Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking
At His Penthouse, a Tête-à-Tête With Columbus
Tatzu Nishi’s ‘Discovering Columbus’ Installation
By Roberta Smith
New York Times
September 21, 2012
“Discovering Columbus,” at Columbus Circle, is on view through Nov. 18. Free timed tickets are available at publicartfund.org.
If you’ve ever wanted to see what the city’s pre-eminent statue of Christopher Columbus looks like standing on a large coffee table in an upscale New York living room with killer views, now is your chance. Under the auspices of the Public Art Fund, the Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi has built a convincingly appointed penthouse-worthy space around the 13-foot-high marble sculpture of Columbus that has presided over Columbus Circle from a height of 60 feet since it was completed by Gaetano Russo in 1892. In doing so, Mr. Nishi has achieved a nifty bit of Surrealist displacement without moving the sculpture an inch — albeit not quite as nifty as I’d hoped.
To see the work, “Discovering Columbus,” visitors need only procure a free timed ticket, sign a release, climb six flights of stairs and enter the white windowed box that has been built around the figure. It’s a structure that from the outside looks like a pristine outtake from a mansion, albeit one supported by an elaborate network of construction scaffolding that is itself rather attractive. (An elevator is also available.)
Once inside, they will encounter Columbus’s commanding figure, wearing the usual floppy beret and High Renaissance garb, in a spacious interior larger than many New York apartments (over 800 square feet, with 16-foot ceilings). It is outfitted with hardwood floors, area rugs, cushy couches and armchairs, art reproductions, lots of reading material and a remote-free, 55-inch Samsung television screen. Most of this has been provided by Bloomingdale’s; all of it is bathed in natural light, thanks to four large windows facing in three directions.
The statue, previously visible only from afar, is front and center, and it towers. You can sit down and contemplate Columbus and his legacy, along with the tendency of high-minded public art to fade into the background, while enjoying a reasonable facsimile of someone’s home.
You may note that the statue’s gaze, up close, is rather piercing, perhaps in an attempt to overcome its high perch, or you can consider the way weather and pollution have reduced the marble to something that looks like cast concrete. Or you may savor the views of Central Park and the assorted avenues or pick up a newspaper or magazine, as if waiting in a doctor’s office.
Regardless, you’ll be experiencing an intimacy usually reserved for birds and art restorers. (Indeed, after Mr. Nishi’s piece closes on Nov. 18, the structure will remain in place for a few months more, while the statue undergoes major conservation for the first time since 1991.)
This is the latest work from Mr. Nishi, 52, who divides his time between Tokyo and Berlin and has been recontextualizing monuments and architectural landmarks across the globe by enclosing them in temporary rooms since 1997. He has for example, built living rooms around a bronze equestrian statue in Guatemala City, and an angel weather vane on top of a cathedral in Basel, Switzerland.
Similarly, he has constructed luxurious hotel suites — gleaming bathrooms and all — that visitors can reserve for the night around a statue of Queen Victoria in Liverpool, England, and around the Merlion, a kitschy harborside fountain in Singapore.
Other displacements apply the formula in reverse, as when Mr. Nishi has turned arcing streetlights so that they protrude into adjacent apartments, providing indoor lighting. And he has occasionally taken the concept more completely indoors, for example building a scruffy-looking kitchen around a Blue Period Picasso that hangs in a museum in Nagoya, Japan.
Mr. Nishi’s work represents a further twist on, and also an inversion of, the wrapped buildings of Christo and Jean-Claude. Here you get to go inside the added wrapping and become part of the transformation. It also offers a somewhat fresh if hardly unforeseeable fusion of several fashionable art notions, among them site-specificity, found-object recycling, interactive art and architectural re-creation.
Typical of such projects are self-referential touches, like the slightly too cute pink-gold wallpaper here. Designed by Mr. Nishi, it features repeating images of American cultural figures or monuments, like Elvis Presley, the Empire State Building, Marilyn Monroe, a hot dog and, slightly more subversively, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Having seen photographs of some of Mr. Nishi’s previous efforts, I have to admit that I expected a bit more Surrealist bang for my six-flight climb, something more emphatically akin to stepping into a painting by Magritte, but this sensation was only mildly present. While oversize, the domesticated Columbus statue is not as startling as I thought it would be. It didn’t seem all that out of place, or at least not nearly as odd or intrusive as some of Mr. Nishi’s other efforts, especially those, like the Singapore Merlion, in which only the statue’s immense head protrudes into the room.
From certain vantage points, I felt as if I were looking at the living room of a would-be collector who had a spent a lot of money on a work by a would-be Jeff Koons — one who preferred eroded marble to polychrome wood or shiny metal.
Mr. Nishi’s recontextualizing concept is a formula that travels well, offering each locale a lens with which to examine its overlooked public landmarks, their forms and symbolism, in an unaccustomed private setting. But this formula is also highly dependent upon those landmarks. The choice of the Columbus sculpture is, on paper, the right one in terms of location and historical significance. It’s the sculpture itself that doesn’t quite rise to the occasion.
So while you may go to see Columbus, you may end up staying for the ravishing views. Also memorable is the rather disconcerting experience of what might be called extreme privatization. In a time when public space is increasingly controlled and privatized, one way or another, the idea that public monuments could be incorporated into private spaces available only to the rich and powerful doesn’t seem so far-fetched. It’s definitely something to think about.