Writing & News

The Gates By Andra Kins

Andra Kins is one of the pioneers of the public art movement in WA and believes passionately in the positive effects of the complex trans-disciplinary collective process involved in commissioning and creating public art. After completing a first-class honours degree in architecture at the University of Western Australia Andra participated in establishing the Mundaring Sculpture Park, was Director of the Crafts Council in Perth, and sat on the Board of the Art Gallery of WA. Through her consultancy Urban Thresholds (1990 – 2018) she developed and coordinated over a hundred public art projects for the WA state government’s Percent for Art Scheme, the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority, Main Roads WA, local governments and private developers. She has contributed articles and essays about public art to national and international publications and is currently working on a website about public art in Western Australia. She has published two books: “Coming and Going”, a memoir about the women in her family and “The Heartbeat of Creativity” together with Margaret Blackwell. 

The Gates By Andra Kins

A gate can be either open or closed. One can pass through a gate if it is open or able to be opened, or one can be held back, unable to pass through, if it is securely locked. There is the physical world of gates, framed structures located within openings, whose function it is to open and close. We are in the picture here; we can choose to open the gate or keep it closed, or even locked.

The opening in a wall or fence where the gate sits is usually an opening in some form of boundary, or barrier. The gate is like a door but there is a feeling of spaciousness around a gate. Passing through a gate, one usually goes from one exterior space to another exterior space.

When we encounter a gate in the public realm, we are usually going from one place to another. The gate meets us, beckons us, and we pass through it noting the change from one side to another. These changes can be material and visually obvious and they can also be unmanifest and subtle. Going from the public domain of the street through the gate to the private domain of my front garden, I notice the change in materials; from the concrete and bitumen of the street to the more intricate paving and planting of my front yard. I feel at that moment that I am going from a large open collective space to a smaller, more contained personal space.

There are other kinds of gates as well. Gates that stand alone. You can pass through these gates but they are not located within a fence or wall. They define their own space by a frame that has two vertical side elements and a horizontal bar across the top. Like an open doorway drawn in the air. These gates acknowledge journeys. They allow one to pass through while continuing on.

These are solid gates with a material substance, but there are also invisible gates. These are the gates of the mind and the gates of the heart that we, the gatekeepers, can open or close. Gates are not hurdles. We walk towards these gates of the mind because we want to pass through them to discover something new, and perhaps build resilience, confidence. 

Torii are traditional Japanese gates. They are the stand-alone type and are commonly found leading up to Shinto shrines in Japan. They have two upright supports and two crossbars on the top and are usually painted orange or red. Inari shrines typically have many torii. Inari is the Shinto god of fertility, rice, and foxes. Torii are resting places for birds and are considered sacred. Shintoism is based on animism and venerates natural objects.

In the Koji-ki, the earliest narrative history of Japan that dates back to the 8th century, birds are often depicted as the messengers of the gods. As such they are thought to live in the space between the sacred and the profane. The torii are an invisible boundary drawn between the finite manifest world and the infinite, unmanifest world of spirits and gods.

I happened to be in New York when The Gates, a large-scale public art installation, was in Central Park. One cold and snowy afternoon I walked through a section of the installation with some friends. This was an unexpected gift as I had not planned an encounter with this public artwork, and was in New York to attend a jazz performance that evening.

As we approached Central Park my excitement about experiencing first-hand a Christo and Jeanne Claude artwork grew. The sight of the bright orange gates with their orange banners against the white snow and bare black and grey wintry trees was simply stunning. Walking through and under the gates felt like participating in a ritual of some sort. And there were others doing it too. As I walked my attention was drawn completely to my immediate environment: the park, the gates, other people. It was like I was diving into an experience of being fully present, fully interested in what was happening right there in Central Park. And that that was it. What life was all about; about being focused, and interested, and moving continually forward through gate after gate after gate. The experience itself felt timeless and left me feeling elated and inspired. Working as a public art consultant I was curious to know how the project had been organized, and how other people related to it. So I did my research.

The Gates was a huge-scale public artwork that was installed in New York’s Central Park for a period of sixteen days from the 12 – 27 February 2005. The artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, were well known for implementing other very large-scale public artworks around the world and the scale of The Gates was truly amazing. The artwork comprised 7,500 gates, each 4.87 metres high, and varying in width from 1.68 to 5.48 metres according to the 25 different widths of walkways on 37 kilometres of walkways in Central Park. Orange-coloured fabric panels were suspended from the tops of gates, coming down to approximately 2.13 metres above the ground. The gates were spaced at 3.65 metre intervals, except where low branches extended above the walkways. The gates were made of very tough extruded orange-coloured vinyl tubing. The vertical poles were secured by narrow steel base footings, positioned on the paved surfaces.  No holes were made in the ground.

The gates components were purchased from seven manufacturers located on the east coast of the USA. Fabrication was done off-site. The weaving and sewing of the fabric panels were done in Germany and installation was a huge and complex process.

Six hundred workers, divided into teams and wearing The Gates uniforms, were responsible for installation. The monitoring and removal teams included an additional three hundred uniformed workers. The monitors assisted the public, answering questions.

As with all their projects, Christo and Jean-Claude footed the entire bill for The Gates, which came to around $21 million, largely through the sale of studies, drawings, collages and scale models of the project earlier works from the fifties and sixties, and other original lithographs on other subjects. The largest of these have in the past sold for $480,000US. The artists did not accept sponsorship or donations. They were determined to maintain complete artistic autonomy; as much as can be maintained on a public art project as large as this one in a complex political environment. Christo and Jeanne-Claude donated the merchandising rights to the charitable foundation NNYN (Nurture New York’s Nature and the Arts) who shared the proceeds with The Central Park Conservatory.

Reading about the twenty-six year conception and prolonged gestation period for the project I was struck by the unrelenting determination of the artists. Their commitment to keep going, to keep moving through gate after gate, and finding new gates when some were locked or sealed completely by bureaucratic gatekeepers. The artists themselves admitted having trouble accepting that the project had finally come to fruition after so many years. 

It seems that maturity and patience is what is most needed when faced with such a complex political context for artwork. Convincing New York and Central Park authorities to give permission for the project was in itself an enormous and painstaking task. Bloomberg’s election as mayor of New York cleared the path ahead for the project, especially after the artists were willing to take into consideration environmental concerns and agreed not to disturb any existing vegetation.

The project was a highly complex one in terms of developing and renewing a creative vision, gaining permission for use of the site, planning and implementing the making, installing, and taking down of the 7,500 gates, and recycling all the materials after the they came down.

There is something about the fact that this complex project took twenty-six years to realize and was up for only sixteen days that gives it a weight, a seriousness, a sense of purposeful development that is rare in today’s world where people are mainly interested in instant gratification, in getting something without making effort. Effort of course can be misdirected, so we need to discriminate, to look into the intention behind the project.

When asked about the meaning of this large-scale public artwork, Christo and Jeanne-Claude emphasized that it was experience that would lead to meaning rather than intellectual knowledge. When asked about the project they didn’t want to talk about it; they wanted people to experience the physical space themselves; to spend time walking in the park, whether it was sunny or rainy or snowing.

Four million people, 1.5 million whom were visitors to New York, went to Central Park to experience The Gates. Some people who live in Manhattan went to the park may times; many more times than they would normally. A friend told me that an acquaintance of hers who lives in Manhattan went to the park eleven times over the sixteen days, each time at different time of the day.

The Gates could be experienced in a number of ways: up close at ground level by walking through them, and also from further away viewed through the leafless branches of trees. The view from higher up, from buildings surrounding Central Park, revealed an orange stream flowing through the park, appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees along the meandering footpaths.

The sheer scale of the installation, and its short time frame, meant that at any one time there were lots of people in the park, particularly on the weekends. The focus in terms of consciousness was intense, in comparison to say standing in front of an artwork in a gallery together with a few other people.

There was a lot of communication generated by The Gates. People spoke about their experience of the gates amongst themselves, and with the monitors in orange uniforms in the park, and with people who had participated in the implementation of the project. They spoke about The Gates at special dinner parties held in buildings overlooking Central Park. There was a proliferation of email communications, blogs, and newspaper and magazine articles about the project. Images of The Gates were sent all around the globe.

Some commentators chose to focus their attention on the issue of colour. Were the gates really saffron as Christo and Jeanne-Claude said? This is one of those minor issues that can really side-track constructive inquiry. If your attention is focused on disputing the ‘true colour’ of the gates, and then feeling disappointed that they weren’t really the saffron that you had expected, then the potential for an authentic experience of this artwork was highjacked by personal opinion, and therefore limited.

From my reading about what people wrote about the project, and from anecdotal reports, the overwhelming response to the experience of this artwork was one of joy, wonder, and inspiration.  Some felt it energetically and described it as a “buzz about the park”.  Peter Schedjeldahl from The New Yorker (February 28, 2005) wrote, “The over-all social effect, which was somewhat like that of an electrical blackout or a major blizzard, minus the inconvenience, was weird and terrific. The voluble disaffection of the art critic, me, collapsed, to the relief of my companions.  I had to admit the reason for it, which was that “The Gates” is a populist affront to the authority of art critics, and to accept being just another shuffling, jostling, helplessly chummy citizen.”

It’s interesting to hear that people who have come in contact with other Christo and Jeanne-Claude large scale projects in the past have also experienced this kind of ecstatic feeling of aliveness, and a sense of the positive nature of reality. The fact that art can call forth this kind of response, even from cynical art critics, is significant. Perhaps this is where the deepest, most authentic purpose of art lies with the unknown and mysterious result of pure creative action in the artwork meshing with that same inherent purity in the viewer.

It’s as if the artists’ act of declining to comment on the meaning of the artwork, its abstract nature, and the act of walking with others through the structures created a new kind of coming together with the artwork and with others in the park. The Gates was ‘suggestive’ rather than didactic. It opened up a space of possibility which I experienced as liberating, and which enabled me to engage with the artwork in a more direct and unmediated way.

Michael Kimmelman wrote in The New York Times about The Gates (13 February 2005), “At its best, it leads us to places we might not have thought to visit.” John Kaldor, in his article about The Gates in Art & Australia (Vol 42 No 4 Winter 2005), noted that many visitors commented that the project marked a poignant end to the healing process of 9/11. The September 11 terrorist attack in 2001 was the last time New York was so united, then in a most tragic way.

The ‘coming together’ that The Gates precipitated, in organization, installation and removal, as well as the actual experiencing of the artwork by walking through the gates in the park with others was a significant and important aspect of the project.

It took five days to erect The Gates. The six hundred paid volunteers were divided into teams, and each team was diverse in age and profession, but the common thread was an interest in art. Once erected, the gates turned paths into processionals. The artwork was animated or completed by people walking through it. Walking through gate after gate is a journey. To where? In this case it seemed to me that it was just about the journey itself. Pure forward movement with no specific goal or outcome in mind at the start. It was about a willingness to explore, to look around, to keep moving.

When I mentioned this experience of The Gates to a friend, she highlighted how much we take walking for granted, and how walking itself has, in the past, been at times a revolutionary act. The Long March in China comes to mind, and my friend mentioned the ‘mass trespass’ in the Peak district in the UK where people set out to reclaim public access through private lands.

Certain features of Central Park itself, the context for the artwork, were highlighted by the installation: particular views, the serpentine paths, bare branched trees, and other people walking. For local New Yorkers in particular, the addition of the artwork, an unfamiliar element in the familiar landscape, brought a new consciousness to the park. And with the artists giving everyone permission to explore and experience the artwork for themselves rather than needing an intellectual reference system to make sense of it, the specific and narrow confines of art theory; a seeing of what was really there, already there, because something new and unfamiliar had been added. It was an invitation to just ‘be’ in a space, and to do this together with many other people. It seems to me that this is where the joy and sense of wonder came from. A heightened feeling of being alive came to the surface when self-concern was temporarily removed, and when we the viewers met the artwork with our sincere interest not knowing what we would find there.

The Gates called for authentic responses based on our humanity, and new interpretations based on experience itself. Sincere engagement led to a heightened awareness of what was there in terms of the existing physical space itself; what was there within and between human beings in the newly created space of the artwork, and between the artwork and human beings. This was not a space for intellectualizing.  It was a space for experiencing our potential to experience a deeper part of ourselves and to reflect on and communicate with other human beings about that experience; about the experience of relating to and moving through The Gates, about meeting the unknown, about being a human being and walking through a torii created in and for the 21st century.May 2021