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'The Gates' transforms Central Park

By Simon Hooper for CNN

Is "The Gates"...
Good art?
Bad art?
A waste of money?
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"The Gates" opens for a 16-day stay in Central Park.
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(CNN) -- A piece of artwork described as the largest in New York's history has been unveiled in Central Park, more than 40 years after its creators were first inspired to use the city as a backdrop for their work.

"The Gates" consists of 7,500 16-foot vinyl frames lining 23 miles of the park's footpaths.

Saffron-colored fabric panels hang from each frame, forming a "golden ceiling creating warm shadows," according to artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

It is 26 years since the pair, whose previous work includes wrapping the German Reichstag in silver fabric, first attempted to persuade New York's authorities to support the project, a gestation period reflected in the artwork's official title "The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005."

But the Bulgarian-French husband-and-wife team had dreamt of creating a vast piece of environmental art in the city ever since moving to New York from Paris, attracted by the thriving art scene, 41 years ago.

"Our aspiration to create a major public work of art for New York began when we emigrated from Europe in 1964," they said.

"During the 1970s, while creating projects elsewhere but continuing to live and work in New York, we remained committed to succeeding in completing a major outdoor work of art in the city."

Turned down repeatedly in the years that followed, "The Gates" was finally approved in 2003 following Michael Bloomberg's election as mayor.

"'The Gates' -- the largest artwork in our city's history -- will add immensely to New York's rich history of public art," said Bloomberg.

"Innovative works of art provoke debate, spark our imaginations, and help us re-define the space we live in. 'The Gates' will bring that experience to those who come and see it."

New York authorities predict the installation could be worth as much as $80 million to the city in tourist revenues.

But all costs involved with its staging, estimated at $20 million, have been met by the artists, who refuse to accept sponsorship or donations towards funding their work. Their only revenue from the project will come from selling sketches, drawings and paintings made in the course of its planning.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude insist they have no favored vantage point from which to view their installation. Rather, they say, visitors to the park should wander freely, witnessing the changing hue of the saffron as the light shifts and the fabrics flutter in the breeze.

"You need to spend time walking," advised Christo. "You have cold air, sunny day, rainy day, even snow. Spend time experiencing the project."

In a city with a long tradition of confident self-expression it is perhaps no surprise that "The Gates" has divided opinion. The New York Times heralded it as "a work of pure joy, a vast populist spectacle of good will and simple eloquence, the first great public art event of the 21st century."

But contributors to the paper's letters page were less convinced of the project's merits.

"Am I the only one who dislikes (to put it mildly) the orange poles and saffron material so ubiquitously and obtrusively installed in our beloved Central Park? It is in my opinion bad art, an example of extreme hubris and not pleasing to look at," wrote one Manhattanite, while another said the project had ruined the park's "natural beauty and simplicity."

Whether loved or loathed, "The Gates" is scheduled to come down on February 27, with the steel, nylon and fabric from which the artwork is constructed scheduled for recycling.

But its artists insist the project's temporary status is essential to the concept.

"The temporary quality is an aesthetic decision," they said. "Our works are temporary in order to endow the works of art with a feeling of urgency to be seen, and the love and tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last.

"Those feelings are usually reserved for other temporary things such as childhood and our own life. These are valued because we know that they will not last. We want to offer this feeling of love and tenderness to our works."

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