Who’d think that some 500-plus years after his monumental discovery of the Americas, explorer Christopher Columbus could add “New York City penthouse owner” to his long list of accomplishments? And in arguably one of the most desirable real-estate spots Manhattan has to offer, no less. Well, thanks to Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi’s newest exhibition Discovering Columbus, the Italian explorer (or rather, a colossal stone replica) can pen the feat to his resume. No broker required either — just the imagination of an artist bringing to life an iconic NYC landmark in an unexpected way.

The art installation, Nishi’s first in the United States and backed by the Public Art Fund, puts the Big Apple’s statue of Columbus — designed by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo in 1892 — front and center by integrating it into a contemporary NYC living room temporarily constructed six stories above Columbus Circle. This 810-square-foot salon is something most New Yorkers only dream of owning — it offers stunning views of Central Park, lovely furnishings and artwork, practically enough space for a morning jog and, of course, intimate access to a celebrated work of art.

“The sculpture was made to be viewed,” NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg affirmed to reporters at the official unveiling of the exhibition on Sept. 20, and Nishi, claiming his project “is not only for art fans, but for everyone,” has succeeded in granting the public close-up observation of a statue that had previously been enjoyed only by art restorers and birds resting their wings. He offers — at least, until Dec. 2 — a unique vantage point through Discovering Columbus by transforming viewers into Columbus’ personal houseguests instead of strangers who stare at him from 75 feet below.

When in close proximity, Columbus’ immense height — enough to make the likes of any NBA player appear miniscule — is instantly recognizable. The 13-foot-tall explorer, who is seemingly perched on a large, wooden coffee table in the center of the room, towers over the space with commanding presence and grabs the viewer’s attention immediately upon crossing the threshold. The statue certainly looks every bit as old as its 120 years. Outdoor exposure has given poor Chris’ marble frame a weathered, eroded texture and transformed this sprightly traveler into a withered old man. He maintains a serious, fixed gaze on the horizon, as if beyond the island of Manhattan he senses some faraway, uncharted territory; it’s a steely contemplation that doesn’t denote the content he surely feels at being indoors, safe from the elements that have softened his characteristics over the years and the bird droppings that have soiled his visage and chapeau.

While not everyone has the luxury of an interior decorator such as Nishi, Columbus’ living room, though attaining a slightly enviable level of chic, does feel as if it could be an average New Yorker’s pad, gigantic statue aside. It consists of all the run-of-the-mill necessities: a sofa (complete with throw pillows), armchairs, curtains, a flat-screen television, rugs, tables, lamps, a bookshelf, paintings and pottery. It has a welcoming, homey feel thanks to a wide assortment of vibrant and contrasting coloration in the furnishings, and light flooding through large windows overlooking a bustling NY gives it all a natural glow. As if this wasn’t invitation enough to enter the room, Nishi designed the installation so that viewers can only glimpse Columbus’ back from the exhibition entrance — in order to truly “discover Columbus,” they must install themselves deep within the living room and experience all of the room’s different elements in the process. Indeed, visitors can even rest on the sofa and chairs, very much unlike the “look but don’t touch” policy of most art exhibitions.

As much as the Discovering Columbus exhibition focuses on becoming acquainted with an overlooked NYC monument, it also offers a distinct view into the artist’s conception of America, through personal flourishes to things such as the wallpaper and the books filling the shelves. “Since this is the work with Columbus statue, all the interior elements are related to US history, culture and politics,” Nishi tells GALO. He designed the lavender and gold-colored wallpaper using his own drawings of culturally significant American icons — Mickey Mouse, Michael Jackson, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe all make Nishi’s wall of fame, as well as the Empire State Building, McDonald’s, cowboys on horseback, even a hot dog and baseball glove. America’s pastime features prominently on the bookshelf as well, as Nishi stocks his collection with paperbacks and hardcovers about baseball, on top of rock ‘n’ roll and American history and art. American literary classics such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass also made their way into the library. While these personal touches serve to enhance the exhibition’s ubiquitous American theme, they also help to give an identity to the man behind this public project and the perception he holds of the US.

Funnily enough, Nishi chose the Columbus statue as the subject of his art installation out of practicality as well as aesthetics. “I don’t believe art is puzzle,” Nishi admits, and while the decoration of Columbus’ penthouse required the artist’s creative flair, some aspects of Discovering Columbus are as purely logical as fitting together jigsaw pieces. “My favorite sculpture at [my] favorite location after four to five days of research in NYC turns out to be Columbus statue,” Nishi conveyed. “It seemed that many NYC public monuments are placed in parks and covered by woods, thus not suited for having a room around. I chose Columbus Circle because there is plenty of space to build the scaffolding and also because the column under the statue is so tall.” Furthermore, the artist said Columbus’ location in the center of the room was due to necessity rather than spatial artistry, as the scaffolding supporting the penthouse could only be built safely if Columbus were in the middle. Seeing as Columbus is the star of the show, it is only fitting that he be at the center of the action, but it’s interesting to think how Nishi may have changed the juxtaposition of the statue to other objects had he not had these safety constraints. Nishi’s artistic endeavor also has a practical purpose, with the apartment serving as a convenient platform for the full restoration of the statue, which is due to commence in December after the end of the public viewing period. The last and only time Columbus saw a beautician was 20 years ago, after a century of neglect, and the conserved monument was unveiled in 1992 during the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas.

Nishi has certainly been around the block a few times when it comes to site-specific, temporary art installations such as Discovering Columbus, having performed similar projects transforming historical monuments in several cities around the globe. Nishi may even afford New Yorkers the opportunity to view another city monument up close in the future, expressing that he is “looking forward to showing another completely different piece of artwork next time [in] the center of art in the world.” A few of his notable works include Villa Victoria (2002), a functioning hotel around a statue of Queen Victoria in Liverpool, The Merlion Hotel (2011), a hotel suite built around the Merlion fountain in Singapore, and Engel (2002), which incorporated a bronze, angel-shaped weather vane into a one-room apartment built over a 14th-century cathedral in Basel, Switzerland. “The important concepts of these projects are ‘alternation of inside and outside [and] alternation of public space and domestic space,’” Nishi explains. As in Discovering Columbus, Nishi transforms the viewing environment from communal to private space and presents monuments to the public in a unique and intimate way, reinvigorating those easily forgotten or obscured in a fast-paced urban environment. “By covering it from the outside, the artist drew attention to the statue,” Krystal Walsh, an art greeter at Discovering Columbus, said. “Especially when you live here, it can be overlooked very easily. You’ll never get this view again.”

Through Discovering Columbus, Nishi offers us the surreal and rare opportunity to meet Christopher Columbus face-to-face, in the comfort of his living room, and allows us to take our own voyage up six flights of stairs to rediscover an iconic explorer, maybe learning a little bit about American culture and identity along the way.

The “Discovering Columbus” exhibit can be viewed till December 2nd for free at Columbus Circle in New York City. For more information regarding the exhibit, including ticket information and visiting hours, please visit http://www.publicartfund.org or call 212-223-7800.

Cincopa WordPress plugin