The Waterfalls and New York City

July 21st, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: Bob Morris, Producer

Our president, Neal Shapiro, calls Thirteen.org “a house of ideas.” It’s a very apt phrase because it is sometimes hard to figure out the ideas behind shows on commercial networks, yet Thirteen’s programs are based on some very simple ideas: to inform, educate and entertain. (We also try to inspire, motivate, and empower, but that’s for another blog post.) One of the ideas that came out of Neal’s side of the “house” was: “Let’s do a show on the New York City Waterfalls.”

The New York City Waterfalls is “public” art, and is different from the art you see in museums. The Public Art of this documentary is always temporary – only up for a short period before disappearing forever, and many times installed in places you have never been. The New York City Waterfalls is a creation of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who also had exhibitions this spring at MoMA and P.S. 1 simultaneously.

I have a lot of friends who don’t even “get” Picasso, and I knew they were going to have a hard time conceiving that 4 waterfalls plopped in the East River equals art. They can stand in front of The Pieta and see perfection, but standing in front of a Jackson Pollack, they see nothing more than an accident in the paint department at Home Depot.

Our first interview was with the artist himself. In order to get a shot with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, Olafur and I had to stand on boxes, leaving my co-producer Suzanne Glickstein standing on the pavement three feet below us. Olafur was rather reserved and the media spotlight that comes with a big project like this was not one that he is entirely comfortable with. And here we are literally putting him on a pedestal as if he was a statue in the park. From Olafur:

It is not about the spectacle. …. This is not about me. It is about the people in the city and the spaces and the kind of qualitative questions you can ask in that sort of situation.

“This is not about me”. What kind of celebrity says that? We asked him a lot of questions and Olafur would sometimes catch himself getting very philosophical and didactic. Before the interview, I spent a whole day at MoMa and P.S.1 looking at his collections. I was fascinated with how he could make a simple idea, such as a fan suspended from a long cable in MoMA’s atrium, moving in a seemingly random pattern around the room, work beautifully. With the fan, you can stare at it, almost hypnotically, trying to predict the movement — wondering if it’s random or is it moving on a pattern. I must admit I stared at that fan longer than many of the paintings I’ve seen at MoMA.

In the interview, we spoke for about 45 minutes. I wanted him to talk about the Waterfalls, he wanted to talk about the city. I live here, I’m a New Yorker. I’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building. I can get to Yankee Stadium on three different subway lines! What could a Danish-Icelandic artist who lives in Berlin tell me about my city? Olafur said:

“People tend to focus on the waterfalls as almost as a sculpture, as an object. But that’s maybe not the right way to look at it. Because obviously the vantage point from which you see the waterfall is the place. So if you look further down on this side here, there’s that very nice strip of pedestrian walks and bicycle paths. There is the highway up here. There are the bridges behind here. So maybe it is relevant to say, and this is so much about public space, that these are the sites, this (The Waterfalls) is just a kind of mechanical site, and those other sites which may be the more interesting sites.”

Well, maybe he was right (of course at that point there was nothing happening there, just a scaffold). But that was five weeks before the water would start flowing, and once it did, we had three days to film the Waterfalls and edit the footage into the final sequence before airtime.


image courtesy Public Art Fund

All the local news scooped us with their stories of the falls; they looked at them “almost as a sculpture, as an object.” But we shot from various points in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Governor’s Island. The Waterfalls, like the fan suspended from the ceiling in MoMA’s atrium, were mesmerizing — constantly changing shape, billowing like sails in the wind, changing color as the sun ducked behind a cloud.

But just as interesting was seeing the city from places where I had never been; seeing an orange sun setting behind Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty, discovering a friendly walkway next to the river or that Brooklyn Bridge Park has the best views of Manhattan. “Those other sites which may be the more interesting sites,” said Olafur. It was the point of the piece that the local news programs never saw.

Like all public art, The New York City Waterfalls are temporary and will come down in October, so see them while you can. Yes, you will see the ever-changing Waterfalls, but also neighborhoods you never knew, sites you never saw and discover new places in your own city. If you are like me, sometimes you need a Danish-Icelandic Artist who lives in Berlin to show you just how beautiful this city really is.

You can watch Bob Morris and Suzanne Glickstein’s documentary The Waterfalls: Making Public Art online at SundayArts at Thirteen.org.