‘Why’, a kid was asking his parents, whose wearisome looks suggested that ‘why’ was the most dreaded and commonly uttered word that day, ‘is water coming out of it?’ Both mother and father looked poised to deliver some considered, grown-up explanation. But they hesitated, mouths slightly agape, looking around as though helpful clues could be plucked from the scene: the East River embankment on which they stood, the oily parking lot behind them, the knock-off Gucci bag sellers nearby and, of course, the thing itself. Their momentary parental paralysis was understandable – for the ‘it’ in this case was the monumental span of the Brooklyn Bridge, towering directly overhead on the Manhattan waterfront, thrumming with traffic and arcing eastward across the rushing river to the far shore. The ‘water’ was a cascade of 35,000 gallons per minute of siphoned river water that appeared to be bursting from the bridge’s massive stone tower on the Brooklyn side, just beneath the roadway and falling 100 feet into the ebb-tide current below.
Why, indeed. Some seemed to come to the river’s edge knowing what to expect or at least expecting they knew: the cultural cognoscenti, primed by press release superlatives, knew that this four-site outdoor art project – a kind of watery Land Art work conceived by Olafur Eliasson – was one of the most ambitious ever undertaken in the city (besides the waterfall under the bridge, man-made cataracts of varying heights were erected just within view of one other at strategic points along the river and upper harbour) and produced by the non-profit Public Art Fund with a team of over 200 engineers, architects, designers, hydrologists and construction workers. With an impressive, arguably excessive, budget of $15.5 million and the boosterist support of Mayor Bloomberg and city officials clearly anticipating a replay of the tourism industry-friendly Christo and Jeanne-Claude Gates (2005), the project received ample advance local publicity, and among those in the know there was a palpable preparedness to be awed. To tourists made giddy by a tanking US dollar and taking breaks between shopping orgies, the sight of this natural/artificial spectacle seemed to confirm the misapprehension that waterfalls are a permanent feature of New York, whose self-glorifying excesses apparently know no bounds. Locals resigned to ‘stay-cations’ this summer (staying at home to seek out little pleasures in their own backyard during economically tough times), reactions were mixed: some were adamantly jaded, underwhelmed by the fact that the illusion was so literally transparent, the effect so meagrely unspectacular at times, the bare-bones engineering so baldly visible. (The waterfalls were the product of 12-storey metal scaffolds and an exposed system of pumps and pipes drawing recycled river water to the top and releasing it over aluminium trough baffles in what one critic dismissed as a multi-million-dollar plumbing exposition.) Others, disillusioned by Eliasson’s fumbled and cramped funhouse-like MoMA retrospective uptown, were ready to shrug off the whole enterprise as another bloated, high-concept populist crowd-pleaser, geared towards those able and willing to fork out $25 for boat tours linking the sites.
But still others – perhaps expecting little or nothing, stumbling across one or another of the falls without meaning to on their way someplace else – may have caught it from a specific vantage-point, a satisfying distance, at a particular time of day or under favourable atmospheric conditions. They may have seen the whole thing suddenly gel, experiencing an unexpected and understated moment of unifying grace amid the chaos of a metropolis meeting the waters that bound and define it. It offered, in fact, all of these experiences simultaneously, and one imagines these contradictory reactions pleased (if they did not surprise) Eliasson, whose site-specific works trade on this push-pull effect of creating a natural phenomenological illusion while laying bare the artificial mechanics of its own construction. It is theatre with audiences invited to view the props, self-evident artifice on an epic scale, made all the more real for pulling back the curtain on how the mind willingly assembles its own illusions, constructs grand epiphanies and flashes of transcendence with (on closer inspection) very little actual assistance from the external world that seems to be its inspiration.
When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, newspaper commentators, lacking an adequate vocabulary to describe the transformative effect a piece of engineered infrastructure could have on the communal psyche, resorted to the Romantic language of rapturous awe at natural wonders. More than one writer dared compare the bridge to God’s handiwork at Niagara Falls, then an icon of the American Sublime. By the 20th century engineers had, through a system of dams, learnt how to increase the flow of water over the falls during the spring tourist season while decreasing it in the winter. One year the falls were turned off completely, like a bath tap, and the cataract was revealed to be nothing more or less than a grand but forlorn pile of rocks. Whether the result of titanic geological forces or generous arts funding, the Sublime is where you find it. Or where you want to find it.
First published in Issue 118