Public Art Fund commissioned Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi to do what he does best: Box in a statue for a large-scale public installation. With Tatzu Nishi Discovering Columbus, a free exhibition running through December 2, Nishi enclosed the monument of Christopher Columbus in a living room complete with hardwood floors, couches, chairs, a bookshelf, and artwork.
The intrepid explorer, who normally has a view of the expanse surrounding the circle named for him, is surrounded for the time being by pink wallpaper designed by Nishi and adorned with the gold drawings of Michael Jackson, Elvis, McDonald’s signs, hot dogs, and baseball paraphernalia. Columbus gazes out of two windows rather than watch his flatscreen TV, which was tuned to CNN during my visit.
A ticket taker told me that they have seen 100 to 120 visitors an hour since the exhibition opened on September 20. Timed tickets are required for entry, and the system has enabled Public Art Fund to control the traffic flow and avoid being overwhelmed by those who wish to see Columbus’s living room. They are also allowing a maximum of 35 people at a time into the room, according to the ticket taker, so that the stairways leading up to the statue and the room itself won’t become too crowded.
The six flights of stairs visitors must take aren’t really that difficult to climb; however, an elevator is available for those who require/desire. Seventy-five feet in the air, you can come almost face-to-face with the 13-foot-tall Christopher Columbus, who is standing on a coffee table in the center of the room.
It is interesting to walk into the structure, which is set up just like a house. Go through the front door and down a hallway decorated with a mirror and pictures, and turn to see Columbus with his back to the entrance and visitors sitting on the furniture around him, taking pictures or reading the newspaper. A check of Columbus’s bookshelf reveals his interest in baseball and Truman Capote. Of the artwork in the room, my favorite is Andy Warhol’s Green Cat. It’s a contemporary setting for a 120-year-old statute of a controversial historic figure who sailed the seas 520 years ago.
Public Art Fund is also overseeing the conservation of the monument after the exhibition closes, working in cooperation with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to clean the granite and marble, repair the stonework, and treat the bronze surface.
While it’s been said that Discovering Columbus “kidnaps” the statue and represents “the unease, bordering on contempt, with which cultural progressives regard traditional monuments,” I think the exhibition is a fantastic and rare opportunity to have an up-close look at a significant, if overlooked, piece of New York. Nishi and Public Art Fund aren’t removing Columbus from public view; they’re offering a new, more personal view of Columbus to the public.