Gilding the walks of Central Park

Christo's `Gates' to billow in the wind for just two weeks

February 12, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

NEW YORK - Volunteers have been racing to put the finishing touches on thousands of orange plastic crossbeams fitted with tightly furled golden fabric panels.

Hotels are filling up, restaurants are offering specially prepared - and sometimes color-coordinated - dishes, tour operators are bracing for an onslaught of out-of-towners joining their bus, bike and walking tours. An army of merchandisers is poised to take their share of the $80 million windfall that the artwork is expected to generate for the city.

And everywhere, people are waiting to actually see the whimsical, quirky but grandly conceived public artwork they've been hearing about for months.

Today, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the husband-and-wife artists who once wrapped Berlin's Reichstag in fabric and erected thousands of umbrellas across California and Japan, will unfurl their latest creation: a serpentine corridor of 7,500 saffron-colored banners stretching along 23 miles of pedestrian paths in Central Park.

If all goes well, about 600 workers will loosen more than a million square feet of fabric from their orange supports starting about 7 a.m., realizing a dream the artists first had in 1979: a luminous golden ceiling billowing above pedestrians' heads in the historic park many consider a work of art in itself.

"Just think that in 1981, the Parks Commission wrote a 415-page book basically to say `no' to us," Jeanne-Claude said last week. "After that ... we thought our next project would be Over the River," she added, referring to a work the artists had been planning in Colorado since 1992.

"But then the miracle happened," Jeanne-Claude said. "Our friend Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor. And now he's supporting us not because he loves our work, but because he loves New York City."

The project will cost $21 million, all of it raised by the artists from the sale of drawings.

Titled The Gates, it is a deliberately ephemeral artwork that will last just 16 days before workers dismantle it and return the park to its original condition.

But during that time New Yorkers and their guests will have the chance to celebrate the recovery of a city and an economy that had been demoralized by the devastating terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"The Gates will be the biggest public art project in New York City's history - and funded entirely by the artists," an enthusiastic Bloomberg predicted this week. "People know it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience; that's why they're coming from all over the world to see it."

New York is ready to welcome them with open arms. The city's tourism board says an extra 50,000 hotel rooms have been reserved for the two weeks The Gates will be up.

Even before today's unveiling, the project has attracted hundreds of volunteers to the city to help install the 7,500 gates from which the banners will hang. Many have worked on previous installations, others were drawn to participate in this, the first that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have done in their adopted city of New York.

Among the workers who were organized into teams of eight, responsible for erecting 100 gates each, was former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, seen this week raising crossbeams with surprisingly youthful energy for a 71-year-old just inside the park at Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street.

"It's important for people to see beautiful public art," the famously straight-talking politician said. "And I like projects that bring people together when there's nothing in it for them."

There will be something for the city's tourism industry, though, as The Gates is expected to draw at least 2 million visitors eager to share the artists' vision simply by being there and becoming part of the event.

By experiencing the work directly, viewers participate vicariously in Christo and Jeanne-Claude's creative process, their presence transforming the ephemeral object into a permanent memory that is like a beautifully wrapped gift.

Many hotels and tour operators have designed packages around the event, boosting their business during a traditionally slow time of year for vacation travel to Manhattan.

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel New York, for example, is offering a Gates package starting at $1,050 a night for a room overlooking the park, breakfast, snacks, a book about The Gates published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art - and a loaner pair of binoculars.

Picking up on the color of The Gates' fabric panels, restaurants will offer saffron-themed dishes, such as the pasta rigatoni alla donna at La Prima Donna, which manager Mohamed Choayra described as "pasta with hot and sweet Italian sausage, green beans and creamy tomato sauce."

At Django, the saffron specialty will be the bouillabaisse, a fish stew made with red snapper, clams, mussels and lobster.

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