Under bright, sunny skies on a warm February day, hundreds of workers began the weeklong process of erecting thousands of poles in Central Park (search) for "The Gates," the large-scale public work of art by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

"The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005," a temporary work, opens Saturday and will consist of 7,500, 16-foot-high gates along 23 miles of footpaths. Free-hanging, saffron-colored fabric panels will be unfurled from each gate and dangle 7 feet above ground. The 16-day installation will be in place until Feb. 27.

About 70 teams of eight people began working Monday to attach the vinyl poles to steel bases to form the framelike gates.

Team leader Jason Huff, a graduate of the University of Georgia (search) who signed onto the project two years ago and specifically moved to New York City in January to work on it, instructed his crew near the park's Bethesda Fountain.

"Everybody knows what to do, right? On the count of three: One, two, three!" he shouted, and the poles were lifted, set on the bases and bolted tight with wrenches.

Bystander Bruce McCandliss stood admiring their work.

"It's really impressive to see something like this take over the whole park," said McCandliss, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell Medical School (search). "All this in the name of art — I'm wondering what effect it will have on the city."

Some workers were setting up a merchandise table for an array of souvenirs for the occasion: key chains, baseball hats, watches, T-shirts, magnets and mugs.

"It's a great project," said one of the workers, law student Thomas Vandenabeele. "The project will help the park. I think we're working for a good cause."

Preparation for the installation began in December when 15,000 steel bases were brought to the park and moved gradually to designated spots along the park's footpaths.

Workers underwent four-hour training sessions, and are being paid slightly more than minimum wage.

"It's not for the money. It's an exciting project to work on," said artist Joseph Giannasio, one of the workers. Another, Boo Poulin, a jeweler from Rochester, said, "It's an incredible opportunity to be a part of something that's a really important piece of art."

Christo and Jeanne-Claude visited the site briefly and greeted schoolchildren who were looking at some of the poles. "It's about art. It's about beauty and joy," Jeanne-Claude told the youngsters.

The artists' Web site says the work "will create a visual golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees, highlighting the shapes of the footpaths. The luminous moving fabric will underline the organic and serpentine design of the walkways, while the rectangular poles will be a reminder of the grid pattern of the City blocks around the park."

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are paying for the project without sponsorship or donations. They have said they hope it will cost less than $21 million, but the final figure will not be known until the piece is completed.

"The Gates" is the first New York City piece for the artists, whose temporary installations in public spaces around the world have been both exalted and maligned.

In 1982, they surrounded 11 islands in Miami with pink woven fabric; in 1995 they wrapped silver fabric around the German Reichstag; and in 1991, they opened 3,100 umbrellas in Japan and California.