Souvenir swatches of saffron

Fans, entrepreneurs snapping up bits of woven history

For the Record

February 27, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

The free saffron-colored fabric squares handed out at Central Park's mega-art installation The Gates the past two weeks are in demand - and not just as souvenirs.

Kate Rooney, for instance, says the pair she acquired just might work as pasties. Others who have obtained these mementos of the monumental orange objet d'art have more prosaic ideas: using them to patch jeans, as jewelry (dangly earrings and pins) or as the centerpiece of a pillow cover.

Gates artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude anticipated visitors' desire to touch and even keep bits of their artwork, which features 9-foot lengths of orange rip-stop fabric hung from 16-foot-tall orange vinyl "gates." So the duo ordered additional cloth and had it cut into squares and handed out. By the end of the project today, one million swatches will have been passed out on a first-come, first-served basis.

"In reality it is to stop vandalism," says Harrison Rivera-Terreaux, a spokesman for the project. "People do want a physical souvenir."

At about 2 3/4 inches square, each swatch is only about the size of a Post-It note. But they seem to have helped placate the masses. As of last week, only about half-dozen panels had to be replaced due to human tampering, said Rivera-Terreaux.

The swatches, which feel a lot like seatbelt material and are flame-retardant, needed to be cut into squares with a laser. From the time the exhibit opened in Central Park on Feb. 12, the swatches became must-have souvenirs. Josh Levine, one of 200 official monitors charged with distributing the fabric squares, said handing them out often resembles "a pigeon frenzy."

Levine takes his job very seriously: "People will pass them on in their wills," he said. "Of course, that is what I'm going to do with mine."

Anja Hernandez mailed one to her mother in Berlin, who will keep it with a similar gray swatch she received while viewing Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Wrapped Reichstag in 1995. The artists hand out swatches at all their installations, said Rivera-Terreaux.

Several visitors hoped to collect multiple swatches and create larger items from them, including a hamster-sized version of The Gates, a quilt and a puffy mini-skirt. One charitable (if somewhat misguided) visitor insisted the full fabric panels should be converted into tents for tsunami victims, said Monica Wille, a monitor.

For some, a swatch is not enough. One snowy day last week, someone took a sharp blade to a gate and sliced off an entire panel of the material. (It was replaced with impressive speed.)

Others, like New Yorker Brad Klein, merely dream about a larger souvenir: He imagines hanging one of the billowing saffron panels off his shower rod.

Naturally, the free scraps of fabric quickly appeared on the online auction site eBay, fetching $10 to $25 each. In fact, an entire cottage industry of items connected to The Gates sprouted up online in the past two weeks. Objects for sale on eBay include socks embroidered with The Gates logo, plastic "cocoons" that swaddled the orange fabric before it was released, and even a cardboard tube said to have held the fabric before it was installed.

A minor flap emerged over the ethics of selling this stuff - particularly any items deemed stolen. Rick Reynolds of Florence, Ky., said he received angry e-mail messages even after bidding on a legally obtained swatch. "One guy said `the seller is a lowlife and the person buying it is the same,' " he said. The e-taunt, though, didn't prevent him from spending $22 for a swatch, which he plans to frame and hang on a wall.

After tomorrow, when the exhibition begins to be dismantled, the little patches of cloth may become even more valuable.

According to the artists, the entire installation of 7,500 gates will be completely recycled. Individual gates won't be sold, although numerous and generous offers have been made. And nobody will be able to upholster furniture in Christo and Jeanne-Claude's bolts of saffron - unless, of course, they can gather up enough swatches.

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