The Brooklyn Bridge Has Always Been a Magnet for Mystery

First a grand piano showed up underneath it, then two white flags appeared on top of it. Why does the Brooklyn Bridge attract so many enigmas?

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On May 31, a grand piano appeared underneath the Brooklyn Bridge without any explanation. More than a month later, the piano a bit worse for wear, the mystery persists as to who put it there and why. 

Today there's another mystery brewing at the bridge. New York woke up this morning to find two white flags planted in pride of place atop the Brooklyn Bridge, one on each tower.

Twitter first noticed at 7:30 a.m.; dozens of people have since captured the white flags on Instagram and Twitter.  

The flags themselves—which look like faded or bleached American flags—are already gone. New York Police Department counter-terrorism officers scaled the Brooklyn Bridge this morning to remove the white flags nearly as soon as they were reported. 

No one has yet stepped forward to claim credit for the gesture. Brooklyn officials have all dutifully noted that the borough has not surrendered. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams tweeted, "If flying a on the is someone’s idea of a joke, I’m not laughing. We won't surrender our public safety to anyone."

Theories abound as to what it means.

But the best guess is art.

First of all, the flags were reportedly painted white. More importantly, though, it just plain looks like the gesture of a Banksy wannabe, a crude symbolic public art project symbolizing, well, take your pick—the gentrification of Brooklyn, the decline of the American empire, or some other reading conflating "surrender" and "New York."  

The fact is the Brooklyn Bridge has always been an epicenter for art. The Brooklyn Bridge's purpose as a symbol is almost greater than its usefulness as infrastructure. Back in 2008, artist Olafur Eliasson made it the site of New York City Waterfalls, one the most expensive public artworks ever undertaken. For a project of that magnitude ($15.5 million), there is almost no site worth considering except the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Olafur Eliasson's New York City Waterfalls, 2008. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

The Brooklyn Bridge is a part of art history. From Andy Warhol to Joseph Stella, virtually any artist you care to name has depicted the bridge in some form or another. Back in 1971, Alanna Heiss, the curator who would go on to found MoMA P.S.1, assembled artists for an exhibition that has over time come to be known as the Brooklyn Bridge Event. For that four-day exhibit, a group legendary artists—among them Sol Lewitt, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Philip Glass—performed works and just plain partied to observe the Brooklyn Bridge's 88th birthday. There's no piece of infrastructure remotely like it, in terms of its important to art. 

Artists who use the Brooklyn Bridge for their work aren't just taking advantage of a huge public subsidy (in the form of one of the most visible spots in all of New York City). They're stepping into the classroom, and stepping up to art history. I don't know that this white flags project does the trick, but I'm willing to bet that's the idea.

 

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.