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  BEHIND THESE GATES LURKS THE CULT OF CHRISTO.  
   
   
 

They lug large poles around Central Park, sweating in February with smiles on their faces. Passersby cuss at them and tell them they're full of shit, that their work is stupid, useless, a waste. But they love laboring outdoors for $5.40 an hour and a hot meal. They're workers for Christo and Jeanne-Claude's latest mega-installation, The Gates. And they're all a little obsessed.

"There is a cult-type feeling, I think, with some people," says Karen Fulks, a 53-year-old "professional organizer" who's helping install The

 
 

Gates. "I know there are people in our group even; at lunchtime they saw that there was an extra table next to Christo and Jeanne-Claude and they were freaking out."

About 600 people, New York locals and visitors, signed on to work on The Gates. They're a varied lot, to be sure, but they end up falling into two main categories: You got your twenty- and thirty-something slackers, and you got your bored older folks. (There are even rumors

       
 

floating around that Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, is among the ranks.)

All of these people have come to help Christo realize his dream: to droop 7,500 pieces of orange fabric from 7,500 orange frames in the park. Sure, there are loftier dreams out there, but don't tell that to the workers, who speak of the artist as if he were their messiah.

"He's a cult-type person," Fulks iterates. "I don't have that feeling, but I just admire him for doing it." She admires him so much that she didn't mind when Christo and Jeanne-Claude accosted her at one point and asked her why she wasn't working. Fulks was waiting for supplies to arrive, but the dynamic duo ended up leaving in a huff. "If they scream and they freak out," she says, "it's their right. This is their baby."

Fulks came all the way from Los Angeles to work on the project. This is her second time to kneel at the altar of Christo. In 1991 she helped

 
         

him install the California portion of The Umbrellas. "I did it because I'm not an artist," she says, "and it's my little part of doing art."

Josh Levine is an environmental artist who's also a true believer. "This is Christo," he says. "This is like a painter working with Picasso or a sculptor working with Michelangelo."

New York-based Levine is no stranger to large-scale projects. He's the creator of the Garbasail, a contraption that you're going to have to Google to understand. The 32-year-old says he signed up for The Gates over four years ago. He wanted to learn more about the man, the myth, and to see what it was like to work with him -- or, rather, for him.

"Every time I've seen Christo so far," says Levine, "he kind of just shows up in the room and says, 'Hey, we're here.' Then he speaks for about five or six minutes and then they're ushered out quickly and that's the end of it."

Levine can't quite figure out how Christo made the leap from regular artist to superstar. "When did it happen?" he asks. Christo started out wrapping boxes, and then he stacked a bunch of oil barrels on a dock in Cologne, Germany. Next thing you know, he got permission to wrap the entire Kunsthalle in Bern, a project he completed in 1968.

It's been 37 years since the Kunsthalle project and the cult of Christo is showing no signs of attrition. Almost everyone working in Central Park can tell you that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been planning the project for 26 years; that the couple doesn't accept any outside funding for their projects; and that they do a lot more than wrapping. When it comes to The Gates, these disciples know how many tons of steel (5,290); how many linear feet of fabric (315,491); and how many miles of thread (116,389) it's going to take for the project. They are apt pupils of Christo's bible, a.k.a. the F.A.Q. section of his Web site.

Yes, the followers of Christo have studied the gospel, but that doesn't mean they can explain his role as an artist. Christo and his wife, you see, lay claim to all the glory without getting their hands dirty -- not that his disciples are looking for much credit. They know The Gates wouldn't be

 
 

 

The Magic of Christo... Exposed!


A magical truck, packed with steel, arrives at the park.


The steel is then lined up into magical piles.


Then, like the Marines on the Sands of Iwo Jima, the magical helper-slaves assemble and lift the steel gates into place.


And viola! A massive, magical art thingamabob.


Don't forget to visit the magical merchandise table!

 

 
     
 

possible without Christo, and they're more than willing to sweat for his monument.

"There's no purpose to what we're doing," says Levine, "and I think that's why everyone is so willing to do it. If it was a job, if we were painting yellow lines on the street for Bloomberg, no one would want to do it. I think the fact that's it not for anything but art is what motivates people."

Levine has done a lot of thinking about his idol, but it's the enthusiasm of his younger cohorts that keeps the cult alive. The youth, after all, have always followed their icons without question. (See Simpson, Ashlee.) Jonas Brewer and Ross Fraser, 20- and 21-years-old, respectively, both came in from Nashville to work on the project from start to finish.

"We're both Geminis, just like Christo and Jeanne-Claude," says Brewer. "The other day at training -- that was really surreal, because we finally got to see them for real."

"People have all these deep thoughts about what it means," says Fraser. "But it's just fucking cool. It looks neat. That's why I'm here."

These two are throwing themselves into the project, often hanging around Central Park afterwards just to soak it all in. They've given their hearts and bodies over to Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

"There were a few people on our crew who did hurt their hands," says Brewer. "There was actually a little bit of blood on one of the pieces."

But so far no one has been hurt seriously during the installation of The Gates. The cult has been playing it cool. Another tragedy like the one that happened back in 1991 could soil the messiah's legacy forever.

"The Umbrellas -- that had an unfortunate ending," recalls Fulks. "Someone actually died. An umbrella fell on them."

"What most people don't realize is, the woman had cancer and she literally had weeks to live," she says. "She went up to one of the umbrellas to grab onto it because she was starting to falter. And the wind came by -- it was a totally freak accident -- and it fell and crushed her.

"What a great way to die! I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but what a cool way to die!"

All great religions, it seems, are founded on a little bloodshed.

 

Keith Plocek is a staff writer for The Houston Press. He first learned about Christo when Lisa mentioned him in an episode of The Simpsons. He's been kneeling at the altar ever since.