November 15th, 2012

Remembering Columbus

Tatzu Nishi has made a career of bringing monuments down to size. Over the past 15 years, the 52-year-old Japanese artist has enclosed statues around the world in makeshift rooms. Last year, he built a hotel room around Singapore’s Merlion, whose enormous head loomed incongruously over a luxuriously-appointed king-sized bed. This year, Christopher Columbus receives the same treatment. Normally perched 18 metres above Columbus Circle in New York, a four-metre-tall marble statue of the famed explorer now sits atop a coffee table in an upscale American living room. Visitors can contemplate the normally aloof figure in a familiar setting: Bloomingdale’s furniture set, 55-inch Samsung TV, hardwood floors.

Nishi’s work relies on displacement, one of the central tenets of Surrealism. He transforms the setting of the Columbus statue without moving it an inch, by building a room on top of scaffolding that will be used next month to restore the statue. For the time being, the public can visit it for free after reserving a time slot online. This is Nishi’s first installation in the United States, but the questions it raises are universal, such as the privatisation of public space and public art. These days, “the idea that public monuments could be incorporated into private spaces available only to the rich and powerful doesn’t seem so far-fetched,” critic Roberta Smith wrote in September.

Nishi also offers a pointed critique of the role of public monuments. Not long after “Discovering Columbus” was unveiled, conservative art critic James Panero railed against a “cultural war on monuments,” whose grandiosity and unwavering sense of historical truth have fallen far out of fashion. It’s a peculiar angle of attack, one that seems unable to reconcile the fact that, while the view of Columbus might be temporarily obscured from afar, Nishi’s work allows the public to connect with the monument on a far more intimate level than before.

Of course, that might be Panero’s problem: in his world, monuments are meant to be humbling; belittling, even. They are reminders that we are small people, unlike our leaders and heroes. By bringing monuments down a notch, Nishi democratises them and removes some of their authority. But at a time when authority no longer engenders much respect — for better or worse — this has the paradoxical effect of restoring some of the monuments’ power. In the case of Columbus, the statue is given new relevance and new meaning for those who see it up close. That’s not such a bad fate for a monument to a long-dead man whose primary function, until now, was to decorate a traffic circle.

All images courtesy of the Public Art Fund.


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2 comments

  1. C. Szabla says:

    Did you get a chance to go up when you visited?

    There was an interview with Nishi just before the installation opened that asked him what his piece was trying to achieve with regard to Columbus’ historical significance. He replied that he hadn’t thought about the political implications of the work at all and that he’d undertaken it purely for aesthetic reasons. Interesting in light of the debate that City Journal article prompted.

    November 25th, 2012 at 2:07 pm

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    That seems a bit ostentatiously naive to claim he has no politics in mind when he’s working with material that is inherently political. It’s understandable that he doesn’t set out with any intent to make a political statement, but he certainly must be aware of the broader implications of his work.

    December 10th, 2012 at 12:19 am

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