Water Works

I never went to see Christo’s gates when they were in Central Park, but I have been counting down the days to Olafur Eliasson’s New York City Waterfalls project. And it’s finally here.

Four mammoth waterfalls, from 90- to 120-ft.-tall and as much as 80-ft.-wide, have sprung up in the East River thanks to Eliasson. Using banal materials—steel scaffoldings and run-of-the-mill plumbing pipes—and a big ol’ budget ($15 million), the Danish artist has made one of the largest artworks ever. It is also the largest, by far, public work ever put on view. But size isn’t all that matters. The fact that it is on American soil, where we tend to be pretty uptight about art in public, is also nothing short of astonishing.

When I first heard about the project, I cringed. Waterfalls are so romantic, so sappy. They are nature at her most gaudy, and I wasn’t sure how Eliasson was going to temper the hard edges of the big bad city with his waterways, even though he’s made waterfalls before.

But there was no need to panic. The waterfalls look like they’ve been around forever—that’s how well they match their setting. The scaffolds that the artist took no pains to hide lend the works an urban feel that resonates both with the history of the setting (a bustling industrial port) and the modern prevalence of scaffolds as a sign of growth, change and progress.

The fact that the waterfall’s construction is in plain sight, as well as a crucial part of the work’s look, lends the whole project an unpretentious honesty. The waterfalls don’t stand on formality or any kind of artsy airs. They don’t appear to be anything more than what they are: spectacular plumbing. But spectacular they are, because they hide nothing yet offer up so much to the viewer who is just passing by.

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