NEW YORK - It was Saturday on the first weekend of the New York City Waterfalls public art project, and our reservoir of faith was running dry.
We had only a couple of hours to view the display by Olafur Eliasson, so imagine our chagrin when we reached the top deck of Pier 17 at South Street Seaport, touted as the prime viewing spot for landlubbers, and found the exhibit's centerpiece installation under the Brooklyn Bridge shut off.
When Eliasson discussed "unrealized potential" and "the value of seeing nature as a construction" in his artist's statement on the $15.5 million project, we're pretty sure this wasn't what he had in mind.
Four waterfalls have been assembled at points along the East River, and they are scheduled to operate daily through Oct. 13. There are myriad ways to see them, from river cruises to bicycle tours to a temporary park opened in Brooklyn to view the spectacle. That park was supposed to provide wonderful photo ops of the bridge and the waterfall on its anchorage, with only the swanky River Café between. More on that later.
The 90- to 120-foot-tall structures are technically fountains, not waterfalls, because they draw recirculated water from the river through "intake filter pools" covered in mesh to protect fish and other aquatic life. When fully engaged, the four falls churn a combined 35,000 gallons of water per minute.
The aspect of the project that we were fixed on at that moment was the barren bridge span, along with the uncertain nature of our passage on a Circle Line river cruise. We had a piece of paper that we hoped would get us on a 3:30 sailing, the last trip before we needed to take the train home.
We were in this predicament because Circle Line had erred and booked us a day early. We noticed the mistake on the confirmation e-mail; after several fruitless phone calls, an in-person plea at the ticket office had yielded an OK from a manager to board.
We queued up at 3:20, and began to explain the snafu to the deckhand. He smiled reassuringly and welcomed us aboard. "I've been getting these notes all day," he said with a sigh.
The Circle Line's catamaran Patriot embarked in a drizzle, and Eliasson's recorded introduction to the exhibit came over the PA. Then the captain told us if the Brooklyn Bridge waterfall resumed while we were still on the river, he would do his best to get us there. It didn't seem likely to happen in our 30-minute window.
We made our way under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges to the Pier 35 waterfall, our closest look of the four. We recalled reading about how their lighting would transform the falls at night, but also how they would be more audible. We could hear the crashing water only up close during the day, because of traffic and other ambient noise. We also noted how the gusting wind caused the water to veer sharply to the left as it rained down.
The boat doubled back under the bridges, and we saw several other watercraft streaming past with disappointed passengers. A member of the crew told us that the stream had been turned off because of complaints from the River Café over water blowing onto its windows. How long ago had it been turned off, we asked.
"About a half hour," he replied, which meant only a few minutes before our arrival at South Street Seaport.
A fellow passenger noted that the cafe's popular outdoor terrace was well within range if the wind was blowing in that direction.
The Pier 35 waterfall faded from view behind the bridges, and we enjoyed the Brooklyn Piers and Governors Island fountains as we chatted with a couple from New Jersey. Eliasson had talked in his introduction about how "public art has a profound way of addressing what it means to be an individual, but also what it means to be in a group."
One group has addressed the waterfalls on its blog, curbed.com, nominally a New York real estate site that also weighs in on cultural matters. A poll there gave four possible endings for the phrase "The NYC Waterfalls are a . . ." a) breathtaking spectacle; b) fun photo op, but no "The Gates"; c) bunch of glorified fountains; d) hydro menace! With almost 1,100 votes in, "fountains" was leading "fun," 41-29 percent.
We got word just as we were headed back that the bridge works were flowing, at least partly. The captain warned us to hang on as he raced back.
We had to admit, as we got close enough to see them, that half a falls was better than none. The waterworks farthest from the cafe were on, so we got a good view and the requisite photos. And just as we turned back toward the pier, the entire assembly was cascading: "the full Brooklyn," if you will.
Ron Driscoll can be reached at email@example.com.