The 120-year-old statue of Christopher Columbus, ensconced 70 feet above Columbus Circle with unobstructed views of Central Park and no neighbors, enjoys one of the sweetest real estate deals in Manhattan. But this month, after more than a century of solitude, several thousand New Yorkers are coming to visit.
Yesterday, Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi unveiled Discovering Columbus, a fully functional living room built around the 13-foot-tall statue. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund and supported by the city, the installation is two years in the making, and completely worth the wait. Visitors who reserve free tickets (here) access the space by climbing up six stories of scaffolding and entering through a mundane-looking foyer, which opens onto an 810-square-foot living room. Columbus is dead center, striking a hand-on-hip pose that looks oddly contemporary, amidst the plush carpet and humming flatscreen. A stack of fashion magazines sit next to a purple velvet couch. You can practically kick up your feet on Christopher.
The Bloomingdale’s-furnished room is worth noting, particularly for the Toile wallpaper Nishi designed himself. The pink paper is decorated with gold-embossed doodles of American icons—Michael Jackson, McDonald’s, a hot dog—that made an early impression on Nishi as a kid watching TV in Japan. Eventually, when the installation closes in October, the gaudily decorated space will host a team of preservationists, tasked with restoring Christopher’s pollution-weathered features.
This is Nishi’s first installation in North America, but it builds on a decade of similar projects in Asia and Europe. In Ghent he built a hotel around a historic clocktower, while in Singapore he built a bedroom around a massive statue of a Merlion. Nishi’s work is delightfully accessible on one level (who doesn’t want to hang out with Christopher Columbus?), and on another, it offers a deft bit of cultural commentary: The artist says his work "addresses the privatization of public spaces," by turning public monuments into "decorative items of the private space." It’s a natural fit in New York, a city where POPS abound and the rent is forever too-damn-high.
Therein lies the odd cognitive dissonance of Discovering Columbus. The statue was built by Italian-Americans in 1892, as a populist celebration of American immigrants everywhere. The statue Mayor Bloomberg introduced yesterday is a celebration of a very different class of New Yorker. Like the first Americans, middle class New Yorkers have long since vacated the premises—though now, high above one of the richest zip codes in the city, they’re welcome to stop by for a visit.
"From the first meeting with Bloomingdale’s, I said I would like to make a living room which is in typically American taste," Nishi told The New York Times. "And they sort of laughed, because they have only expensive furniture."
Free passes for Discovering Columbus, which closes on October 20th, can be reserved here.