Before the Deluge

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The New York City Waterfalls; Brooklyn Bridge Site (artist’s rendering), Eliasson, 2008 / Images: © OLAFUR ELIASSON, COURTESY PUBLIC ART FUND

As you may have heard, this summer and fall New York will be hosting a roughly four-month outdoor art installation by Olafur Eliasson called The New York City Waterfalls. Cascades will pour into the East River from the top of four scaffolding towers, one at each of four sites, each ranging from 90 to 120 feet high. The water will start flowing in late June, around the time that Eliasson’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and P.S. 1 will be closing in New York before moving on to Dallas.

To get an idea of how the towers will work I hiked over to a press lunch yesterday with Eliasson that was sponsored by the Public Art Fund, which put this project in motion. From there we were bussed to the East River pier where one of the big faucets will spill. There we all duly admired the scaffolding and pump systems and glimpsed two other towers further down the riverfront, including the one that will pour water down from under the deck of the Brooklyn Bridge.

It was useful to see the workaday physical rigging for The Waterfalls before they get put into operation. Eliasson operates deliberately at a low level of illusion. He takes pains to make sure that you see the machinery behind his effects. This is what makes you smile when you come across his piece called Beauty. It consists of a floating, undulating rainbow effect produced by shining a light through a wall of mist. You could do it at home with a garden hose and a sunbeam. When you were nine years old you probably did. Eliasson attaches the illusion to a lesson about perception, making it not just beautiful but instructive. (That impulse to make beauty purposeful made me think of a line in Bjork song: How Scandinavian of me.) The lesson? Everyone who approaches that piece sees a different rainbow, depending on where they stand in relation to the water — Beauty is literally in the eye of the beholder.

Something similar will be true of the Waterfalls, once they’re up and running. Just as with The Gates, the Christo/Jeanne-Claude project in Central Park three years ago, everyone will have a different experience of these things. Eliasson has been working with the Public Art Fund for more than two years to make this project happen. Inevitably you’re reminded again of The Gates, another massive public and bureaucratic undertaking. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, who was crucial to making The Gates happen, has been supportive of this project, too, and the city of course is hoping for a tourism windfall of the kind it got with the Christo project.

I doubt it will be on anything like the same scale, partly because The Waterfalls won’t be as easy to see. Thanks to a few centuries of lousy planning, the East River waterfront is not always easy to reach, though the Circle Line, the company that runs sight-seeing boats around Manhattan, will be doing special Waterfall cruises all around the four sites and there are stretches on both sides of the river that you can get to without difficulty.

So what will it be like when they turn the water on? To reach for a phrase that Olafur would understand — let’s see.

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The New York City Waterfalls; Pier 35 Site (artist’s rendering), Eliasson, 2008