Columbus Circle is one of the most busily trafficked parts of Manhattan, full of tourists, commuters, and errant horse-drawn carriages. Yet it’s also undeniably dignified, imbued with a certain elegance with which Times Square just can’t compete. The centerpiece and namesake of the circle is a 13-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus, built in 1892 to commemorate his discovery of the Americas. After more than a hundred years at six stories above the city, it’s easy to forget who’s even standing atop the granite pillar, much less pick out his weather-worn facial features. But starting on September 20th, New Yorkers will get up close and personal with the monument, thanks to an installation by Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi.
The Public Art Fund commissioned Nishi to build his first North American installation earlier this year. “When Tatzu first visited New York City, he became fascinated with the statue,” explains the Fund’s director, Nicholas Blume. “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 the show opens in September, visitors will be able to climb six flights of stairs inside a scaffold framework, leading to a living room built around Columbus’ towering figure. A maximum of 50 people will be allowed access the the structure at once. Tickets will be free, but appointment-specific, reserved on the Fund’s website. And before you ask–yes, there’s cable.
Nishi is known for his work with monuments. Last spring, he constructed a hotel around Singapore’s historic Merlion fountain, and in 2009, he built a temporary living space around two equestrian statues at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Despite the obvious delight of hanging out with a 130-year-old monument high above the city, there’s a deeply critical vein that flows through Nishi’s work. By temporarily “privatizing” public monuments, he reflects a less tangible trend in cities: the disappearance of truly public space. In New York, he points to new park benches that have armrests that prevent people from lying down to sleep. Another example? Dozens of “parks” dotting Manhattan’s grid that masquerade as public spaces but are actually maintained and policed by corporations, in exchange for allowances on development rights and other perks (the most famous POPS, or Privately Owned Public Space, is Zuccotti Park).
“Historical monuments or public constructions are turned into decorative items of the private space,” he told Design Boom in 2009. “I see it as ‘implementing exclusiveness’–superficially advocating openness.” Who better than Christopher Columbus, the prototypical figure of colonization, to co-conspire?
Right now, workers can be seen constructing scaffolding around the granite base of Columbus’s monument, which was built by a now-defunct Italian-American newspaper. As the New York Times reports, securing permission (and funding) for the project was no small feat. When the show is finished, restoration specialists will use Nishi’s living room as a base for a $1 million restoration of the statue. Still, some Italian-Americans are arguing that the installation blasphemes Columbus’ legacy, which seems like an overreaction, considering the monument will receive more attention over the next two months than it has in a century. More on that controversy here.
[H/t New York Times]