Monday, September 22, 2008

Public art, kind of like public school...

A visit to the East River and Olafur Eliasson's The New York City Waterfalls brought to us by the Public Art Fund on view now from many vantage points until October 13th, 2008.

Evidence of the invigorating affect of public art on the average New York City tourist.

Public art is everywhere from libraries to courthouses, vacant lots to city parks, big towns, small towns - they all want in on it. Occasionally a really big artist will do one of these grand public works (see Christo's gates or Anish Kapoor's bean in Chicago, etc.) and sometimes the funding reaches astronomical numbers, especially when compared with the average working artist's salary. Funneling cash into public works is great, right? I mean it attracts tourists, tourists spend money on local foods and goods, and art comes off looking really friendly and organized - everybody wins. But, the only problem with this arrangement is that no one ever seems to take a critical look at the art before dumping millions of dollars into what essentially ends up being just really good PR for a city or town. In the end the odds of public art actually being successful works are not so hot. Just my humble opinion, but see any Calder in any town. They look weird...and often just too darn orange.

The waterfalls only work a 49.5hr week instead of the planned 101hrs. Seems trees don't like being constantly showered with a fine salt water mist and several are dying a slow death as a result. You can just make out the brown trees to the right of this fall under the Brooklyn Bridge.

The New York City Waterfalls project cost $15.5M and went from 7 or 8 falls to just 4 that are far from grand in appearance. The scale of the city dwarfs them and though they are evidence of thousands of man hours and products of supreme problem solving, they're just not that cool. Are they made less impressive simply by the fact that they were extremely well funded and given the city government's seal of approval? Maybe, but like a lot of public art, you get the feeling that most decisions are made by the committee while the artist is the face of the project.

Here's a bit from the questions section of the NYC Waterfalls brochure that may be able to help me with this mystery.

"What is public art? Art takes many forms including painting, drawings, sculptures, photographs, music, dance and installations in the environment. This project is a monumental scale work of public art that responds to a series of sites along the East River. The Waterfalls call attention to New York's extensive natural and built environment and ask us to consider our relationship to the waterfront."

Uh, I guess that helps. So, what they're saying is that art can be lots of stuff and this particular art is really big and about me and my environment. I can dig that. It's a collective experience when viewed from a boat with other travelers. Humans are drawn to water as water is life and falling water is a symbol of power and persistence of nature. But the big problem is that when viewed during the day, the Waterfalls are more like really ambitious Erector sets with 35,000 gallons per minute pumps rigged up to them. In the interest of making this public art all inclusive and really public, they neglect to tell you that these structures should really only be viewed after sunset. But to encourage millions of people (some from faraway places) to hang out at various piers and on watercraft only in the night time hours, well that's just not realistic. Maybe that would work in Iceland, but something funny happens to Americans when the sun goes down. We get a little punchy. Though I'm a true believer that creating within a structure of limitations is very beneficial to the final product, a grand gesture like the Waterfalls just doesn't stand up aesthetically and made little sense despite the fun and cheap East River Boat ride. It's too bad that we didn't discover the bar in the air conditioned cabin below until the last 5 minutes of the trip.

From the New York Times. What my photos would have looked like if I were better informed and had a really expensive digital camera.

Where to Find Them:
Between Piers 4 and 5 near the Brooklyn Heights Promenade
Brooklyn Bridge
Governor's Island
Pier 35 near the Manhattan Bridge

If you're not familiar with Eliasson's other work, check his site out and please do not judge him by Waterfalls and I know he was born in Denmark, but he lived a lot in Iceland.