February 10, 2005
Central Park Makeover: Reality Show, in a Way
By CAROL VOGEL
The volunteers installing Christo's "Gates" in Central Park share a resolve to be a part of the city's biggest public-art happening ever.
Paid volunteers raising part of the "Gates" installation in Central Park.
Slide Show: It's a Wrap
Video: Work Begins on "The Gates"
t 6:45 a.m. on Tuesday, as the sun was beginning to rise over Central Park, the Loeb Boathouse was buzzing. The artist Christo stood outside, admiring the way the soft morning light bathed the orange gates that teams of workers had put into place on Monday.
It was Day Two of installing his vast $20 million public art project, created with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, and there was a sense that there was no time to lose. So far, 261 16-foot-tall gates had sprouted around the park. By tomorrow evening, 7,500 will have to be in place along the park's pedestrian walkways from 59th Street to 110th Street, in time for the saffron-colored fabric that adorns the gates to be unfurled around 8:30 on Saturday morning. (The project will remain through Feb. 27.)
Inside the boathouse, the 600-odd paid volunteers enlisted for the five-day job were chatting over coffee and rolls, waiting to head off to their assigned areas. Things had gotten off to a slow start on Monday. It had taken time for the workers to assemble, find their work areas and figure out the most efficient way to work.
Still, every team seemed competitively conscious of its accomplishments. "We installed 27 gates yesterday," boasted Ann W. Richards, the former governor from Texas.
"There's something magical about people coming together for a common purpose without something for them to gain," she added. "I'm having a ball."
"There's real energy," agreed Antoine Douaihy, who oversees 150 people in 14 teams as the leader of Area One - extending from 59th Street to 65th Street and from Fifth Avenue to Central Park West - and in real life works in film production. "One team refused to stop until they had put up 25 gates."
Also savoring the scene was Anne L. Strauss, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who organized an exhibition of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "Gates"-related drawings, collages, photographs and maps last year. "There are a lot of art people here," she said.
While each team seemed diverse in age and profession, from college students to retired teachers and doctors, all had a common bond: a resolve to be a part of the city's biggest public-art happening ever.
By 7:30 a.m., after a pep talk from Vince Davenport, the project's chief engineer and construction director, and from Capt. Andrew Capul, commanding officer of the Central Park Precinct, everyone headed off to their assigned areas.
Although Mr. Douaihy called the 261 gates installed on Monday a "respectable" figure, he said that 400 to 500 more would have to go up Tuesday if the effort was to be completed by Friday.
Cruising around the park in a golf cart, he consulted with Guy Efrat, one of the area's so-called "zone supervisors." (Each area is divided into zones, and each zone into teams.) Mr. Efrat, who also works in movie production, was overseeing three teams in Mr. Douaihy's area.
Like mutual strangers in a reality television show, each team felt somewhat randomly thrown together. But often, the common strand was art: Area One, Section 10, for instance, was made up of a performance artist, an advertising art director, a retired doctor/Yale University professor, a sculptor/gilder, an architect, an architectural draftsman, a freelance stagehand and a recent college graduate who is on his way to become an intern at the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary-art organization in Marfa, Tex.
"I've never seen so many artsy people in my life," said Huascar Pimentel, the stagehand, who is one of the professional workers that was assigned to the team. "These guys are great - they don't mind getting their hands dirty."
Nor did the men mind taking directions from a woman, although some of them joked about it. ("You don't see this much cooperation in the workplace," said Robert Steigelman, the advertising art director.) Catherine Courter, the sculptor and gilder, had been named the team's captain by the organizers. Michael Bianco, the recent graduate, and Arvin Garay-Cruz, the architect, had been asked to be the "levelers," the team members who made sure that the steel plates anchoring the poles in heavy bases were installed correctly.
Each worker had attended a four-hour training session last week where the professionals took notes on those who demonstrated leadership ability (potential team captains) or mechanical ability (levelers).
It took only about three minutes for the workers to actually hoist a gate into place. The hard part was using the right size horizontal poles (which depended on the width of walkways) and wielding nuts, bolts and wrenches to attach parts like the orange boxlike sleeves that conceal the metal plates. And some spots were more difficult than others. On heavily trafficked paths, installers often had to stop working to let pedestrians pass. Hilly or narrow paths were harder to work on.
And then there was the saccharine music emanating nonstop from the ice rink. And the remarks of passersby. "I can't work it out - it horrifies me that this is costing $20 million, I don't care who's paying for it," a man carrying a briefcase said as he hurried past the workers of Area One, Section 10, on West 59th Street behind the Wollman Skating Rink.
Still, most people who stopped to chat had positive reactions. "I'm not sure about the color, but I'm a fan," Douglas F. Eaton, a United States District Court judge, said after his daily round of skating.
On Monday the team members installed only 18 gates. But by 10:15 on Tuesday morning they were already putting up the 11th of the day. The key was establishing a rhythm: one person repeatedly readied the equipment for the levelers, and the levelers would begin their task as others trundled the gates over to their assigned positions.
"This is my cheap and cheerful vacation," Robert Condon, the architectural draftsman, said, holding a pole in position. By noon the team headed back to the boathouse for lunch, leaving Mr. Pimentel behind to watch the equipment. (That job rotates among teammates each day.)
"Can you believe it, this was conceived the year I was born?" Mr. Cruz, 26, said as the group ambled toward the boathouse. (Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been working on "The Gates" since 1979.)
"If you look at one gate, it's ugly, it looks like a guillotine," he mused. "It's the multiplicity of them that makes it a total artwork."
"The more go up, the cooler it looks," Ms. Courter agreed over lunch in the packed boathouse. Team members sat together, chatting happily while keeping a wary ear open to find out how many gates the other teams had installed.
Then it was back to their assigned area near the rink. By 4 p.m., Area One, Section 10, had managed to install a total of 35 gates. Exhausted, the team members returned their supplies to a nearby staging area and began planning for Wednesday.
After ticking off the completed gates on a map, Ms. Courter started counting those that would have to be installed on Wednesday.
"Thirty-five again tomorrow," she said. "No problem."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company