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October 17, 2012 5:08 pm
If you have the stamina to climb six flights of stairs, you should jog over to Tatzu Nishi’s wacky penthouse, perched atop a 70ft column in the middle of Columbus Circle. His aerial living room encloses the marble statue of Christopher Columbus that normally surveys midtown Manhattan from its lofty post. Nishi’s project, which turns an invisible monument into a public artwork masquerading as private décor, seems gimmicky at first. But you will, I predict, fall under the spell of its whimsical surrealism.
I was initially sceptical, and my doubts were amplified by the ungainly scaffolding that has taken over the plaza. As I trudged up the steel steps, glancing down towards the ever-widening panorama of Central Park, I wondered whether the destination would be worth all that panting effort. (There is also a slow, small elevator.) Then I went in, and Nishi’s outlandish feat beguiled me. Surrounded by a suite of stylish modernist furniture, Gaetano Russo’s 1892 statue, a 13ft colossus striking a pose of heroic contrapposto, stood on a coffee table like some overgrown bibelot.
You can plop down and gaze at Columbus from a set of matching gold-upholstered armchairs or sprawl on a couch. Magazines and newspapers (including the familiar salmon pages of this publication) are scattered about his size-23 boots. Nishi is Japanese, but the theme is all-American. A tribute to Dick Clark plays on the giant television screen. On the bookshelf, biographies of Steve Jobs and Robert Moses, catalogues of exhibits by American artists and treatises on baseball stand wedged between bronze bookends bearing the sculpted faces of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.
The room glows with a specifically American cosiness that sets off Columbus’s marmoreal presence. Vibrant wooden planks line the floor and the pink wallpaper, which Nishi designed, rolls out a repeating sequence of mass-culture icons: Elvis, Marilyn, Michael Jackson, Mickey Mouse, McDonald’s, Coke bottles, hot dogs. Framed prints by De Kooning, Pollock and Warhol cement the American theme.
Nishi likes to turn public places into domestic refuges: he has nested Liverpool’s statue of Queen Victoria within a temporary hotel, built a one-room apartment over the roof of a 14th-century cathedral in Basel and crowned a clock tower in Ghent with a guest suite. His sharpest tool is scale, and he wields it with élan, packing huge objects in small boxes. He juxtaposes the rhetorical bombast of the past with the cool modernism of today, showing us what has been lost in the utopian march towards sleekness. By itself, the sculpture is uninspiring; the furniture, nondescript. Together, they combust in a phantasmagorical jolt.
With “Discovering Columbus,” sponsored by the Public Art Fund, Nishi rediscovers a landmark nestled so deep in the consciousness of New Yorkers that most of us have forgotten it. Nishi is betting that 100,000 people – first-time visitors and natives who think they know their city inside and out – will request a tête-à-tête with a man who has been hiding in plain sight for more than 100 years.
Nishi found his site on a whirlwind visit to New York, and his criteria for selecting it from among all the other hunks of statuary scattered around the city had nothing to do with Columbus. “I choose a monument based on where it is standing and its external appearance rather than its historical background,” Nishi explains in a statement. “The impression of a monument is what I look for first, and the themes and concepts come afterwards.” Mainly, he was interested in how far the statue was from the ground – the higher the better.
The showman/artist lives for the gee-whiz moment when we step into the sleekly decorated cell and come face to face with the utterly incongruous object. With his repetitive, one-size-fits-all approach, it’s not clear that Nishi actually has anything to say. This time, though – and perhaps unintentionally – he has produced a long-range critique of the American dream, contrasting the ambitious explorations of an unmapped continent with the latter-day craving for a few hundred square feet of generic luxury. Americans have long enshrined the home as tangible asset and defensible castle, as protector of privacy, freedom, family and values. Now, just as that real estate worship has been shaken by financial debacle, along comes Nishi to place the family room on a pedestal. Once we erected public monuments to great men; now we build private temples to ourselves.
Even if that’s the reading you choose, it doesn’t mean Nishi intends it that way. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether he does or not. “Discovering Columbus” barricades itself behind deadpan irony, making a mockery of analysis. That’s a relief, in a way: if you don’t feel like climbing all those stairs for a dose of social critique, then do it just because there’s something pleasantly kooky about lounging up in the air above a public plaza, with a giant statue of a mythic explorer staring, not at some distant horizon, but right at . . . you.
‘Discovering Columbus’ continues until November 18; free timed tickets available through www. publicartfund.org
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