Columbus Day is a big holiday in New York City. Over the years, I have been exposed to various opinions intended to help inform my personal reception of this holiday on the calendar. Suggestions ranged from school craft projects involving three ships to being proud to share an Italian heritage with the famous explorer to utterly despising the man for what his discovery did to the indigenous people of our country. In the end, counter-celebrating with Indigenous People’s Day has made far more sense to my political and social sensibilities. Putting the notorious reputation he has gained over the centuries aside, though that discussion is certainly worth having, I offer you Christopher Columbus as the central figure in the current visual art installation by Tatzu Nishi, sponsored by the Public Art Fund. Tatzu Nishi is known for his installations involving monuments in various countries around the world. This particular installation is set in the center of Columbus Circle in New York City. Nishi built a fully furnished and functioning living room six stories above street level, and in the center of this space he has encased the body of the monumental statue of Christopher Columbus.
The scale and location of the temporary construction is absurd and mildly irreverent as from the outside it looks like a shack built on stilts gracing the fountain circle outside of Time Warner Center's chic mall scene. The NYC views from the windows are stunning and the seemingly regal though political gold-on-pink wallpaper print (Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Empire State Building, images of pop culture/capitalism) lines each inch of wall space. There is a TV on in the room among sofas and bookshelves. Visitors are invited to sit or walk around to look at the statue which you can’t miss at 13 feet tall right in the center. In fact, Christopher stands proudly atop a coffee table.
Much has been shared about the installation experience in papers, art journals, and blogs. I was fully prepared for what I would see last week when I waited in line for my cocktail hour timed-entrance to view Christopher Columbus. The climb was uneventful (I do this same workout to my apartment several times a day) and he was certainly larger than life. My friend and I mused at the texture of the sculpture, the fix of his eyes, his clothing, and the details of his arm tucked behind him steering a ship while standing on a coil of rope. I had never really looked at the statue before that closely, or quite honestly, ever.
However, my real experience came from a very separate set of observations. With timed-entrances, only a small group of people is allowed in the room at once and that number is maintained by the staff. New Yorkers and tourists alike, people who had just stood outside in a maze-like line on a rainy evening and had undoubtedly ignored one another during that period were…communicating?! The woman next to me on the sofa began to talk to me freely when I sat down. I noted a very unexpected duo of strangers across from me strike up a discussion just because they were sitting side by side and a couple of men pulled books off the bookshelf and shared them with each other. Children innocently moved tchotchkes from one side table to the coffee table and back (other than touching Chris or sitting on windowsills, there were no other rules).
This singular space dominated by a lifeless statue was infectiously and instantaneously infused with life, curiosity, and chatter.
Then it hit me.
When living a NYC life, you can grab various tastes of the city’s ever-present energy in social settings or simply walking down the street though you also develop a keen ability to ignore strangers you pass so you don't get overwhelmed. New Yorkers use their apartments as hideaways and escapes from the everyday bustle. For the majority, home is also sanctuary.
By creating a comfortable, temporary living room encasing a notorious figure in American history, is it possible that Tatzu Nishi somehow managed to generate a counter-experience to the typical NYC living space existence? It felt like a cocktail party - but the furnishings were all wrong and there were no cocktails. Circulating around the living room with Christopher Columbus, a bad boy with some personal challenges in the community-building department, I witnessed a group of strangers freely and genuinely communicating with one another! Nishi's installation was having an intoxicating effect on us.
(I wonder if the Statue of Liberty is bored after years of that same scene swarming at her feet on a daily basis?)
Maybe it was the endorphin rush from the six-story climb and perhaps the excitement only accompanied us because we imagined having our very own apartments with Central Park views, but something was happening in that moment, with those people, in unexpected circumstances, and without a cocktail in hand. THAT is what seeing art is all about.
Have you seen Tatzu Nishi's public art installation yet? Let us know what you thought in a comment. Learn more here and get free tickets to go visit the installation.