Waterfalls and New York City

The buzz on "The New York City Waterfalls" was loud enough that a boatload of reporters chugged out into New York Harbor one recent steamy morning with the installation's artist, Olafur Eliasson, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg for a first, up-close look at the project: four cascades, ranging in height from 90 to 120 feet, installed at sites along the East River. The falls work by an elaborate system that pumps water up from the river, then lets it tumble down a tower of scaffolding. Not that you need to get on a boat to see them. There are good vantage spots along the river—and that's the point, says the 41-year-old Danish Icelandic artist. He wants New Yorkers to explore the waterfront that most of them have turned their backs on, to see their city in a new way. The day the project opened, the tumbling curtains of water reflected the gray skies: they looked remarkable but not quite as spectacular as you might have thought, coming up against the powerful cityscape around them. But the falls will change in every sort of weather and time of day—and when lit at night, they have an ethereal beauty. Their success doesn't depend only on the four almost surrealistic walls of water, or the artist who made them. As Eliasson put it, "It's not about me. It really belongs to the people of the city." (Aricle continued below...)

"The New York City Waterfalls" is the latest contemporary work to expand our notion of public art—an idea that goes back to ancient times, in the form of memorials and religious or civic monuments. Think of the pyramids, or the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan destroyed by the Taliban in 2001—or consider Constantine's foot, which, along with his colossal head and hand, is all that remains of a 30-foot statue of the emperor in the basilica in the Roman Forum. In America, public art once tended to be heroic, too, with bronze generals on horseback leading the charge across the quiet green of city parks. Modernism injected a new kind of heroism into the civic realm. Enormous abstract sculptures, landed like spacecraft in front of courthouses or shopping malls, have tended to be—with the exception of, say, a Calder stabile—as still as a tomb and as eternal. But now, contemporary artists like Christo, who wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, or Cai Guo-Qiang, with his carefully choreographed gunpowder explosions, are up to something different. Their art is epic in scale but dynamic and ephemeral—they don't create an object so much as an experience.

Eliasson, too, is into what he calls "experimental setups"—interventions in the public realm that engage people in new ways of seeing their surroundings. He has dyed rivers green, but his most famous piece is "the weather project," in which he filled the immense Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London with mist and a gigantic "sun" made of 200 yellow sodium lamps. "The New York City Waterfalls" is his most ambitious project to date, and the biggest in New York since Christo's "The Gates," which filled Central Park with billowing banners of orange in 2005. "The Gates" generated $250 million in tourist revenue. Bloomberg estimates that Eliasson's project will pump about $55 million into the city's economy. The cost of the $15.5 million project, initiated by the Public Art Fund, was raised mostly from private donations.

Eliasson spent his childhood summers in Iceland—an island of great waterfalls, where he clearly found his inspiration. Nature is at the heart of much of his work. An Eliasson retrospective, "Take Your Time," is concluding a run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art in November. In it, you can see his ideas at play on a smaller scale: his materials include smoke and mirrors, but not presented with sleight of hand. He shows you how he produces his effects, the mechanics juxtaposed with such ephemeral elements as light, mist, color. In one piece, strobe lights flicker on a mini-waterfall in a darkened room so that individual drops are magically illuminated.

Judging art in the rarefied precincts of a museum isn't the same as judging public art like Christo's or Eliasson's. Not everyone thought those orange metal gates and fabric were lovely, but no one could deny how wonderfully the park was transformed—and the people who moved through it. By the same token, "the city is not a pedestal on which I put a sculpture," explains Eliasson. "I wanted to do something that is not monumental but temporal, that creates a trajectory of experience." He wanted four waterfalls, not one, in four different sites, so people would be on the move—on foot, on bikes, even on boats—to see them, until they are dismantled forever in October. For Eliasson, the "public" is as essential as the art itself—as if he's riffing on the classic riddle. If waterfalls fall in the city and there's no one to hear them, do they make a splash?