Olafur Eliasson's Intriguing But Controversial "Waterfalls"

When I was downtown on Monday I finally had a chance to walk over to the eastern seaport to see the newish public art installation by Olafur Eliasson, Waterfalls. It’s a series of four man-made waterfalls set up at various points on the East River.

There’s been some controversy over the high expense of the project, whether it’s a waste of a precious natural resource, and even what the purpose of public art is, for example, how the installation compares to The Gates in Central Park a couple years ago. Go here for a good discussion of those issues led by blogger / NYTimes writer Claudia LaRocco.

And go here for Claudia’s updated post on the falls in which she sites some other artists’ “ironic” responses to Eliasson’s work.

I actually found them pretty breathtaking. Above are the two I could see from where I stood on the Manhattan side of the river. There are two more, one further uptown, and another by Governor’s Island. Of the two I saw, the one under the Brooklyn Bridge was shorter and wider, its proportions made to fit right underneath the structure of the bridge as if it was an outgrowth of its architecture. The other one, along the Brooklyn side of the river, was taller and more narrow, also seemingly in alignment with the height of the buildings behind it.

What was interesting to me was how the waterfalls are obviously man-made, obviously fake, yet they completely blend in with their environment, almost in a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish way. Or maybe it’s kind of a reverse of Lloyd Wright: his buildings blended in with the natural environment — the desert, the surrounding rock formations; whereas these supposedly naturally-occuring phenomena are artificially constructed to be part and parcel of our vast steel high-rises, what we’ve come to know as our “natural” environment.

And they complement the environment not just visually but figuratively as well. Practically all of New York is man-made, including even the very land most Manhattanites live and work on. Ralph Fiennes (don’t ask me how in the world I know, or remember this) once gushed about this city, on his first viewing of it, as being this breathtaking visual testament to what human beings are capable of building, and the British actor is not exactly known for his love of America. So, sure they’re industrial-looking, but why not celebrate that? Ingenuity in industry and commerce are what NYC is, right?

And I think there is a certain natural beauty, particularly the way the water falls. With the high structure, the water looked almost like feathers at the top, foam near the bottom.

And the shorter one looked really cool when a breeze picked up; looked almost like a head of long, cascading hair billowing about in the wind.

As for the argument that the falls are destroying a precious natural resource, maybe I don’t understand the machinery very well, but it seems that they’re only recycling the river water (and according to the information on the website, there are nets to keep fish from getting caught in the spokes).

Anyway, if you’re in NY and happen to go out and see them, let me know what you think. They’re on display through October 13. If you want an up-close view, there are Circle Line boats that are giving little tours, complete with headsets bearing the artist’s mission statement and other information. Or, if you’re a ‘traveler’ and not a ‘tourist’ :), according to the press release, the free Staten Island and Governor’s Island ferries will take you pretty close to the southernmost two falls.


  1. ok they’re not as I imagined they would be…thought the metal wouldn’t be as noticeable. However, they’re pretty cool

  2. Manhattan is not a man made island any more than other cities. We do have landfills which are built on such as the who le area west of the West street where the World Financial Center is and battery park city… all on landfill from the WTC excavations.

    We did fill in the canal at Canal street and obviously some leveling, but the island has been built on to amazing density.

    The sculptures may look “cool” but they must waste enormous energy to pump all that water. This will become an increasing concern when energy is so scare and expensive. The rainwater runnoff could be made into a waterfall on the bridges, but only when it rained and there would be no energy used.

    Gates was interesting, but also an enormous waste when you consider its cost and the need for housing the homeless and afordable housing for others.

    We need to rethink the economics of these conceptual art pieces.

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