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The Passion of the Christos

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In spring 2002, the Christos took a walk through Central Park with their chief design engineer, Vince Davenport. Davenport and his wife, Jonita, who serves as the Christos’ project coordinator, have worked with the artists since 1989. Considering the problem, Davenport said to Christo and Jeanne-Claude, “You just can’t do this job. Even with Bloomberg, you’ll get turned down. They’re never going to let you drill 15,000 holes in Central Park.” The issue of securing the steel gates had become even more crucial, given a tragedy that occurred at the Umbrellas installation in California. One of the umbrellas was unmoored by a freakish, swirling wind, and took flight, resulting in the death of a spectator. Davenport briefly considered aluminum poles for the gates but dismissed them as too expensive. He proposed other ideas, which Christo couldn’t stomach. “No, no, they are too ugly!” he said. They left the park with no solution.

Then back at his home in Leavenworth, Washington, Davenport noticed a neighbor assembling a new horse corral. He asked his neighbor what material he was using for the fence. Vinyl, he was told.

The advantage of the vinyl gates, Davenport surmised, was that they could be moored to heavy steel bases that required no digging, and that could be placed along the pavement, rather than in the ground. Just to be sure, though, he poured asphalt on his own property to simulate Central Park’s pathways, then built eighteen full-size gates to test their durability. Satisfied, he contacted Patricia Harris, and they arranged for Doug Blonsky to fly out to Washington to see the structures. Blonsky was converted. They’d solved the problem of the holes by doing away with them altogether.

In the first, crisp weeks of this month, a visitor to Central Park could spot a small battalion of forklifts hoisting stacks of steel bases from pallets piled twelve wide and eight high. In a nearby construction trailer, a message is scrawled on a white board: “We completed in one month 13,144 bases in & stacked. Good job. Happy New Year!”

Thirty blocks south, four trailers sit clustered in a parking lot behind the Boathouse Restaurant. The scene is part construction site, part gypsy encampment, and part back lot at the circus. One trailer houses Albert Maysles, the trim, white-haired documentarian who’s made films about several of the Christos’ past projects. In another trailer, there’s an office for Wolfgang Volz, the Christos’ official photographer. Another trailer houses the project’s main office, its walls papered in maps, schematic drawings, and posters of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s previous works.

In the office, Jonita Davenport, a petite, well-coiffed woman in round glasses and a fleece vest, shuttles between a massive desk, files of media requests, a huge wall map of Central Park, and a ringing phone that’s as insistent as a bawling baby. She traces a finger along the map’s highlighted pathways, then halts. “This is as far as we’ve come,” she says. “You can follow the bases by the orange safety cones on them—except where the cones have been stolen.” (Indeed, one such pilfered cone later turned up on eBay, priced at $9.99.)

A few days after our initial conversation, Jeanne-Claude tells me, “Christo is no longer working seventeen hours a day. Now he is working 22 hours a day! Only two days this week he did not work 22 hours. On those, he worked through the night!”

She’s fond of comparing their works to children, and has said they’d no more choose a favorite work than they’d single out a favorite child. (They have only one child, Cyril Christo, a poet who lives in Santa Fe.) I ask her, though, if The Gates isn’t a little more special for them, given the fact that it’s happening in their hometown of New York. “You must understand, it is the very first time in our lives that we are doing a project without jet lag!” she says. Then, after a pause, she says, “It is a great joy, yes.”

On one abnormally warm recent morning, the Christos took a chauffeured car uptown to watch their work being born. They arrived to a park draped in fog. They emerged from the car: Christo tall and thin, gently smiling, his seventies-era Woody Allen glasses discarded for more elegant frames; Jeanne-Claude’s dyed-saffron hair vibrant against the gray mist. Then they strolled, hand in hand, up a path lined with metal bases, to where a TV reporter waited for an interview. As the cameraman peered into his viewfinder, looking to frame his shot, Christo and Jeanne-Claude nuzzled closer to each other, and Christo gave an instruction to the cameraman: “Together, please, together. Always together.”

A Walk in the Park
Making sense of The Gates.

The Gates at a Glance
A vast project made simple.


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