Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls and Statues of Limitations


I am leaving Saks Fifth Avenue in a huff on a recent blazing Saturday—because even though everything is 70 percent off, the Sgt. Pepper–esque Junya Watanabe jacket I’ve been contemplating since February is still over $1,000—when I notice, at the entrance to Rockefeller Center across the street, some sort of model of a skyscraper that looks like a giant erector set. It’s by Chris Burden—a nutty performance artist who once famously had an assistant shoot him the arm—and it’s called What My Dad Gave Me, but the desultory crowd of picture takers around it is for the most part unmoved. “Waterfalls is better,” I overhear someone mutter.

They are? Does that mean I should hustle downtown and see the most ballyhooed outdoor-art project of summer ’08: four cascades that the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson somehow conned the City of New York into letting him erect on the East River? You can view all of them from the shore, but I decide it’s better to take the boat to examine these gushers properly. I e-mail the publicist for boat tickets (she admonishes me sternly that I must refer to this conveyance in all future communications as Circle Line Downtown), even though most of the seats are free anyway.

In the meantime, I plan to go up to the roof of the Met and see the Jeff Koons sculptures, a group of huge, cartoonish works that the museum, in an accompanying pamphlet, describes as “offering a certain jouissance and jubilant spirit and demonstrating extraordinary technical virtuosity in the rendering of large perfected forms on a huge scale.”

Desperate for a dose of jouissance, I hop on the subway at 14th Street, but not before practically walking into a replica of the Statue of Liberty outside Walgreen’s, painted an ugly black, white, and gray and with the legend “Statues of Liberty on Parade All-Star Games” at its base. Careful examination—the word “Chicago” scrawled on Liberty’s torso, a drawing of socks on her robe—reveals that this piece of public art is one of a series of baseball-themed Liberties similar to those fiberglass cows that overtook the city a few years back, which everyone hated except me. (Sue me—I thought they were cute.)

Could anything be hotter than the roof of the Met in the middle of July? Sure, there’s a nice view over Central Park, but the soldiers on the Bataan Death March might have had a nice view, too. The Koons works—among them a giant candy-box heart and a chartreuse balloon dog—are made of stainless-steel, one unintended consequence of which is that you can see yourself reflected in the sculpture. And guess what? You don’t look so great with your hair tied up in rag and sweat streaking your dress. Still, I love the heart and the dog—they’re stupid and campy, the way I like my art—and I’m disappointed that the museum shop hasn’t seized the opportunity to have little green balloon dogs made up as snow globes or earrings.

Since I’m working so hard, I treat myself to a Mr. Softee from a truck outside the Met and am enjoying the first few satisfying sprinkle-laden licks when I notice a flag on the Park Avenue median that says: “Eat Fewer Sugary Snacks. Mt. Sinai Hospital.” Excuse me? Do I need a lecture from a lamppost? Why don’t you mind your own fucking business?

This post-punk righteous indignation puts me in the perfect mood for Shallow, a series of “musical paintings” by Malcolm McLaren, legendary bad-boy impresario and father of the Sex Pistols. These so-called musical paintings (what they really are are utterly silent films—no more “musical paintings” than “breakfast dishes” or “lunar landings”) are being shown in rotation on a screen in Times Square. But when I get to 44th and Broadway, though I see videos encouraging me to join the armed forces and a jaunty curved ticker that reads “Turkey suspects al Qaeda in attack,” I can’t locate any paintings, musical or otherwise. I’m about to give up when I finally turn around and see McLaren’s work, directly behind me, looming on a giant screen. (Truly, I am a moron.)

The film in question turns out to be a black-and-white short featuring the subway roaring into the Roosevelt Avenue station. A woman on the train is reading a magazine; a guy gets on and kisses her violently. And that’s it. It’s very film noir–ish, very British cinema circa 1960, when McLaren was 14 years old—he’s 62 now—and further proof that the aesthetic images that entrance you during your formative years continue to haunt you for decades to come.

Finally, a new day dawns, and it’s time for my CIRCLE LINE DOWNTOWN boat ride. Whenever I visit South Street Seaport, which is mercifully not very often, I am astonished by its grim landscape: the lovingly restored 18th-century buildings saddled with branches of Brookstone, Body Shop, and Benetton; the deeply predictable eateries like Uno and Mrs. Fields’s Pretzel Time. At Fulton Market, a humongous mall-like structure, a vast Gap shares space with Bodies: The Exhibition, the grisly traveling show from China that features the carcasses of alleged prisoners preserved through some hideous process and contorted into macabre tableaux vivants. Call me crazy, but I’d rather spend the afternoon at Rikers than watch a couple of dead bodies playing tennis.

At this point, I’m so exhausted that I just want to collapse in the air-conditioned belly of the boat, but no! I’m a reporter! So I go and stand at the prow—until the boat turns around and I realize this can’t be the prow—and am almost overcome by the nauseating aroma of diesel fuel.

Then the voice of the artist, Olafur Eliasson himself, comes over the speaker system. He thanks us all for coming, and adds, “We should talk about how it is to experience this in a group . . . how do we see things as a collective?” Hey, buddy, I want to scream, the only reason I’m experiencing this in a group is because I don’t have a private yacht, forcing me to share the experience with the usual fun slice of New Yorkers: pierced teenagers speaking an unidentifiable foreign language, babies spitting up their own waterfalls, and one very prosperous- looking family, the wife with a rock on her finger that will sink her for sure if we capsize.

The falls are OK, but water is water, and I’m not exactly dropping dead with excitement. They’re actually better seen from the shore—say, outside the Express store or a few feet from the temporary tattoo stall on Pier 16. Plus, one of the four falls isn’t even working, which would make me demand my money back if I had paid to begin with. Actually, the most electrifying part of the ride is that green person rising out of the sea: Lady Liberty herself, far more majestic and thrilling than any waterfall. And minus the white socks.