Tatzu Nishi Invites the Public to See, Spend Time With Columbus

Tatzu Nishi’s new installation in Columbus Circle is, by a wide margin, the most audacious public artwork that has appeared in New York City in years. Granted, competition for that title has not exactly been fierce, but that can’t be counted against the mid-career Japanese artist’s weird and beautiful work, which is presented by the Public Art Fund.

Mr. Nishi has placed a spacious living room 60 feet above Columbus Circle, atop an impressive pedestal of metal scaffolding. Visitors climb six flights of stairs to reach the room, which measures 30 feet by 27 feet with 16-foot ceilings. At its center is the 13-foot-tall marble statue of Christopher Columbus, made by Gaetano Russo, that has graced the plaza for 120 years.

This—it cannot be overstated—is a supremely surreal sight. One enters to find Columbus with his back turned away and his right hand holding what appears to be a rudder. The room is huge, but it’s a bit too small for the explorer, and he looks slightly out-of-place. After more than a century of presiding over the area, no doubt unseen by many, he is suddenly in the spotlight, open for examination. Sofas (courtesy of Bloomingdale’s) are available for visitors to sit and take it all in, to look him up and down.

Mr. Nishi has lined the room with pink wallpaper that is printed with images from American popular culture—Marilyn Monroe, a McDonald’s arch, Michael Jackson, Malcolm X, a young Elvis, and hung framed prints of Willem de Kooning paintings and historical photographs of the area. Columbus looks taller in those photographs, which were shot before the building of its current ostentatious neighbors, like the Trump International Hotel and the Time Warner Center. A table around the statue holds a selection of newspapers, and a bookshelf is lined with art books. A 55-inch television (courtesy of Samsung) sits on a corner a corner table—playing CNN during our visit.

All of these domestic touches are charming, seemingly aimed at rendering Columbus as just a part of everyday life, of heightening the uncanniness of the experience. But they’re beside the point, kitschy distractions from the main event.

The real, great pleasure here is getting up close to the figure, seeing this towering statue as Russo saw it in the late 1800s, before it was hoisted aloft. Like William E. Jones, in his Monument (2011) project, for which he photographed dozens of statues around the United States, Mr. Nishi is asking us to consider what other aspects of public space—what other monuments, what other latent ideologies—we unconsciously ignore as we scurry about.

The work is clearly going to be a blockbuster hit. The gorgeous views outside the window are good enough to guarantee that. As I enjoyed them, I began spotting other monuments and public artworks nearby, in front of the Time Warner Center, a few near the park. I had no idea who was represented in those statues. From this height, they were hard to make out.

The exhibition is on view through Nov. 18. Free passes are available through the Public Art Fund’s website.

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