Artist Tatzu Nishi on Christopher Columbus' new apartment, and flipping public and private space

Discovering Columbus. (Dan Rosenblum)
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While there's cable TV, there are no bathrooms in one of the newest residences overlooking Central Park. There are plenty of chairs and books, yet no kitchen in the apartment with million dollar views of Midtown. And the lease is capped at eight weeks.

Still, an open house for a home built for Christopher Columbus, or rather constructed around the 13-foot-tall marble version of him that has stood 70 feet above the sidewalk in the middle of the swarms of pedestrians and cars at Columbus Circle, is expected to draw thousands people to Columbus Circle over the coming months.

The room is a part of “Discovering Columbus,” a temporary art installation opening Thursday, in which scaffolding was erected around the 120-year-old pediment and statue, supporting an enclosed room that radically transforms the public context of the statue.

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“Obviously, until now, he was up there by himself, alone,” said Tatzu Nishi, the conceptual artist who designed the structure. “So we want to change it into something really homey, warm, [and] domestic feeling.”

Nishi, who divides his time between Japan and Berlin, is fluent in German and Japanese. Aside from brief prepared remarks at a media preview and press conference on Wednesday morning, he spoke to reporters through a friend and fellow artist, Kosuke Fujitaka, who interpreted him.

Funded by the city and the non-profit Public Art Fund, Nishi’s work is meant to physically bring viewers closer to the landmark that normally towers above passers-by. He’s worked on similar concepts since the late 1990s. In the last two years he’s built “luxury hotels” around Singapore’s iconic Merlion as well as a clock tower in Ghent, Belgium.

Nishi said this idea came three years ago when the Public Art Fund approached him about setting up a project in the city, his first in the United States. Though the project materialized around the famed explorer, Nishi said the work isn’t so much a meditation on Columbus as it is on the monument’s height, 70 feet above one of Manhattan’s major intersections. Nishi is a global artist, but in some ways, his work thrives in a city where some of its greatest sights are obscured hundreds of feet above the pavement: think of the gargoyles atop the Chrysler Building.

“I didn’t pick Columbus, I picked the statue of Columbus. I wanted people to be able to see the statue of Columbus differently,” he said. In fact, he said an earlier option was the "Angel of the Waters” in Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain.

“A lot of public sculptures are placed on a high level, a high place, and this one is really high,” he said. “You have to look up all the time. But a big point of my work is to change this high level to the same level and you see the sculpture really differently.”

The 1892 monument, designed by Gaetano Russo, commemorated the explorer often credited with "discovering" North America. And though these days the role of Columbus is controversial, Nishi said the structure wasn't meant to support any “specific opinion” on the explorer after viewers make the six-story climb.

“Obviously, I want everyone to feel comfortable,” he said. "They can do anything except for touching the sculpture.”

Everything else in the temporary apartment is fair game. Visitors watch the flat-screen television fixed to CNN or flip through the issues of Details or Bloomberg Businessweek while sitting around on one of its several contemporary sofas.

That contemporary look extends throughout the 810-square-foot room, decorated with a bookshelf with biographies and histories of Richard Nixon, baseball, and rock and roll along with well known fiction titles like Leaves of Grass and East of Eden. The wallpaper features the McDonald's logo, Michael Jackson, cowboys and Mickey Mouse, all of which, Nishi said, were meant to reflect contemporary American history and pop-culture. But he doesn't want it to be read as any specific comment on America.

“The point of this artwork is to transform public space to domestic space, and also outside to inside,” he said.

Like much ambitious works of art in New York, this isn’t without its critics. A protester handed out press releases from the Italic Institute decrying what the Italian-American anti-defamation group called a “crass betrayal of history and art,” and complaining that the project had the effect of covering up the majestic statue during the Columbus Day parade. 

The counterargument is that the exhibit is needed to fund $1 million in restoration of the timeworn marble statue, and that work will cover the statue in scaffolding anyway.

(Another $1.5 million is coming from the Public Art Fund, which is getting sponsorship from Time Warner, The Related Companies and Bloomberg LP.)

Speaking at the same press conference yesterday, the fund’s director and curator, Nicholas Baume, said the work would give visitors the chance to see something familiar from a new perspective.

“After 120 years with only pigeons for company, Columbus is finally getting a taste of the American dream,” he said.

“I looked at the statue yesterday and I thought, ‘I wonder what he’s thinking right now’,” Bloomberg told the crowd.

Nishi said in his rush, he hadn’t gotten the chance to make up any permanent commemorative objects, including potentially marketing the campy wallpaper.

“I wanted to have some sort of souvenir-like thing, but I had to concentrate on this project and I didn’t have time to do that,” Nishi said. “But if someone wants to have some products--if they’re collaborating with me--I’m more than happy to work on that.”

Organizers expect 100,000 people to walk through the apartment in groups of 25 at a time until it disappears Nov. 18. Nishi isn’t done with his reveries of decontextualized rooms, though for his future projects, he’s aiming lower to the ground.

“Well, it’s not really any concrete project or anything, but my dream project is that I want to make a bedroom around Van Gogh’s tomb in France.”

Some more photos:

The artist, outside the exhibition.

Columbus in his new home.

Reading material.

The view from the windows, looking north ...

... and south.

The monument in Columbus Circle.