping forwards again to 2004/05, we see how times have changed—mostly. Instead of a doubting parks commissioner, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are greeted by an eager Mayor Bloomberg. In a montage of television news coverage at the time, Henry Stern, Gordon Davis’s successor as parks commissioner, says: “If the mayor wants to hang up underwear...in Central Park and it doesn’t cost the city anything, let him do it.”

City officials may be on board with the project, but the public still has its doubts; “I hate it,” says a young man. “It just shows what people can do when they’ve got a lot and what you can’t do when you’ve got nothing.” But once The Gates are in place and ready to unfurl, there is no sign of the sceptics. The opening is crowded with people cheering, looking up wondrously at the towering poles as if they were fireworks.

Then follows around half an hour of lingering shots of The Gates billowing in the breeze, interspersed with reactions from New Yorkers. This feels like padding in an otherwise engaging film. “Well, I was sceptical at first,” says one man, “but I think they’re fantastic.” As Christo and Jeanne-Claude stroll through the park towards the end of the two-week display, passers-by shout “Thank you” and “Encore, encore!” asking them to keep The Gates up longer. Jeanne-Claude turns to a group and asks “Are these the same cynical New Yorkers?” And it only took a quarter of a century.

Helen Stoilas

o The Gates will tour US museum auditoriums this autumn (dates to be announced) with a DVD release in winter 2008/09

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