At Home with Columbus


The Public Art Fund loves exposed scaffolding. You might remember this affinity for scaffolding from their presentation of Olafur Eliasson’s The New York City Waterfalls in 2008.

Discovering ColumbusJapanese artist Tatzu Nishi is currently constructing six stories of scaffolding around the column at the center of Columbus Circle. Atop that scaffolding-high in the air, all by itself, over the isolated plot inside a traffic circle-he will build an enclosed living room around the statue of Christopher Columbus in an installation called Discovering Columbus, set to be open from September 20 through November 18, 2012.

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Visitors to this installation will see the statue of Columbus not as the distant, monumental figure he usually is, but rather as a (huge) curio on a domestic coffee table. Based on photos of Nishi’s previous similar projects, the effect will be surprising, uncanny and witty. After a long, odd climb up six flights of steps (or an elevator ride, per ADA requirements), visitors will enter a familiar-seeming environment where the statue of Columbus will maintain its heroic posture and expression while taking its place among the designer furniture and bric-a-brac.

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This is grand public art about other grand public art being transformed into something private and intimate. In 2002, Nishi produced a similar “intervention” around an angel-shaped weather vane on the roof of the gothic cathedral in Basel, Switzerland. That same year, he collaborated with architects to build a hotel room around a monument to Queen Victoria in Liverpool. Of all the possible historical figures commemorated in over-life-size bronze, imagine trying to sleep with her looking down at you. (Photos of these and other projects are available here.)

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Robin Pogrebin’s excellent article in The New York Times describes the huge number of municipal agencies that needed to give their approval for Nishi’s installation to happen. She also notes that when the project closes in November, the living room will become a workspace for restoration of the 120-year-old sculpture.

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From the Public Art Fund announcement:

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This fall Public Art Fund presents Tatzu Nishi: Discovering Columbus, a large-scale temporary installation inviting visitors to experience New York City’s iconic statue of Christopher Columbus as never before. Commissioned by Public Art Fund, this major new work recontextualizes the historical monument at the center of Columbus Circle, placing it in the middle of a contemporary living room, six stories above the street. The creation of Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi, this work will temporarily transform the traditional monument into a contemporary artwork, reshaping visitors’ perceptions of both. And through large, loft-style windows, the work will grant visitors dramatic views of Central Park and Midtown Manhattan that can only be seen from Columbus’s perspective. In conjunction with this exhibition, Public Art Fund will also oversee the conservation of the Columbus Monument in cooperation with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, Art & Antiquities.

“This fall, New York City will rediscover Christopher Columbus in a new and exciting way, thanks to the creativity of Tatzu Nishi,” said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “It makes perfect sense for this innovative artist’s first North American installation to be staged in New York City, which has always been home to groundbreaking public art. This is sure to become another must-visit attraction for the millions of tourists who will visit New York City this fall to enjoy our vibrant cultural institutions and art scene.”

Since its unveiling 1892 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, the monument, designed by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo, has been one of New York’s most iconic statues. Nishi’s artwork will center on the marble figure of Columbus at the column’s crown. A room supported by metal scaffolding will surround the sculpture and be furnished with all the trappings of a domestic living room–lamps, a couch, a coffee table, a television, and more. The room will also feature custom wallpaper by the artist, covered with images from pop culture that Nishi associates with the United States.

“Christopher Columbus is an enduring icon of exploration and discovery, and the prominence of Columbus Circle is a testament to his historical and cultural significance,” said Nicholas Baume, Public Art Fund Director & Chief Curator. “When Tatzu first visited New York City, he became fascinated with the statue. He realized that despite its central location the Columbus statue is barely visible, a solitary figure hiding in plain sight atop a column some 70 feet in the air. Tatzu felt it was time to give Columbus an apartment of his own, with Central Park views, and to throw an open house to which all of New York City is invited.”

When Discovering Columbus opens in September, visitors will access the room by climbing six flights of stairs within the scaffolding. In addition, a lift will be available for individuals in need of special assistance. As with all Public Art Fund projects, this commission will be presented to the public free of charge, though visitors will be required to reserve passes in advance through the Public Art Fund website.