Brit Art at Rockefeller Center: Disappointing

I popped over to Rockefeller Center this morning to check out the new Electric Fountain by Tim Noble and Sue Webster. Rock Center has a long history of fabulous public-art installations:

Jonathan Borofsky, Louise Bourgeois, Nam June Paik, and Takashi Murakami have all been very warmly received there, and there are millions of New Yorkers and tourists who will never forget Jeff Koons’s Puppy.

For the past couple of years, however, I’m mildly ashamed to say that the Brits haven’t quite managed to live up to Rock Center’s very high standards.

It’s their conceptualist bent, I think, that’s the problem: the ideas are great, but the execution falls down somewhat. I loved the concept of Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror, but the actual thing was most disappointing: more of a steel slab than anything transcendent. And in this case the concept is even more wonderful: a fountain of light, with thousands of LEDs mixed with blue neon. But the reality, I’m afraid, is rather mundane. The sculpture is more hulking than light, and the light show, just a few blocks from Times Square, looks positively amateurish compared to the kind of things which New Yorkers are used to. Hell, it’s not even as sophisticated as the lighted snowflakes which Saks Fifth Avenue wheels out every Christmas on the other side of Fifth Avenue.

The enthusiasm that Noble and Webster have for their work is contagious. Tim Noble talks about mixing electricity with (virtual, simulated) water; Sue Webster talks of people wanting "to bathe in the ‘Electric Fountain’ of love". It’s easy to sign on to such dreams – until they become disappointing reality. (I should note, however, that I’ve only seen this piece during daylight; I’m sure it’ll be much better at night.)

With Olafur Eliasson’s waterfalls coming to the East River, Rock Center is falling behind in the spectacular-public-art stakes. Maybe they’ll leave the Brits behind next time, and come up with something great again.

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