Two New York City bloggers have revealed the possible inspiration of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates Central Park, New York, 1979-2005” as a makeover of an ancient Shinto temple in Kyoto, Japan. The Central Park installation mirrored in surprising ways the torii, or gates, at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, an 8th Century temple dedicated to Inari, the god of rice and sake. Andy Carvin, of nycgates.blogspot raised the question on Feb. 9, followed three days later by Frank Patrick, a corporate productivity blogger and self-described Asiaphile.

“The Gates” covered 23 miles (37 kilometers) of Central Park walkways with 7,500 fabric-draped gates in a shade of orange referred to exclusively as “saffron” by the artists. Over 10,000 orange-and-black torii line the four kilometers of mountain trails that connect the Fushimi shrine complex in Kyoto.

Nowhere in Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s press release is the Japanese influence cited. But, “there’s no denying the reference [sic] to Torii by Christo,” according to Julian on the Friendster message board dedicated to Christo. “I wonder if Christo and Jeanne-Claude have ever been there …” blogged Carvin, whose blog was mentioned in a New York Times preview of “The Gates.” He described his blog on his first post as “an experiment in community art criticism.”

Patrick was surprised to find that only “a couple German web sites” made the connection between torii and “The Gates.” He drew a clear connection to between the two constructions, both in color and in the “concept of a path of gates.”

Adriana Proser, the curator of traditional Asian art at the Asia Society in Manhattan, agreed. “There was some influence there,” she said. “Certainly that very bright reddish-orange color is typical of these kind of Shinto gateways.” Proser also mentioned the distinct differences between the gates of Christo and Kyoto: the torii don’t have the curtains and the shapes are different. “Conceptually,” she said, “you can see the connection.”

The only major newspapers to mention this connection were the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. But none of these articles were written by staff reporters.

Newsday gave an opinion column to Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, a resident minister at The New York Buddhist Church in Manhattan. Rev. Nakagaki wrote his opinion as a poem, with no line having more than 15 syllables. The opening lines are:

“All of a sudden,

Familiar, colored, shaped gates have appeared in Central Park.

Are they Torii gates? …”

Mark C. Taylor, a visiting professor in architecture and religion at Columbia University wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “The Gates bears an uncanny resemblance to the torii gates of Shinto's Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. In Buddhism, the robe of the Buddha, and of his monks, is saffron.” Taylor is, not a reporter.

The New York Times would have missed the torii connection completely if it weren’t for an astute reader from Seattle who wrote a letter to the editor. Philip L. Bereano wrote:

The impetus for Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's ''Gates'' may well be the Fushimi Inari shrine outside Kyoto, Japan. This temple complex is best known for the avenues of hundreds of wooden, scarlet torii (gates) framing the paths extending miles up onto the hills behind the shrine, and are clearly visible from the valley below.

No Kyoto tourist who learns about the Central Park ''Gates'' would fail to make the connection.

Matthew McKelway, professor of Japanese art history at NYU, wasn’t surprised that critics failed to notice the connection between the Gates and torii. The correlation seemed obvious to him and his colleagues – so similar “that it wasn’t worth commenting on.”

“There’s a strong possibility,” McKelway said, “that there’s a conscious connection between what [Christo and Jeanne-Claude] have done and the Fushimi Inari Shrine.”

Patrick, the blogger, admits the similarities do not make the two collections of orange entryways identical, “due to the difference of environments between mid-town Manhattan and a small town in Japan.” But the differences don’t stop there. Inari, the god of the harvest, has come to be associated with financial success – each of the torii at the Kyoto temple is inscribed with the name of a business or successful family. Every well-known Japanese business has a torii at Kyoto – a mixture of corporate sponsorship and religion uncommon in the West. “The Gates” of Central Park, in contrast, received no corporate funding and was paid for exclusively by the artists to be exhibited and then recycled.

No one associated with Christo and Jeanne-Claude returned calls or emails before deadline.


The Japanese gates, below, from the Fushimi Inari Shrine reveal Christo and Jeanne-Claude's possible inspiration for their Central Park installation.

All photos: courtesy Dan Hagerman

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