'Oh, wow!” roars Olafur Eliasson, getting slapped in the face with long, ropy splashes of water, as he clings to the railing of a tiny Grady-White fishing boat. Rain clouds hover over Manhattan’s southern tip, and as the boat pitches on four-foot swells, Eliasson makes his first visit from the water to four scaffolding structures rising at the Brooklyn Bridge and Pier 35 (near the Manhattan Bridge), between Piers 4 and 5 (near the Brooklyn Heights Promenade), and near the Governors Island ferry station. The scale of each structure melds so well with the surrounding buildings that, when the first one was completed, Eliasson didn’t even recognize his own work. Today, though, he looks at them and sees waterfalls: the largest installation of his career as an artist, and one of New York’s most surreal dalliances with large-scale public spectacle.
The New York City Waterfalls, whose spigots open at the end of the month and run until October, will remind many New Yorkers of the winter of 2005, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude decorated Central Park. Like The Gates, the waterfalls are a pet project of Michael Bloomberg, who is rumored to have personally paid much of the tab and whose office steered the project through a byzantine permit process. But Eliasson’s spectacle is much more complicated than The Gates, which consisted of thousands of saffron flags planted along 23 miles of paths. Robert Benazzi, the hydraulics designer working with Eliasson, created a system that will suck up the East River, lift it ten stories into the air, and drop it back down, thousands of gallons a minute. He says the only comparably complex job in his 40-year career was designing the sprinkler system for the Sears Tower.
Eliasson, a 41-year-old Danish-Icelandic artist who lives in Copenhagen, works in Berlin, and currently has a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and P.S. 1, speaks four languages fluently but not flawlessly. For an artist whose work has required astonishing perseverance in the face of mind-numbing bureaucracy, he is a surprisingly gentle guy, with odd edges and catholic tastes. (He loves electronica and bluegrass, and brags he can play three versions of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”) Many of his best-known works explore architecture and the mechanics of perception, almost as if the fantastical imaginings of Buckminster Fuller were reinterpreted by a cognitive scientist. Eliasson’s work is most compelling, however, in its visceral embrace of beauty and wonder, prompting the kinds of basic questions that most of us stopped asking when we were 7 years old. “It’s so weird how the helicopters actually can take off,” he says as we hit the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers, Wall Street choppers buzzing overhead. “It always puzzles me. It’s like an insect.”
The waterfalls, he hopes, will provoke New Yorkers to raise similar questions about something we habitually ignore. “You take the water around Manhattan for granted,” Eliasson says as our boat traces the landscape of the harbor. To help restore our sense of engagement with that landscape, he wants “to make water explicit.” It’s a phrase he often employs. “Falling water, it makes a sound, it engages a whole different range of senses. You see gravity. To make it explicit is to take it, hold it up, and let it fall.”
One day in 1999, while riding in a car in Manhattan, Eliasson looked across Eighth Avenue toward the Hudson and saw a sailboat drifting down the street. The boat (which, after a double-take, he realized was on the river, not the pavement) made an impression. It was one of those odd spectacles that occur in New York, if you are willing to look. It also got him thinking about Manhattan’s relationship to the rivers at its borders.
Around that time, he decided he wanted to turn a skyscraper into a lighthouse. He would erect a massive, circular searchlight whose beam would be seen throughout the city. “Of course we didn’t have the means to do it,” remembers Tanya Bonakdar, whose New York gallery has represented him since those days. “But we did know a very nice collector who had a very tall building, so we put a beacon on there, and if you knew what to look for you would see it.”
The year after the Crédit Lyonnais building temporarily became a makeshift lighthouse, Eliasson began discussions with Tom Eccles at the Public Art Fund, a nonprofit that for the last 30 years has used mostly private money to place works of art in public spaces across New York City. Eliasson had been experimenting with large-scale works involving water in other cities: He dyed rivers in Bremen, Germany; Los Angeles; and Tokyo bright green, and he created a small flood in Johannesburg. He had also started making small waterfall sculptures, such as his Reversed Waterfall, now on view at P.S. 1. Those interests converged in 2002, when Eliasson offered Eccles an idea for New York: Take some of the water surrounding Manhattan and raise it up as a waterfall, at the western end of 14th Street, where for a split second his sailboat had floated.