It's a wrap: the wonderful world of Christo

It has been 12 years in conception, but the Bulgarian artist's vision for Central Park is ready to be unveiled. By David Usborne
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The Independent US

In a cold winter rain yesterday, an army of New York City workers were using fork lifts to place thousands of specially designed steel bases along 23 miles (37km) of footpaths in Central Park in preparation for an extravagant new outdoor exhibit conceived by the artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude.

In a cold winter rain yesterday, an army of New York City workers were using fork lifts to place thousands of specially designed steel bases along 23 miles (37km) of footpaths in Central Park in preparation for an extravagant new outdoor exhibit conceived by the artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude.

Into the steel bases will eventually slot vinyl poles that will give form to no fewer than 7,500 gates. On 12 February, the entire creation will come to life when curtains of saffron-coloured cloth will be unfurled from the top of each gate to hang 7 feet (about 2.1m) above the ground.

The completed installation will be the culmination of 25 years of effort by Christo, who is Bulgarian, and his French wife to bring their inspiration to the world's most famous park. Requests for permits to use Central Park were rebuffed in 1979 and it was only after Michael Bloomberg became mayor that the city acquiesced.

For two weeks in February, residents of the city and tourists will be able to follow the course of the gates, which from above will resemble a giant serpent threaded through the park. The artists, who are perhaps most famous for wrapping world monuments such as the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Berlin Reichstag, said they had chosen February because the leafless trees would make for better viewing of their work.

Best of all, perhaps, New Yorkers will not see a penny of their tax money spent on an enterprise that was described by Jeanne Claude this week as "good for nothing art".

The couple, who this week arrived at Central Park to inspect the preparations aboard a Maybach limousine could not say exactly how much The Gates will cost, but guessed at $12m (£6.4m). "We truly don't know," Jeanne-Claude told reporters. "It is very much like a child. It will cost us whatever it has to cost." As is their custom, the pair will foot the bill, whatever it is. They do not seek sponsorship and all of their outdoor art installations are funded by the sale of Christo artworks at auction.

Mr Bloomberg, meanwhile, hopes that the transformation of Central Park, if only for a fortnight, will bring half a million extra visitors to the city and generate new tourist spending of $71m. It's a wonder that previous mayors did not see the bargain for the city that lay behind the Christo proposal.

As for the point of turning Central Park orange in the middle of winter, Jeanne Claude contends there is none. "We create works of joy and beauty. We do not create messages. We do not create symbols. We create works of art," she argued. "All works of art are good for nothing, except to be a work of art."

But Christo even even more blunt: "Nobody needs The Gates. It's totally irrational, irresponsible, useless, with no justification, with no reason to exist except we like it."

If The Gates is nothing more than whimsy, then the timing is surely less than fortunate. The money they are spending - including a $3m fee for the use of Central Park - might have been put to better use, not least with the tsunami relief fund. But, then again, when tragedy saturates headlines, what better time to find beauty in art?

Christo's designs

SURROUNDED ISLANDS

In 1983, the Christo's splashed the waters off Miami a violent pink. More precisely, they laid down more than 6.5 million square-feet of fabric around 11 islands in the coastal waters and causeways of the greater Miami area. Two pairs of islands actually merged into one once the surrounding fabric was put in place.Evoking a blooming of hibiscus in the ocean, the project was special because the material, cut to fit the outlines of the islands and sewn together in a nearby rented factory, had to be floated by means of special booms. It took 430 people to unfurl the fabric and 140 people to monitor the installation aboard boats while it remained in place. For the two weeks it existed Surrounded Islands spread over 7 miles (11.3km) and was seen, approached and enjoyed by the public from the causeways, the land, the water and the air. The luminous pink colour of the shiny fabric was in harmony with the tropical vegetation of the uninhabited verdant island, the light of the Miami sky and the colours of the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay. Marine and land crews removed some 40 tons of garbage, including refrigerator doors, tires, kitchen sinks, mattresses and an abandoned boat, before the work was installed.

UMBERELLAS

Not so much an exercise in wrapping, but rather in punctuating natural landscapes with vivid colour, the Christos peppered two valleys - one in Japan, the other in California - with blue and yellow umbrellas in late 1991. In Tejon Pass in California the artist's umbrellas were yellow against the brown and sage brush of the land. Thousands of miles away in a valley 75 miles north of Japan's capital, Tokyo, the landscape was turned blue. The fabric and steel umbrellas echoed the geographic contours of both areas and stayed in place - as with all Christo's installations - for just two weeks before being removed from the areas.

WRAPPED TREES

One of the more recent Christo endeavours was the wrapping of 178 trees in a park in the town of Riehen, Switzerland. In late 1998, the park was transformed into bulging shapes of translucent silver. As with many Christo works, the ropes holding the fabric in place around the trees were crucial to the visual impact. Branches seemed to fight with the material, held tightly to the form of the trees by the ropes. The wrapped trees also had another thing in common with many of Christo's projects: it took decades, in this case a total of 32 years, for the Belgian artist to get permission to complete an installation that only remained in place for two weeks.

PONT NEUF

It has been almost 20 years since Parisians woke up one autumn day to find their beloved Pont enclosed in 450,000 square-feet of sandstone-coloured fabric. Christo, of course, was the culprit. And so the bridge, built in 1606, remained under cover for two weeks. Nothing was left unadorned, not the lamp-posts crossing the bridge or even the pavement. Pedestrians found themselves walking on the polyamide wrapping. The effect was to soften the outlines of the bridge in a way that was considered transformative by critics, who continue to hail the transformation of the Pont Neuf as Christo's most sculptural achievement.

REICHSTAG

Arguably the most enduring vision created by Christo was that of the Reichstag in Berlin wrapped entirely in aluminium fabric for two weeks in 1995. The power of the installation rested partly in the choice of the building, symbolising the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany's reunification and the end of the Soviet Union. Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, personally lobbied more than 300 members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the necessary permits. Because the material used was almost double the size of the surface of the building itself, the wrapped Reichstag seemed almost to move in the wind. Ten companies in Germany started in September 1994 to manufacture all the various materials needed for the project. During April, May and June 1995, iron workers installed the steel structures to allow the fabric to cascade from the roof down to the ground.

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