Gowanus Canal

Posted by Ellen

 

Toxic waste can give a body of water that certain something--a sheen, a glow. Call it art. Perhaps it's not surprising, in light of what a mess we're making of this world, that there has emerged in contemporary art a movement obsessed with discovering beauty in garbage and pollution and rusting husks littering the landscape. It has been argued that the nightmarish provenance of this beauty somehow deepens it, makes it more meaningful.

When one of my children was in elementary school, his teacher assigned a paragraph about something beautiful that they'd seen with their own eyes. My child wrote about the colors shimmering in a little puddle of gasoline in the Crown Station parking lot. The teacher was very upset; she apparently thought he was mocking her and her assignment. Really, he was just showing preternatural aesthetic sensibilities.

Posted by Ellen

 

Unlike yesterday's picture, which was also an artist's imagining of the neighborhood surrounding the Gowanus Canal superfund site in Brooklyn, today's picture just lays it out: this may not be such a great place to live. You can't even see the canal itself here--it's just beyond the dead end of the street--but you can almost smell it.

This photo, we might say, is much more realistic, or at least is truer to the ugliness associated with Gowanus that dominates the way the place is commonly experienced. One artist somehow found bright color and lively activity there; today's photographer captured the drab unpleasantness we expect to feel near the nation's newest superfund site.

Tomorrow we'll look at the work of artists who combine both impressions, sort of. It's a complicated canal.

Posted by Ellen

 

Last week, the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was named a Superfund site, meaning that umpteen million dollars will be poured into cleaning up its pollution. Gowanus water  has been sludged with grease and foul-smelling nastiness for a long, long time--so long, in fact, that hardly any new buildings have been constructed in the neighborhood since the nineteenth century. 

This painting was recently submitted to the New York Times by an anonymous artist, in response to a call for works remembering the canal and its neighborhood. In this scene, the neighborhood looks bright and vibrant. "The artist's eye can find something special in this unlikely place," noted one New Yorker. "But if you've been there, you know it by the smell."

"And the noise!" observed another. "Lots of old Italian men screaming words of torment and threat into the night, muttering something about busting someone’s head off with a baseball bat."

"This reminds me of the old joke," said a third. "Guy asks, 'What's the quickest way to the Gowanus?' The answer is: 'Borrow five hundred dollars from Dominic and don't pay him back.'"