When New York artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude unveiled their latest - very orange - work in Central Park over the weekend, they realized a 26-year artistic dream. But they also helped the city showcase its revitalization efforts.
Winding through 23 miles of the refurbished park, "The Gates" project involves more than 7,500 temporary structures from which luminous orange fabric hangs. Already, people are walking under the gates, which stand 16 feet tall and use more than a million feet of ripstop nylon.
City officials are touting the massive undertaking as a sign that New York has recovered from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They hope to impress not only the tens of thousands of tourists from the United States and abroad who are coming to see "The Gates," but also members of the Olympic site-selection committee who will visit during the installation.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a supporter of public art, championed the $20 million work, which was paid for entirely by the artists. He expects "The Gates" to boost the local economy by an estimated $80 million during a typically slow month and to be the source of much discussion. "That's really what innovative, provocative art is supposed to do - provoke debate, spark our imagination, help us redefine the spaces that we live in," he told reporters on Friday.
The influence of the largest art installation in the city's history is visible around Manhattan, from orange scarves to restaurants serving dishes with saffron sauce. (Saffron is what Christo and Jeanne-Claude prefer to call the color, which they chose for its aesthetic appeal.) People's language, too, reflects a festive mood.
"It feels like it's celebratory, and there've been so many things [lately] that have not been," says Diane Sunshine, making her way to Central Park from Manhattan's Upper East Side on Saturday.
New works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude usually turn into major events, with their followers, many of whom are international, showing up to marvel at the scale of the projects or participating in the crew the artists pay to help them. In the past, the pair has used synthetic fabric to wrap a coastline in Sydney, surround islands in Biscayne Bay in Miami, and wrap the Reichstag building in Berlin. They also created undulating hills of huge umbrellas in California and Japan. Interacting with the people and natural materials in the environments is a key part of their work.
Audiences have found these grand-scale installations so inspiring that some people want to participate.
"I love the idea of being a part of making a beautiful thing," says Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas, who worked with other paid volunteers to erect the 7,500 gates last week. She likes the concept of people who don't know each other working together in a common purpose. "This is sort of like a [political] campaign," she said on Saturday morning after helping to unfurl some nylon fabric. "There's a beginning, and a lot of hard work with a lot of people coming together for a short period of time, and then there's the culmination."
Christo and Jeanne-Claude first envisioned "The Gates" back in 1979, not long after the pair moved to the US from Europe. Wanting to pay homage to all the walking New Yorkers do - and knowing they would never be able to get permits to do anything on the sidewalks - the duo turned to Central Park. Back then, the city rejected the project, in part because the park was in need of too much help. But eventually, as park renovations took hold and the artists changed their design (holes in the ground were no longer required for stabilizing the gates, for example), the logistical barriers became fewer.
On Saturday, people reacted to the art for the first time, as the nylon fabric with prep-school skirt pleats billowed in the chilly wind after a mass unfurling that took hours.
"It's something that should have been done after 9/11," suggests Bonnie Wyper, who ran an art gallery in Rhode Island in the late 1970s that included some of Christo's drawings. "The city should have done ... something like this to say, 'Look, here we are. We're proud of our culture and our heritage and what artists do.' "
She finds "The Gates" to be beautiful and colorful, and praises Christo. "To me he's one of the most important artists of the 20th century because he creates these extraordinary pieces of art with monumental effort and they're transient."
That "The Gates" will be around only for 16 days, until Feb. 27, before being dismantled and recycled, is an important aspect of the couple's work. They prefer to make their projects temporary in part because it creates an urgency for them to be seen.
"The temporary character ... is an aesthetic decision," Jeanne-Claude told the press Friday. "We wish to give to our work of art a quality of love and tenderness that is usually reserved for what will not last," things like childhood and human life.
Many New Yorkers find the splash of color against the bleak midwinter landscape to be bright and refreshing. Others do not.
"It makes no sense to me, and for $20 million, it really makes no sense," says Michelle, a fashion designer from Manhattan who thinks the money could have been spent on other things and wonders about the art itself. "What does it do, what's the purpose?" she asks while out walking her dogs.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude say there is no message, no symbolism, no purpose to "The Gates" other than to be art.
The evenly spaced gates mimic the grid of city blocks that surround the park, and the movable fabric is meant to help underscore the serpentine nature of the walkways by creating a river of color along the paths.
To questions of what is the art for, Jeanne-Claude responds, "Absolutely nothing. It's only a work of art."