TATZU NISHI Discovering Columbusby Anne Sherwood Pundyk
PUBLIC ART FUND INSTALLATION AT COLUMBUS CIRCLE
SEPTEMBER 20 – NOVEMBER 18, 2012
Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi’s temporary modern “tree house”—encasing the marble statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle—shows how much we ignore in plain sight, even when it is set directly in front of us. The man who discovered the Americas and the Caribbean Islands in the late 15th century (while looking for Japan, China, and India), is immortalized by Gaetano Russo’s grayed stone sculpture standing high above New York’s Central Park. Columbus’s legacy includes the entirety of the cultural fruits and ethical atrocities born in the new lands of his incredible, bold, if accidental, accomplishments. Erected 120 years ago, the figure stands 60 feet above encircling cars, pedestrians and skateboarders, but despite the man’s formidable impact on the new world, Columbus’s likeness is largely invisible in the urban landscape. Nishi, commissioned by the Public Art Fund, essentially draws our attention to this homage by covering it up with his room-sized installation. He then uses interior design decisions to misdirect visitors to the art piece. The effect is that visitors continue to miss the statue even when it looms large in the room. What’s more, their unsettling disregard for fellow audience members compounds the veiling effect.
For “Discovering Columbus,” Nishi houses the weatherworn monument in a comfortably appointed contemporary living room suite built atop a mass of clean steel scaffolding. The ample room is reached by climbing six flights of stairs, or taking a small “hoist” elevator. While a beige area rug, dark red draped windows, framed mirrors and blue-chip art reproductions support the illusion of the room’s reality, the proportions of the walls and windows are off. The ceiling height is dictated by the 13-foot sculpture, stretching the room up, but this leaves the windows looking too small. Smaller skewed details include a skimpy molding between the ceiling and the walls and flimsy rods for the drapes. Nishi has not created a grand civic interior to elevate a grand man; rather, he has foisted the image of the intrepid navigator off on an Ikea-like domestic space as if Columbus’s statue was an oversized golf trophy. The gold and white custom wallpaper, designed by Nishi himself, forms a repeating pattern of doodle-like line drawings of people, buildings, and food. Specifically, it shows a spatter of images of American brands such as McDonald’s Golden Arches and Mickey Mouse alongside those of tragic icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, and Elvis. His subtle perversion of an American interior suggests Nishi has a cultural critique in mind, although any critique seemed lost on visitors who gladly accepted the invitation to lounge around the living room as if they were in their own homes.
The installation’s gesture of invitation works as a lure to see Columbus up close. It also blends the experience of public and private space, resulting in a contrast of visitors’ behaviors. Tickets are free. Attendance is staggered according to assigned time slots. Yet the democratic regulation of guests entering the stairs and front door is undermined, it would seem, by the laissez-faire supervision once inside. Visitors enter the main room as if checking out a new hotel suite; everyone wants to see what the room has to offer and much pointing, running around and exclamations ensue. The accommodations include a flat screen TV, books, couch, chairs, a selection of magazines, and a millionaire’s view of Central Park. But the longer visitors linger inside, the longer those below wait to get in. The time slots slip off track by nearly an hour as oblivious guests upstairs finish articles in Rolling Stone or gaze out the window.
The explorer’s stern, larger-than-life figure, looming atop a sleek coffee table in the center of the salon, functions as the installation’s conscience; he is the veritable elephant in the room, watching the indulgence unfold around him. Nishi has surrounded Columbus with novel gadgetry and alluring theater, but even brought within arm’s reach, the statue is largely ignored, just as before. The adventurer observes those at the top disregarding those below who wait in line. Similarly, world-changing events are happening around us, and being brought directly into our own homes. Columbus, the man of action, might observe that we will be just as likely to ignore them seeking instead the comfort of distraction.
West 58th St. // New York, NY
ContributorAnne Sherwood Pundyk
is a painter and writer based in Manhattan.