Monday, August 04, 2008

NYC Waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson

The New York City Waterfalls, on view along New York's East River through October 13, are four installations on the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Governor's Island waterfronts. They can be seen from any of several riverside parks or by boat. Circle Line is offering some free tickets to see the project, though they are hard to come by. I managed to take advantage of the free boat ride by getting up absurdly early in the morning, which resulted in the following video:

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NYC Waterfalls: Brooklyn Bridge, 2008

The Waterfalls cost roughly $15.5 million to construct and install, mostly supported by private donations via the Public Art Fund but also by $2 million from the city's Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Like most public art installations, they are controversial. The scale of the four installations is quite small in relation to the famous Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. 90-120 feet tall, they seem insignificant not only against the architecture, but also the majestic East River waterfront. At the same time, they have been paid for in part by public money, which begs the question of whether supporting a famous European import like Eliasson is an appropriate use of lower Manhattan's development monies. Considering the fact that New York's artists are rapidly being priced out of Manhattan altogether, many people feel it is not.

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NYC Waterfalls: Pier 35, Manhattan, 2008

In a way, the Waterfalls are similar to other Public Art Fund projects, in which monumentalism is generally eschewed in favor of subtle gestures like Lawrence Weiner's permanently installed manhole covers, or performances like this past spring's Rodney Graham Band featuring the amazing Rotary Psycho-Opticon. Their structures are exposed scaffolds just like those surrounding large-scale construction in the city. The mechanism of the Waterfalls is presented matter-of-fact, with no effort to hide either the filtration pools from which the water is drawn nor the pipes which carry it up the scaffolds.


How the Waterfall Works (click for link)

Personally, I appreciated the understated scale of the Waterfalls, though I understand how many might feel that they are unworthy of their budget or hype. My experience as a viewer focused on the river itself, the newly built parks along both shores and the rare treat of a boat trip which most New Yorkers never take. It's debatable whether the river requires Eliasson's help to be a summer destination - most NYC residents' lack of air conditioning seems to accomplish that - but as a gesture to highlight significant reclamation work done on the city's waterfront, this seems adequate.

It is necessary to ask, can a public art project - especially a costly one - get away with simple sufficiency? Is Eliasson's claim that the work is about exhaustion good enough? Or is this project another example of an artist building a worse mousetrap and calling it Conceptualism? With Eliasson, the answers to such questions are never clear, and the museum establishment's embrace of him only serves to further confuse the issue.

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Reversed Waterfall, 1998, installation at P.S. 1

Other examples of Eliasson's work with water and undisguised mechanisms are on view at P.S. 1 through September 15. More video of the Waterfalls and related projects can be seen here.

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