Big Gator Head Premieres At Miami Art Fair

One of the nation's largest art fairs is Art Basel Miami Beach. It's a city-wide event that has spawned dozens of satellite shows. The large alligator celebrates the artist Christo who used the power of art to cleanup Biscayne Bay.

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Now to a hundred-foot-long alligator in Miami. Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the nation's largest art fairs, opens today. It's a citywide event that has spawned dozens of satellite shows and art happenings that have transformed the area with gigantic installations, including, as NPR's Greg Allen tells us, a very big alligator.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Actually, it's just a mechanical alligator head mounted on a barge. But when the body is added, the entire artwork will measure nearly 300 feet, snout to tail. It's a huge project involving more than 100 people, from publicists to steel workers, and it began with one man's vision.

LLOYD GORADESKY: My name is Lloyd Goradesky. I'm the artist for "Gator in the Bay."

ALLEN: Goradesky is a photographer and artist who says he's never done anything approaching this size before.

GORADESKY: This is a large alligator to celebrate an artist, Christo, who used the power of rockets to help us clean up Biscayne Bay.

ALLEN: It was 30 years ago that Christo surrounded 11 islands in the Biscayne Bay with pink polypropylene fabric. Goradesky, now 54, was in junior high at the time, and it made an impression. He says it also helped jumpstart the cleanup of Biscayne Bay. Goradesky has modeled much of his project after Christo's work.

"Gator in the Bay," he says, is intended to raise awareness about the Everglades. It's also environmentally conscious. Almost all of the materials are used or recycled, beginning with the gator's skin, which is made from recycled, plastic fabric.

GORADESKY: The teeth are roofing material, and the steel is all used metal. If you step back and you check out the eyes, the frame of the eye is made from a spool. And so we really had a lot of fun assembling the materials and making the piece.

ALLEN: Inside the gator's mouth last week, workers were putting last-minute welds on the intricate steel frame. "Gator in the Bay" is not just an art project. It's also a serious piece of engineering and steel construction.

VERN NIX: I'm Vern Nix, the owner of V&M Erectors. We're a steel-erecting company, primarily on bridges. Anything that has to do with steel is what we do.

ALLEN: Nix's crew took time off from building bridges to make the frame for the nearly 100-foot-long gator head. The top of the gator's mouth is attached to the arm of a Caterpillar excavator, which is part of the barge. As the gator head sails around Biscayne Bay, its mouth - controlled by the excavator - will open and close. But this is just the first phase of the project.

Next May, on the actual anniversary of Christo's surrounded island work, comes phase two, when Goradesky, Nix and others with the project add the gator's 200-foot-long body and tail.

NIX: The tail will be floating on four-foot-by-eight-foot Styrofoam panels that's got all these images on them that really looks like the skin of a gator. It's got, like, 6,400 photographic images that Lloyd took and came up with the procedure, I guess, of knowing how to put these in a color scheme of sequences so when you look at it from a distance, it all looks like alligator skin.

ALLEN: But that comes next year. Over the weekend, after workers put finishing touches on the gator head, the crew stood by while the mouth was opened for the first time.

NIX: Ready? Power's on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

ALLEN: Warren Fronte is the owner and operator of the barge that's now topped by the steel and fabric gator head. Fronte's another important partner in an art and media project that he compares to an orchestra.

WARREN FRONTE: You have a conductor, and you have all your musicians. So look at this, you have an artist who's doing what he's doing, and then you've got a good ol' boy network who's doing what we're all doing.

ALLEN: "Gator in the Bay" is expected to make a splash at Art Basel beginning tonight, when it has its official premiere with a party at a Miami marina. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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