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The Waterfalls: A Response

A text rendition of a waterfallThe theme of dominance/mastery over nature recurs frequently throughout modernity.  Advances of science that have made it possible for us to overcome many of nature’s limitations–our inability to fly or breathe underwater or go to the moon or fight disease–have also imbued us with a sense of otherness, of separateness from nature that has spawned, among other things, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the race to patent bits of genetic material, and ridiculous and arbitrary quantifications such as carbon credits.  Hearing NPR pundits discuss and dissect the effects of our somehow artificial industry on the “natural” environment as I did this morning always makes me smile.   As if we and our products somehow transcend nature.  “But polystyrene doesn’t occur in nature,” says the well-meaning announcer.  Actually, I would argue, it does.  Everything we produce is natural.  It may be processed and refined to a degree which wouldn’t be possible without our intervention, but such an argument could be leveled against the paraffin honeycomb that bees “manufacture.”  Our inability to admit that, technological or not, we are subject to the same laws and forces as viruses and daisies and hedgehogs is what has gotten us into this mess in the first place.

In light of this technological hubris it seems only fitting that the Waterfalls, about which creator Olafur Eliasson says, “they are as real as any waterfalls; it is real water falling,” have had their operating hours halved because of the unforeseen environmental effects of raising salt water 120 feet into the air in a place where water has pretty much always just been a surface.  Surrounding trees are suffering from saline splashback.  There’s a hands-in-pockets head-hung explanation of the reduced hours whispered in gray text in a hidden corner of the site.  I’m not sure whether this little irony argues against our illusions of dominance over nature or whether it just demonstrates the absurdity of considering us separately from our environment.  You could read it either way I guess.

All irony aside, my first reaction to the Waterfalls was not a bristling at the jarring juxtaposition of urban landscape and “artificial” natural wonder as I expected, but a kind of child-like delight.  In fact, with the scaffolding and the lights (I saw the Waterfalls at night from aboard a boat), they looked an integral part of the urban landscape, like big fountains placed in sparkling plazas.  And despite Eliasson’s claim above, other than the built up expectation of seeing something unusual, there was nothing particularly “waterfally” about them other than the falling water.  I associate moss and mist and blackened rocks and a deafening roar with waterfalls.

To my mind waterfalls are purposeful.  They emphasize the journey the water is making from the mountains where it melted to the ocean where it will eventually evaporate only to repeat the cycle again.  Watching massive volumes of water pour over a precipice shocks the observer’s mind into a kind of thinking it doesn’t regularly do, whether that be fear or awe or a Romantic understanding of one’s place in the universe.  The Waterfalls, on the other hand, don’t produce any sort of corresponding visceral or subconscious effect, at least they didn’t for me.  Water is weakly pumped over scaffolding from the river below arbitrarily, selectively.  It’s not a journey all the water must undertake; instead, it’s a slight detour a couple lucky drops get to make predicated on a very New Yorky scensterish premise.  I made an effort to go see the Waterfalls, I was primed to see something, I saw something, and then, expecting something more monumental than smooth sheets of water trembling delicately and almost femininely in the wind, I sighed, “Well, I’ve come all the way here and everyone’s been talking about it, so I should make the best of it.”

Which is not necessarily a bad thing.  By disappointing my expectation of “waterfall” and forcing me to find some meaning in their flow, the Waterfalls started a conversation about nature and art and made me reconsider the urban landscape.  The Waterfall beneath the Brooklyn Bridge transforms the cyclical and arguably pointless flow of traffic above into a metaphorical flow that resembles in its siting a sewage outlet or a storm drain.  It attenuates excess.  The Governors Island and Brooklyn Piers Waterfalls on the other hand had much less of an interpretable context, one a kind of front yard ornament and the other rising out of an abandoned industrial space, though both contrasted their up-to-down flows with the perpendicularly flowing traffic behind them.  The Pier 35 Waterfall was off.  Now you too can experience all the advantages of a waterfall without any of the inconvenient hassles!  A family friend insists “they turn off Niagara Falls at night.”  I’d love to know who “they” are, in the case of both Niagara and these Waterfalls.

Why do three of the four Waterfalls force us to turn our backs on Manhattan?  If Eliasson wanted us truly to reconceive our urban space, then rather than focusing our attention on blighted, underutilized non-spaces, he should have framed his fountains using the twinkling and dazzling glass universe of Manhattan, reintroducing some of the awe and sense of scale we lose by taking it for granted, and making us appreciate once more what a natural wonder it truly is.

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