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How wondrous are your waterfalls, Olafur Eliasson


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Olafur Eliasson, The New York City Waterfalls, waterfall at Pier 35.

Forget sublime transcendence. Olafur Eliasson‘s mega public art project The New York City Waterfalls take a somewhat different tack from his special effects reincarnations of nature.

While the four waterfalls–all in the East River, two off of Brooklyn, one Manhattan, and one Governor’s Island–are spectacular, they are more in line with Oh, How wondrous are the works of man, rather than Oh, How wondrous are the works of the Lord! They are industrial–shameless plumbing. The water pours forth and plummets like the water from a tap or from an industrial-waste pipe.

This did not stop me from loving them. Oh, no. This made me love them all the more.

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Olafur Eliasson, The New York City Waterfalls, Governor’s Island installation.

The scaffolding has the temporary look of the building trades–scaffolding erected up the sides of buildings for brick work or stuccoing. But these scaffolds are in the often overlooked East River. New Yorkers only occasionally think of their rivers as resources to enjoy or use. Mostly the rivers are impediments, something to go over or under to escape to or from New Jersey, usually in a dreadful traffic jam.

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Olafur Eliasson, The New York City Waterfalls, Brooklyn Bridge version, with bits of our boat and the tops of the heads of fellow travellers.

Eliasson’s four plumes of water and the scaffolding are a paeon to infrastructure. The one tucked under the Brooklyn Bridge, in front of one of the bridge piers, was the most visually satisfying of the four when Roberta, Stella, Cate and I took one of the Circle Line boat rides in mid-afternoon. It’s a bridal veil for the bridge, lacy layers of cascading water highlighted by the dark background of the pier behind it. The darkness of the pier overwhelms the scaffolding at times so all that’s left is the water and the bridge. This location speaks directly to the water below, the bridge deck above, the vertical towers of the bridge and vertical towers of the city.

What a concept. Turn the flowing waters that rush by the city each day into office towers!

Because the water falls are so utilitarian in their look, they are funny things, water elevators, bringing the river to a height visible to even a jaded New Yorker otherwise innured to lower structures by the architecture of the compressed urban landscape.

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Rigging of the Peking, a tall ship open to tourists and docked next door to the Circle Line. It helped put me in mind of the river as the old avenue before the urban grid and pillars of commerce replaced the trees.

I love that the city, the Public Art Fund and Eliasson have found a way to remind people of the waterways that surround Manhattan–and by extension remind us of the land as dry land. Under thos buildings, streets and avenues are genuine islands. Suddenly the rivers return to being the avenues that they used to be–the path that brought Henry Hudson to Manhattan, the path the Native Americans navigated in canoes.

Ikea express
One of the New York Water Taxis that go to Brooklyn. Some of them go to the new Ikea.

Out on the river during our four-destination, 30-minute cruise, we saw an incredible amount of boat traffic on the river–some of it art tourists like us, some of it other tourists, and some of it business–police boats, sail boats, tug boats, and blue and yellow Ikea Express to the new Ikea store in Brooklyn (the taxi is free, but then you’ll need your goods delivered; I saw a sign that offered a $39-or-more same-day delivery fee to speed your purchase home to your New York address). (See our picture post about our boat ride here).

The New York City Waterfalls are up until Oct. 13, and shut down every night at 10 p.m. There are enough of them to provide vantage points for all the people in Manhattan. Because they are oriented toward the water, however, they reward anyone who ventures out on the river for a look.

The falls are the perfect July 4th waterworks summer art project for a city could use a little reminder of the primal pleasure of watching water in motion. Happy 4th.