Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Let Michelangelo Throw the First Stone 

Let Michelangelo Throw the First Stone.

Along with a sea of fellow Manhattanites, I went to Central Park to experience The Gates on opening weekend. I spent a couple of hours rambling from West 86th Street down alongside the lake and then cutting across the park towards Bethesda Fountain and the Boathouse. From there, turning downtown to meander through The Mall. Near the high 50’s on The Mall, we turned back and cut back west, skirting the Sheep Meadow and returning up the west side of the Park to 72nd Street. Truly, it was a delightful experience.

Returning to work on Monday, I was surprised to discover a number of colleagues who “didn’t get it” or simply did not appreciate it in concept. Were people really making an effort to see it? they asked. Preposterous. Twenty one million dollars? Ha. People are crazy.

No, I protested. It’s really worth seeing. Go see it.

Later, I was amongst a group of friends, many of whom are now or have been writers, artists, and performers. “It’s not art,” said a friend who works in an art gallery. “It’s a civic event.” “Orange,” said another. “Ugly.” And so it went. Truly, I was shocked. Not because they did not like it. But because they were judging it and they had not been to experience it for themselves.

I found all of this frustrating. I am not a fan of the Christos, per se. I’ve never experienced their work before and do not believe that I would like all of it. But I had an opportunity to see The Gates and I have to say, it’s more than seeing The Gates. It’s experiencing The Gates. It’s not about photos.

For me, The Gates is about raising the viewer’s consciousness on several levels. We fail to see our surroundings, no matter how spectacular, when they become familiar. The Gates forces us to see the park anew. And it does so by literally re-framing the experience. As you walk through the park and underneath the gates, you are being forced to wake up. Passing through each gate briefly brushes against some part of our consciousness and works on an animal level to rub lightly against our personal space like a cat causing static electricity and raising the hair on your arms as it runs over your lap.

On a visual level, the gates create new framed views every step of the way. And because of their fabric flag-like components, those views are not static. They continually play in the wind and in the light, the effects of which also serve to once again jog the viewer’s consciousness, wordlessly emanating a command to “Stop! Look!” and then after a few steps, “Look again!”

In Seeing is Forgetting the Thing of the Name One Sees, Lawrence Weschler (as I’ve noted on this site before) explains how Robert Irwin began his career as a painter and over time changed the focus of his work to shaping environments. Irwin began to see art as the experience that takes place in the viewer and not necessarily the physical (in Irwin’s case painted) object. As a result, over time Irwin’s work evolved to using lights and scrims to reshape gallery spaces and thereby create experiences for willing participants.

Over the years, Irwin’s artistic evolution led to him designing environments, including gardens and grounds. Perhaps most famous/notorious is his work for the Getty Museum in LA where architect Richard Meier was not pleased to have his fanatically rectilinear buildings complemented by Irwin’s circular plantings. Most recently, Irwin did the grounds and interiors of the refurbished factory that is Dia:Beacon.

At Dia:Beacon, in the midst of a lot of Irwin’s wonderful and subtle manipulation of the museum environment sits a monstrous achievement in creating experience in the viewer. Michael Heizer (recently profiled in the Sunday Time Magazine) has an installation that consists of primary geometrical shapes (circle, triangle, square, cone) cut deep into the foundation of the museum. I have linked to a photo, but you’ll have to trust me that experiencing the Heizer piece creates forceful feelings of primal fear, awe, and wonder. The experience is capable of imprinting itself on you in ways you cannot control.

I think The Gates make more sense in an Irwinian articulation than they might as explicated by Christo or Jeanne Claude. The Gates are not best understood as the saffron colored posts and fabric that they are made out of. The Gates better understood as the experience one has while moving in, around and among The Gates.

I am not arguing that the Christos should hold a place in the pantheon of great artists of the Western world. I don’t think that The Gates will stand the test of time precisely because it is so experiential. But for those who are here now, it provides a highly accessible opportunity to experience art.

And this leads to my final point. For a host of socio-economic reasons, the vast majority of the world will not have the opportunity to have a Bernini statue burn itself indelibly into their consciousness. The Christos have generously put their time and effort into a piece of art that will potentially change and inspire millions.

And to argue against that is to argue about whether it is a bad thing that most people love the simple happiness of Pachelbel's Canon, and do not appreciate the mysterious genius of Bartok. It’s a lack of gratitude both for the artists’ effort and for its peaceful and positive effect upon the multitudes that take the time to experience it.
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