Tatzu Nishi's Columbus Circle Installation Brings Attention to Overlooked Statue
By Hanae Ko
On November 9, Public Art Fund announced the two-week extension of Discovering Columbus, Tatzu Nishi's large-scale installation in the center of Columbus Circle in New York. The site-specific artwork, which invites visitors to enter a room encasing a 13-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus, will remain on view until December 2, 2012. The Public Art Fund, which organized the project, has made arrangements for visitors who missed their appointed reservations because of Hurricane Sandy.
The Columbus monument, located directly across from one of the main entrances to Central Park, dates back to 1892, when it was built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the navigator’s first voyage to the Americas. Designed by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo, it features the marble figure of Columbus, standing on a six-story-high granite column. Nishi chose the monument after exploring the city for inspiration when he first visited New York two years ago at the invitation of the Public Art Fund. In a press release for the project, Nishi states that he “didn’t know Columbus Circle before [his] visit to the city,” and that he walked for three or four days before finding the location. “I choose a monument,” says Nishi, “based on where it is standing, and its external appearance, rather than its historical background.” He adds, “The impression of a monument is what I look for first, and the themes and concepts come afterwards.”
Discovering Columbus was first unveiled on a clear, sunny day in mid-September, with a press conference presided by Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Nishi, who was also present, made a brief statement thanking the audience for attending the event. “I am so happy to have my work in New York City,” he stated. “My project is not only for art fans, but for everyone. For you, for you and for you. It is a dream come true for me. I hope you will all enjoy it.”
One group did not enjoy Nishi’s unconventional installation: the Italic Institute of America (IIA). A New York-based cultural organization, whose purported mission is “to be the guardian of the Italian heritage,” the IIA passed out their own press releases at the opening event. Entitled “Discovering Columbus Exhibit: A Crass Betrayal of History and Art,” the document objects to the exhibition with a list of bullet points, including “Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi trivializes Gaetano Russo’s original design and intent,” and “The exhibit contains no biographical or historical information about Columbus or his accomplishments. This makes the Great Navigator a mere prop for Nishi.” During the press conference, a reporter from Fox News addressed the main criticism launched by IIA and others, which argues that the installation trivializes and hides the historic statue. In response, Bloomberg commented that these critics “must have very good eyes,” since it is not possible to fully observe the statue with the naked eye in the first place. On the contrary, Bloomberg stated that the installation will encourage visitors to think about the history of the statue as well as Columbus himself. “People object to everything,” the mayor quipped, “and I am not going to spend the rest of my life answering questions.”
To enter the installation, visitors are led to a plaza at the intersection of Eighth Avenue, Broadway, Central Park South (West 59th Street) and Central Park West. After checking in with the entrance staff, visitors walk up several flights of scaffolded stairs to enter the 810-square-foot “room” that encases the Columbus statue. The installation is a 16-meter-tall living room, created to reflect Nishi’s impression of a contemporary New York living space. The room includes such amenities as a flat-screen television, carpets, sofas, coffee tables, books on bookshelves, framed pictures, windows (with fantastic views of the city) and pink, custom-designed wallpaper featuring images inspired by American pop culture and Hollywood movies that the artist watched as a child in Japan—including cowboys, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse, Michael Jackson, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola bottles.
Despite the room’s elaborate decoration, the looming, 13-foot-tall Columbus statue is still difficult to miss. Though the figure itself is not the most exciting of statues, with even the mayor admitting to having never seen it before, one does feel an appreciation for the rare and bizarre opportunity to study a historic monument at such proximity.
“Tatzu has developed an international reputation for taking elements of a city such as statues, monuments and architectural details and revealing them to the public in a new way,” commented Baume, in the project’s press release. “His work allows people to have an intimate experience of something that through familiarity might be overlooked, or in the case of Columbus, to which we simply don’t have access. By putting the monument into a contemporary context, he’s created a unique experience that will open our eyes to the city in an entirely new way."