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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge moved out of the shadow of its more famous sibling, the Golden Gate, to dazzle on Tuesday night when a high-tech artist turned it into a sculpture of moving lights.
Some 25,000 LED lights transformed the 1.8-mile long, 500-foot (152-meter) tall bridge into something of a giant lava lamp. Controlled by a computer, the white lights flickered on and off randomly in never-repeating patterns.
New York artist Leo Villareal, 46, stood in the wind and rain on a pier facing the bridge and hit a key on a laptop to switch on what he called his fantasy project.
"I'm pinching myself," he said.
Organizers of the privately funded project say it turned the Bay Bridge into the world's biggest illuminated sculpture.
"This is monumental public art," Villareal told Reuters earlier in the day. "It's abstract. Everyone will see something different in it."
"I thought it looked like waves," said jeweler Sandra Sevil, 27, who said she had come from Peru to view the installation, called "Bay Lights".
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said around 50 million people are expected to visit the Bay Area over the next two years to witness the $8 million privately funded project on the western side of the bridge connecting Oakland to San Francisco.
Amy Fritz, 43, of San Francisco, tried to stay dry under a crippled umbrella and cooed as she watched the lights glitter. She said she saw water, waves and finally a sunset.
"At the end of the day, it's really just a set of mathematical numbers being displayed as lights, but in between there's this magic," Villareal said.
Ben Davis, a 52-year-old San Franciscan who runs a communications firm, began thinking about a way to honor the Bay Bridge on its 75th anniversary in 2010.
When it opened in 1936, the bridge was celebrated as a testament to American perseverance. But six months later, the orange Golden Gate Bridge opened, and the gray span to the east came to be seen as a dull workhorse.
If the Bay Bridge was a neglected Cinderella, Davis was looking for a glass slipper to give it new life. "I wanted to find a way to let the bridge shine in the region's consciousness once more," he told Reuters.
He also wanted to be the spark for art that lasted. A friend pointed him to Villareal.
Davis and Villareal said they have been inspired by Burning Man, an annual counterculture festival in the Nevada desert that revolves around the ritual burning of a gigantic human effigy.
Villareal said that, like Burning Man, the bridge project is "about creating communal experience."
Workers had to hang 525 feet over the bay in harnesses to clip the LED lights to the bridge cables, Villareal said. He needed a boat and clearance from the Department of Homeland Security just to get on the structure.
Philanthropists donated $6 million. Davis expects to receive the other $2 million still needed to maintain the lights to arrive now that the project is visible.
The project has permits from state and local officials for two years. Already, though, admirers of the work are asking if it can stay up longer, and Mayor Lee has said that could happen.
Asked about the future of his project, Villareal shrugged his shoulders and said: "Cross that bridge when we get to it."
Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Kevin Liffey