The facts and figures behind Olafur Eliasson’s The New York City Waterfalls are impressive. Located at four points along the East River in lower Manhattan, the falls cost $15.5 million to build and involved an American-based crew of almost 200 engineers, designers, consultants, permitting specialists and electricians. There were also scores of architects, engineers, craftsmen and assistants employed by Eliasson’s own Berlin-based "laboratory for spatial research," not to mention the gargantuan effort of the Public Art Fund. Things were so specialized that on a boat ride the night of the opening a man told me his job was to coordinate the little red lights atop each fall to protect low-flying aircraft. The fact sheet on the falls says the tallest one is higher than the Statue of Liberty; the other three are as tall as nine- to 12-story buildings. That’s big.
Yet the waterfalls seem dinkier than you’d think. And they’re not spectacular. From the South Street Seaport, where you can supposedly see all four, the one near the Manhattan Bridge is almost hidden. Some viewers may have trouble finding the one by Governors Island. You can’t hear any of them so you’re never really overwhelmed by the sound of pouring water. In addition, it’s obvious that these aren’t waterfalls at all; they’re just plumbing, tall metal scaffoldings with pipes pumping cascades of water off the top. So don’t go to The New York City Waterfalls wanting to be wowed.
But you may be wooed. I was. For all the effort that went into making them, Eliasson’s falls aren’t about spectacle. They’re like still centers that put you in touch with the physical world around you. They magically stretch the space of lower Manhattan, making the city seem as grand and amazing as it really is. Concentrating on the falls, you begin to glean the different geographic, economic and industrial environments along the riverfront, how light plays between buildings and water, the way this setting is in constant motion but also oddly still. The waterfall under the Brooklyn Bridge is especially captivating and seems to appear out of nowhere like a portal from another dimension. The Governors Island cascade almost rises up from the surface of water. The one near the Brooklyn Navy Yards is like a primordial water spout. Lit at night, the falls turn ghostly. Coming upon each in a boat is like visiting an alien life form.
Unlike Christo's gates, which came on in a whoosh, then faded fast, Eliasson’s works dawn on you slowly, then produce a stirring calm. I’d take them any day over a glitzy Murakami Buddha or a huge Damien Hirst pregnant woman. By zeroing in on something as temporal as running water -- the falls flow at 35,000 gallons per minute -- Eliasson lifts you out of the moment and places you in a continuum. Whether you like the falls or not, you can't help but smile at the clever twist Eliasson's put on Beatrice Wood's 1917 defense of another piece of abstract plumbing, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, a found sculpture of a urinal. "The only works of art America has given," wrote Wood, "are her plumbing and her bridges."
Olafur Eliasson The New York City Waterfalls, June 26-Oct. 13, 2008.
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at email@example.com