They opened the faucets yesterday for The New York City Waterfalls, the industrial strength art project by Olafur Eliasson at four locations along the city’s eastern waterfront. Each of them consists of a steel scaffolding between 90 and 120 ft. high, about 27 to 37 meters. River water is pumped to the top and spills back down in a wide cascade that will flow daily til 10 PM.
The rainy morning started with a dockside press conference with Eliasson, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Susan Freedman, president of the Public Art Fund that was the guiding force behind the project. Then the mobile media moshpit, including myself, toured The Waterfalls from the deck of a Circle Line boat. Something just like it will take people around the sites several times a day between now and when the Falls come down on October 13. If you’re familiar with “The Maid of the Mist”, the boat that tootles around Niagara Falls, you’ve got it pictured, though Eliasson’s city-cousin cascades are nowhere near as mighty as the Niagara.
If anything, at a couple of the locations — the ones on the Brooklyn and lower Manhattan waterfronts — The Waterfalls are almost comically thin and humble. This would be in keeping wiith Eliasson’s general practice. Even for a project like this one, in which he’s operating within (and undercutting) the Baroque tradition of massively theatrical artworks, the ordinary mechanical workings of his spectacle — the exposed steel framework, the visible spill trays at the top — are deliberately exposed to view. To borrow Frank Stella’s phrase, “What you see is what you see.” Which, of course, even when Stella said it, had several meanings.
But at least on a first encounter, The Waterfalls provide a spectacle that doesn’t amount to an aesthetic experience, at least not if we mean by that an intimate encounter between you and a work of art. The Waterfalls draw on everything from Baroque fountains and the Hudson River School of painting to the shock displacements of Surrealism. That cascade pouring out from below the Brooklyn Bridge is like a Hudson School variation on the Surrealist definition of beauty: the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table. (To be clear, The Waterfalls are set along the East River, not the Hudson.)
And for New Yorkers maybe the most salient reference will be the open fire hydrants of a hot summer afternoon. Open hydrants are everybody’s favorite shock displacements of nature and culture.
But though Eliasson has emphasized how important it is that people enter into the experience of The Waterfalls, that they don’t just stand before it as spectacle, the works are hard to engage as anything other than spectacle. They invite but don’t allow the immersion that people experienced with Eliasson’s own most famous work The weather project, his hugely popular artificial sun installation five years ago at Tate Modern in London.
Inevitably The Waterfalls will be compared to The Gates, the magical Christo and Jeanne-Claude project that filled Central Park three years ago with hundreds of flowing curtains suspended from goal post supports. Both projects put aggressively human devices into a semi-natural setting — a city park, a city waterfront — and invite you to make of that what you will. But I think there will be less opportunity to commune with Eliasson’s cascades, which are located mostly in places it’s not that easy to reach by foot or bicycle, than there was with the easily accessed Gates, which you could enter simply by stepping into Central Park.
At first it might seem that the Circle Line boat would be the best way to experience The Waterfalls. I suspect that won’t turn out to be true. Gliding past them on the boat is a passive experience, and will probably be a crowded one, a bit like trying to see the Trevi Fountain these days behind the day-and-night tourist scrum that surrounds it. At the very least, don’t get on board looking for that sense of secular consecration and almost sacramental mystery that you could experience sometimes around The Gates at twilight. Approaching them on foot may be a different experience. I expect to go back and try.
The Waterfalls are of course an enormous potential tourist draw for the New York. We’ve heard a lot about how much revenue they could bring to the city, and also how they will make people more aware of the East River, an urban waterway they more often treat as drive-over country. All of which I hope happens. But at the end of the day you can’t evaluate a work of art in terms of its economic impact or its moral utility.
Eliasson, one of the most agreeable and least self-regarding people I know who also happens to be a Major International Art Brand, is entirely aware of all that. At the press conference yesterday you could hear him trying to acknowledge those purposes while still nudging the conversation over to the other things The Waterfalls should be, to disentangle them from that web of municipal expectations and moral purposes and point people towards their lyrical purposelessness. I found myself thinking about another work by Eliasson, Beauty, a tiny triumph of makeshift lyricism. In a darkened room, electric light is aimed through a wall of mist to create the kind of dancing rainbow you can produce at home with a garden hose and a sunbeam. Depending on where in the room they’re standing, everyone who sees the piece is seeing a different rainbow. What it proves, irresistably, is something we already know, that Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Sometimes, with The Waterfalls, Eliasson even leads us to it.
And sometimes the beholder wants something more. The Waterfalls will be up all summer. Maybe they just need time to sink in.