NEW YORK -- With flowing fabric that evoked the colors of a sunrise, ''The Gates," a huge public art installation in the Christo style, was unfurled yesterday for the start of a 16-day stay. The event transformed perspectives along miles of footpaths in Central Park.
The project opened with Mayor Michael Bloomberg dropping a first piece of saffron-colored fabric, to the cheers of a huge crowd. He was joined by the exhibit's creators, Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
The crowd counted down the seconds before Bloomberg opened the exhibition at 8:30 a.m.
The weather was windy and cold as the first fabric dropped from one of the 7,500 gates, each 16 feet high. The artists had billed the exhibit as ''a visual golden river"; it spans 23 miles of the park's footpaths. More than 1 million square feet of fabric was used by the artists.
Its official title, ''The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005," refers to the artists' conception of the idea 26 years ago. It took about two hours to drop the fabric from all the gates.
''It's a bit insane, but that's why everybody is here," said Ali Naqui, who added he was brought to the unveiling against his will by his fiancée.
Among the first people there were 17 fourth-graders from an elementary school in Queens. The group boarded a bus before sunrise and made the trip into Manhattan, where they were impressed by the spectacle.
''It's a waste of money, but it's fabulous," one student, Shakana Jayson, said of the effort, which could cost as much as $21 million. ''It brings happiness when you look at it."
The artists have said there is no best place to see the piece, but art connoisseurs and the merely curious staked out the best views. One spectator, James Ellis, said he planned to see the piece from Belvedere Castle.
''February's always been a dreary month for me, so I think it kind of spices it up a little bit and makes me want to come out to the park at a time when I usually wouldn't," Ellis said.
The artists are paying for the project themselves, which could cost as much as $21 million. ''I can't promise, particularly since this is New York, that everyone will love 'The Gates,' but I guarantee that they will all talk about it," Bloomberg said Friday at a news conference with the artists.
''And that's really what innovative, provocative art is supposed to do."
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were reticent to discuss ''The Gates."
''It's very difficult," Christo said. ''You ask us to talk. This project is not involving talk. It's a real, physical space. It's not necessary to talk. You spend time, you experience the project."
''The Gates" is the pair's first major project in New York City.
In their most recent past project, ''Wrapped Reichstag" in 1995, they used a silvery fabric to wrap the Parliament building in Berlin, creating a flow of vertical folds.
New York officials have said tens of thousands may visit ''The Gates" over 16 days.
Sibyl Rubottom of San Diego, who saw another installation by the artists -- ''The Umbrellas," in which 3,100 umbrellas were opened in California and Japan in 1991 -- said she started planning last spring for her trip to New York.
She said she planned to return to the park Saturday and would attend an ''aprés 'Gates' " opening party" at a friend's house. Rubottom was wearing an orange jacket and scarf that matched her orange eyeglass frames.
''I dressed for the occasion," she said.