Please stick to the rivers and lakes you’re used to.

So I’ve seen all four of Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls via automobile, at a leisurely jogging pace, and from a couple of vistas while cycling. I haven’t walked down there yet. Honestly, I don’t know I have the interest in making a specific journey, having seen them more than once now via the means listed.

There’s an inherent difficulty in trying to create monumental art in New York. This is a town that grinds down every attempt at out-sized presentation: of people, or art, of place. Larger than life here at times requires cosmic performance. To get it ‘right’ is not necessarily success anyone should venerate. You could argue our best known citizens of the past three decades, a short fingered vulgarian and a thrice married proponent of “traditional values” are the sort we would prefer dissipate into the either.

The at times breathless run up to this latest, self-conscious effort at grandeur is as much an indication of the move or die shark-like mentality of the blog news cycle, and perhaps maybe a little Gilded Age navel-gazing (apartment sales still up in Manhattan! — even though they are down by an unsustainable level in Brooklyn and the backer of half the outstanding mortgages nationwide is about to enter receivership).

Just three years ago, art tussled with this very issue in a very determined way in the form of The Gates project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Central Park. And like Eliasson’s project, it came off a bit thin. The promotion was certainly gargantuan, at time seemingly like a struggling second city claiming a bit of cultural relevance — as if Portland tried to open a ‘world-class’ contemporary art museum (or, hell, I’ll say it: SFMOMA). But you don’t take on Central Park unless you think you can win. Granted, there were more than a few obstacles working on behalf of the park, but I remember thinking one thing a good artist did was to know when an idea would fail.

I worked on The Gates — and one reason was that I knew that if I didn’t make that kind of commitment, the likelihood of getting uptown in February was small (a failing that starts way back in 1995, when I couldn’t find the time to see a Richter exhibit that was up for what seemed like years), and my fears proved to be true. Aside from an abbreviated circuit in the hours following the unfurling and an abortive visit to Tavern on the Green (my only), I never went back to see the exhibit. Likewise, the times I’ve seen the waterfalls have been incidental — which is nice and in large part how public art should be seen, but I have little desire to make a specific pilgrimage

Honestly, I was disappointed (though I was more sanguine at the time). Particularly in the southern reaches it seemed like we are a couple thousand gates short. Seeing the materials in the warehouse in Queens, or lining the park roads, that was some impressive hardware. And I was lucky to be working the northern end, where some vistas were compelling. When I walked south for the first time on opening day, I was stuck at how sparse it seemed. If you want to make art based on repetition in New York, you need to go balls to the wall. And we were balls to half court if lucky in most spots.

Eliasson doesn’t even seem to get that close, even though his four spindly towers cost almost two-thirds the total cost of The Gates project. I’ve assumed since the first time I heard that number that most of it went for the lawyers. Surely there is some fancy engineering going on in the fountain part — and let’s not kid ourselves, they are fountains — but beyond that, it’s four mid-sized scaffolds that need to weather six months of salt water. It can’t be that much.

The brochure says the use of stock materials recalls the pervasive element that brings us joy everywhere, the interminable scaffolding surrounding so many buildings, and (though less clear) perhaps to make the towers as ‘dumb’ as possible, so that they wouldn’t overwhelm or detract from the ‘work’ — presumably the cascading water. But the water barely cascades. It responds too quickly to wind, and never seems to reach a critical mass that imposes they way you expect a ‘waterfall’ to. Like The Gates, it just leaves you wishing it commanded more.

At more acute angles, this both less and more successful. Without the latticework back to provide immediate ground, the spout of water can be more impressive, but it is also foreshortened and can look like no more than a particularly strong fire hose. Seen dead on, which seems to be the preferred vantage, in some light the water is barely visible, unless it is being pushed off center by the wind.

Given the loaded terminology of the name, competing with something like this, regardless of locating it in the East River, far from any impressive natural occurrence still means you have a tall order (pun intended). If they were only called ‘Fountains’ they might not leave one with a sense of lacking, but the branding would be weak.

Not knowing, and not trying to know (some art is worth reading the placard to, but this is the sort of thing that should work on its face[s]) what is trying to be achieved, I look on to them as discrete objects — only a view points really present them as a set piece. Each time, I mostly see the flat grey, squat towers. Their actual size can be promoted (90 feet! More!), but we live in the town that invented tall. They are squat, either pointing up rather timidly against some really uninspired backdrops, or hunkered down in the shadow of one of our most impressive landmarks. And even that one is not so grand, unless viewed though a high pass filter, ultra long exposure photo.

Look, you could put a pile of hot dog vendor carts under the Brooklyn Bridge and they would look impressive. Everything looks good in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Surely there is a modicum of admiration of what it takes the city of New York to approve even the temporary defacement of one of the most storied images in the history of organized civilization, but if the gesture is as much the writing a $15 million check as it is the result, then hell, we should have held out for an even more substantial sum and concomitantly gratuitous splurge. Why shouldn’t it have cost at least what a ‘good’ penthouse goes for these days?

This is not Eliasson’s first large scale ‘environmental’ intervention. His most popular work is likely The Weather Project, in which he constructed a simulacrum of the sun in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. By most accounts, it was an impressive gesture. Others don’t strike me as powerful, particularly Green River, since I used to live in Savannah, where the river was dyed green every St. Patrick’s Day (a practice that was finally halted, ironically, out of environmental concerns, though by then every one noted cynically that the presence of multiple riverside factories made the additional color superfluous).

I’m not going to use the failure of this as a cudgel against large public installations, The Public Art Fund has in its portfolio some fascinating projects. I won’t say the money was wasted (it was mostly private), but the opportunity? Well, maybe a littl
e. You could try to embrace it as grand futility, but it just looks like a testing station for perhaps a more impressive work to come, be it art or utilitarian. But, alas, this is all we are going to get. Unlike The Gates (or Chris Burden’s installation at Rockefeller Center, which comes down this week), it’s with us for a while — October — so don’t feel compelled to rush downtown. Perhaps they will work better at night and as the days grow shorter, I’ll prove to be less critical.

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