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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Urban Experience Art: The New York City Waterfalls

» Olafur Eliasson (Danish, b. 1967)

The New York City Waterfalls

The New York City Waterfalls
Artist / Origin: Olafur Eliasson (Danish, b. 1967)
Region: North America
Date: 2008
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Scaffolding and piping
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Dimensions: H: 90–120 ft. (27.4–36.6 m.)
Location: New York, NY (temporary installation)
Credit: © Alan Schein Photography/CORBIS

Olafur Eliasson installed his New York City Waterfalls at four carefully chosen locations along the banks of the East River from June through October 2008.

By manipulating the normally flat river into a series of waterfalls that ranged from 90 to 120 feet tall, Eliasson offered his urban audience a new kind of experience of nature. What’s more, by leaving the frames of the waterfalls undisguised, the artist evoked the scaffolding that can be seen across the city, testifying to the dynamic, constantly-changing fabric of the urban environment.

Eliasson’s Waterfalls were made possible by the support of New York City’s Public Art Fund, a non-profit organization established in 1977. The mission of the Public Art Fund, and other similar organizations, is to bring works of contemporary art out of museums and galleries and into open spaces where they can be experienced by a diverse urban public. The Public Art Fund works with established international artists as well as emerging local artists to help them realize projects that might impact the cultural life of New York. Like Eliasson, most of these artists create site-specific pieces that respond and bring new energy to the existing environment. In this way, public art projects such as the Waterfalls prompt inhabitants of the city to look at the urban landscape in new, different, and thought-provoking ways.

Expert Perspective
Anne Pasternak, President and Artistic Director, Creative Time

“A project like that Olafur’s waterfalls exists for a number of reasons. Number one because an artist has something to say, wants to actually communicate with, actually with, lots and lots of people and to ignite their imagination and maybe spark some curiosity in them. So, public art also tells people that they matter; that they’re worth having these interesting engagements with and that there are moments that are being brought to them, to delight them, to provoke them, to get them to talk to one another. Those kinds of basic interactions within a city are important. And at a time period in our culture, especially American culture, where everything is so much a focus on the individual, we’re online, we’re in front of our television sets, we wear our head phones, we are on our cell phones—we’re not so good at engaging and having a sense of community all of the time. And so art in the public realm really helps us get to know one another and to remember that we are a part of a larger social fabric.

Olafur’s waterfalls brought you to Governors Island, Lower Manhattan, Lower East Side, South Street Sea Port, Brooklyn Bridge, Dumbo, Brooklyn Heights—it encouraged vantage points and flow throughout all these very different neighborhoods in New York City and that was really quite unique and I think it’s wonderful when people move outside of their neighborhood and their work place and they connect to other places. Public art is an opportunity to explore different neighborhoods in parts of the city and get to know folks.”

Additional Resources

Finkelpearl, Tom. Dialogues in Public Art. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001.

Grynsztejn, Madeleine. Olafur Eliasson. London: Phaidon Press, 2002.

Knight, Cher Krauss. Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

The New York City Waterfalls Web site.

Pasternak, Anne. Creative Time: The Book. 33 Years of Public Art in New York. Edited by Ruth Peltason. Introduction by Lucy Lippard. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.

The Public Art Fund Web site.

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