Spencer Finch, The River That Flows Both Ways, on the High Line
Nestled in a tunnel that was part of a former loading dock, The River That Flows Both Ways, by Spencer Finch, is a beautiful, meditative public art work that fits seamlessly into the architecture of the newly reopened High Line. Composed of 700 panes of colored glass, in a cathedral-like setting facing the Hudson, it quotes the motion and change of the river bringing an awareness of nature into the heart of the city and building on the effect of the gardens that have been planted along the old rail line. Encountering this piece, as you walk along the High Line, with it’s shifting views of city and river, you are aware of the constant energy, movement and change that courses through the river and the city it surrounds.
Finch’s piece takes its title from the American Indian word for the Hudson, ‘Muhheakantuck,’ that means a river that flows in two directions. Focusing on the movement of the river, Finch drifted in a tugboat and photographed a single point on the surface of the water with a high-resolution digital camera for a continuous 11 hours and 40 minutes. He then extracted one pixel from each digital image in order to chart the changing color of the water as the river moved. The resulting colors read like a chronological narrative of the changes in the river over this period of time. Finch then pulled one pixel from each photo and made them into individual panes of glass. Installed in chronological order from left to right and up to down, they form a map that describes the river and its movement. The colors of the glass are a beautiful range of hues from gray to green to blue to pink to purple. When viewed all at once they create a subtle, intriguing, and shifting view of the many colors that water can appear to be while never actually being any one color completely. The wall of windows, like the water itself, changes appearance based on time of day and ambient light. It appears to be very different from morning to late afternoon. Perception of the piece becomes ephemeral and shifting like the nature of the water it describes. Finch seems to be emphasizing the impossibility of being able to pin down the color of water.
While appearing to be analytical, Finch’s work often undermines the desire of the enterprise of empirical study by pointing to the ever shifting nature of what is being observed. In other window installations he describes the moonlight in Venice and the sky at dusk in the Hudson River Valley. He has also created drawings that contain layers of delicate color shifts describing the surface of ice and the motion and mapping of the jetstream. These pieces contain a delicate and comprehensive group of colors that express qualities of light over time. Their effect and beauty is created by the layering of these colors, bringing motion and energy into the work and mapping a vast order that is beyond a single piece. Their desire to map something beyond their scope gives them an aura of poetry and mystery. The myriad piles of color chips remind us of the constant flux of nature and how quickly it moves and changes as we are perceiving it. The energy of the natural world and its force become preeminent. While starting with science, we end up with mystery, as the elusive nature of evidence is revealed. As with the wall of glass panes that describe the color of the Hudson as unknowable, large groups of particular cases add up to a jumble of evidence that points to the shifting and mutable nature of what we perceive, bringing us to a place of wonder.
The River That Flows Both Ways, is a very successful public art project. It is the first temporary public art project on the High Line sponsored by Creative Time. It blends into the old architecture of the rail line while referencing the force of the river beyond it, and adding to the presence of nature created by the gardens along its path. In mapping the movement of the water, Finch reminds you of the power of the river and how its movement helped to shape the city. The history of the river and the city are inextricably intertwined. The river is also similar to the rail line in that both river and rail line flowed in two directions. When viewed together, the richness of the contrast between nature and man-made structure emphasizes the beauty, history and potential of each.
As you walk the High Line you become aware of the many layers of the city, it’s docks and industrial waterfront, it’s old hotels, streets, and tenements, it’s major thoroughfares and iconic buildings. At certain spots there are great views of the Empire State Building, along with views of new buildings such as Frank Gehry’s IAC Building and Jean Nouvel’s Vision Machine. In between you can still catch views of old meat market warehouses. This panorama of views, of river, streets and buildings, brings to mind the continual flux that defines New York. By bringing nature into this streetscape, the High Line creates an environment that provides a glimpse of the world beyond the city. It also reminds us of how quickly it could all be reclaimed by nature if left to its own devices. While creating a rich experience in the present, the High Line reminds us of the past, revealing many layers of building, decay, growth and renewal. Finch’s piece works harmoniously in this context, emphasizing the constant motion, energy and change that defines the river and the mutable, shifting landscape of New York.
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Patty Harris lives and works in Brookyn, New York.
She has been showing in New York since the mid 80s, as well as internationally. Recent shows include Exit Art and PS122. She has written for various downtown publications.