Columbus Circle is one of Manhattan's busiest intersections. A new art installation offers a different perspective on the area. Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi has built a living room around the statue of the famed explorer.
Nishi is known for fashioning a number of site-specific, domestic-influenced art installations around the world. In 2002, he placed a one-room apartment over the roof of a 14th-century Swiss cathedral, incorporating a bronze angel-shaped weather vane in the process. The same year he created a temporary functioning hotel around a statue of Queen Victoria as part of the Liverpool Biennial. With Discovering Columbus, Nishi offers a unique, whimsical vision of America and its global influence.
The project, which opened September 20th and runs through November 18th, is being put on by the Public Art Fund, an inspired New York art institution whose mission, according to their website, is to mount "ambitious free exhibitions of international scope and impact that offer the public powerful experiences with art and the urban environment." The Public Art Fund unveiled artist Rob Pruitt's shiny silver statue of artist Andy Warhol in Union Square in March 2011, which had an extended run (up to last month, in fact), and they also sponsor several public art talks (held at The New School) throughout the year. Discovering Columbus is perhaps one of the Fund's most ambitious exhibits, inviting discovery, contemplation, and wonder.
Discovering Columbus is located at Columbus Circle, one of the busiest intersections in Manhattan. Entry, although free, is carefully timed; visitors must reserve passes at publicartfund.org with a specific date and time, and wait in line outside the exhibit in order to accomodate the safety requirements of the structure.
The exhibit only allows 170 visitors at once, for thirty minutes at a time, though the line outside the exhibit moves quickly. There's also an elevator available, and visitors have to sign a release prior to getting tickets.
Climbing six stories might seem like a haul for some, but it's well worth the effort; a familiar New York intersection slowly begins to shift and transform with every storey. The ascent, and subsequent descent, affords one the opportunity to contemplate a changing landscape, offering a microcosm of the constanting shifts and changes of America in both the literal and figurative senses.
The installation has not been without its share of controversy. John Mancini, Executive Director of The Italic Institute, told the New York Post in August, “I think it’s poor art. It’s in bad taste... I don’t know who is paying for it or why they would pay for it. If it’s aimed at Columbus Day, it’s quite disrespectful.”
Nishi's work, however, is anything but disrespectful; it's a thoughtful endeavor on the nature of America as a political, social, and especially cultural force in the world. Using his own position as an outsider, growing up in Japan and heavily influenced by American pop culture, Nishi utilizes a number of symbols old and new to make a larger point about the pervasive effect of Americana within both its own borders and outside of them, making some interesting points about the nature of national identity and perspective. In addition to being a thought-provoking piece of fantastic public artwork (and a great workout, what with the six-storey climb), it's also a great opportunity to experience a statue most wouldn't get to see at such close quarters John Calvelli, secretary of the National Italian American Foundation, told the Post that Discovering Columbus is "a once-in-a-lifetime experience... you can see Columbus up close!”
Gaetano Russo's 13-foot statue towers over visitors in Discovering Columbus. The statue was erected in 1892 to mark the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus.
The space itself is spacious and beautifully designed; at 800 square feet with a 16-foot ceilings, it's been outfitted with area rugs, sofas, armchairs, a hardwood floor, and a 55-inch Samsung television along one wall, most of which has been provided by Bloomingdale's. There are also four huge windows offering three stunning views. Visitors lounge comfortably, reading, chatting, watching television. It would all be incredibly normal, but for the 13-foot marble statue dominating the middle of the room.
It's precisely this dislocation that powers Discovering Columbus. Visitors are "discovering" the statue in a way few have before (except, as Roberta Smith noted in the New York Times, for birds and art restorers). Nishi offers a sly, fascinating take on the "dream" of America, and what it means in historical and futuristic contexts. Along with the comfy accoutrements and the TV broadcasting CNN (whose building, ironically or not, is literally across the street), are a myriad of books on various aspects of Americana: sports, music, media. Then there's the wallpaper. Nishi has fashioned a room that invites its own exploration, offering a fascinating, outsider's viewpoint of America and its potency in terms of culture, politics, history, history, and even technology.
Books on sports, music, and media line the shelves in Nishi's Discovering Columbus; there are also books of poetry, including a volume of Walt Whitman's work, Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" and Obama's "The Audacity Of Hope." The books further Nishi's theme of a diverse, culturally potent America that is both broad and inward-looking.
This paradox is beautifully, simply reflected in the spectacular views that Discovering Columbus affords. Situated where Broadway, Eighth Avenue, Central Park South, and Central Park West all intersect in a spidery contusion of belching gas and sharp honking, Discovering Columbus affords one the opportunity to enjoy some prime NYC real estate, high above the clamor.
Attending Discovering Columbus, one is torn between looking at Russo's immense statue, and admiring the spectacular views; one is also forced to confront the contradiction of being both an object of curiosity and observation (those lunching in the CNN cafe across the way tend to gawk in) and having a powerful vantage point from which to look and contemplate.
Such tension adds a nice dimension to what could be considered a pleasant, fun diversion - but Public Art Fund, while offering fun, interactive art for everyone, has also hit upon a powerful combination with NIshi's work. By entering into this "living room," we are, in effect, a part of its living history, our stories and histories intertwined with that of Columbus in creating an ever-unfolding vision of America.
So while it's easy to be caught up in the splendor of the view, and the grandeur of the statue looking haughtily over the scene, perhaps what really makes NIshi's work are the small details. Along with the books, the exhibit's wallpaper, printed with symbols of America (ie hot dogs, Mickey Mouse, Elvis Presley, McDonald's), is a whimsical, if powerful reminder of the culturally pervasive influence of American enterprise in professional, domestic,economic and artistic ways.
Russo's statue itself, once so far away and distant, is rendered imperious and haughty close-up. There's a discernible bitchiness to Columbus' pose too, as if he's both dubious about what his legacy hath wrought, and judging of those who might question it. Again, the pleasing tension of Nishi's work comes to the fore, as Discovering Columbus becomes an immersive experience in the idea of America, and how it's being redefined in the 21st century.