Thursday, June 26, 2008

Lunch with Olafur

The New York City Waterfalls, after several weeks of much-blogged-about testing, were officially turned on today, complete with the obligatory presser. I'm going to withhold judgment until I see them in person, but I have to say it was cool to hear an almost hourlong talk by Olafur Eliasson, the artist behind the latest privately funded public-art spectacle. His talk kind of meandered from a recent lunch he had with Al Gore and how we like to think about making a difference in the world through to his past work (a brief flood in Johannesburg, dyeing rivers in European capitals, creating a second sun for the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall) and into his current piece. It was enjoyable to try to follow, even if I didn't grasp it all. His art, if I got what he was trying to convey correctly, aims to question the indifference that normative spaces can induce. He wants to stop us from becoming numb to our surroundings and become aware of how concepts move from mental space into physical space. So many spaces aim to be static and purely functional, without encouraging us to engage in any way except the ones that had been planned or intended.

As an example, he cited the difference between neoclassical architecture and some postmodern structures. The former appeal to a static historicism, while the later sometimes aim to highlight the subjective nature of our experience - they try to be more "fluid" while at the same time serving the purpose of buildings for time immemorial: shelter of one kind or another. His thinking really appeals to me: leading the viewer to see the world in a different way, to become more aware of how we see, how it may differ from others, and the duality of unity and diversity that disagreeing within a particular space can bring. In the case of the city's four transient waterfalls, it's about reminding ourselves that we live on an archipelago, surrounded by flowing water. He spoke of how New York City's skyline is so embedded into postcard-like or iconic images that we forget it's a moving, changing entity that's constantly being made and remade by our experiences and actions. He didn't actually mention 9/11, but that represented a particularly horrific moment of awareness in the changeability of our urban landscape. The fact that these waterfalls have been arrayed around lower Manhattan evokes for me a positive and renewing force just a stone's throw from the trade-center scar.

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