Friday, October 12, 2012

Domesticating Columbus

Marcus Yan for the New York Times
"Only in New York City." That's how one of the guards at the base of Tatzu Nishi's Discovering Columbus public art installation summed up the remarkable creation now open for visitors until November 18, 2012 in New York's Columbus Circle. He was correct. Though Nishi has created similar conceptual pieces elsewhere, and New York is hardly starved for spectacles, there is only one statue of Genoa's favored son, and only one Columbus Circle in the city. Nishi's audacious project required him to convince the city's administration to let him to construct a carapace around the pedestal and rostral column of Gaetano Russo's 1892, 13-foot monument to Columbus's 1492 journey to and encounters in the New World, and then, at the base of and around the Columbus statue itself, a living room. Not only did Nishi persuade the city to greenlight the project, but today, on what is actually Columbus Day (or Peoples of the Americas Day, as someone renamed it years ago) I walked through the result.
At the base of the tower
Outside the tower
Rather than air, a temporary, living room, furnished with flooring, wallpaper, couches and chairs, tables and lamps, and a flat-screen TV running last week's Vice-Presidential candidate debate, filled the space around the statue, not only bringing others and I closer to it, but domesticating it, figuratively and literally. Nishi managed to resituate the monument within a human scale, and, to my mind, transformed it, at least within the context of that space, from an emblem and symbol of the terrible centuries of domination, suffering and oppression that colonialism and imperialism unleashed and that Western History has, until recently, often effaced or downplayed into, if even briefly, a different sort of figure. A postcolonial act, it seemed, the monument and the ideas inherent in it deterritorialized, rescaled and repositioned in potency, even if for the span of one's walk around it, one's gaze upon it, one's focus on the numerous other picayune details the room offered. One could, ironically enough, ignore it for an instant or two. Instead of looming over the (metro)polis, Nishi's re-presentation of Columbus now stands nearly at our eye level--or his knees, at least; for Manute Bol, eye-to-eye might be more of a likelihood. We were nevertheless forbidden to touch him, or should I say, it.

The Discovering Columbus tower
The tower from street level
Not that history itself changes because of the exhibit, but at least symbolically, for the duration the installation and the moment of one's interaction, the exchange resets. I don't know if any of this was part of Nishi's thinking, but given that the European age of exploration also included encounters and subsequent wars with Asia, transforming that continent in the process, perhaps it subsists somewhere in his thought. I thought it quite apt that the young man checking the tickets, which were free and available only through an online website (if you were lucky enough not to be kicked out of the system repeatedly, as I experienced and as others told me they were, before I finally lucked on a date and time that had not yet oversubscribed), was, as he mentioned in passing, from the Dominican Republic, one of the two countries on the island, Hispaniola, where Columbus initially touched down (though the settlement he established there, Natividad, was on the site of what is now Cap Haïtien, in what is now Haiti).
Regarding the man behind the "encounter" in 1492
Regarding Columbus
Mostly I felt the sheer elating strangeness of walking around, standing and sitting down in a living room high above a teeming streetscape when that's usually impossible to do--and with a giant statue nearby. I did overhear one woman standing near me in the room mentioning to a man beside her that she lived just a stone's throw away in a nearby tower and the view wasn't so unusual, but added to him that even she was a bit disoriented by this new proximity to the monument. For the majority of visitors, though, even those living in New York's or other metropolises' skyscrapers, I imagine the experience of Nishi's public installation will probably still feel a bit defamiliarizing and exhilarating. Perhaps the large numbers of billionaire New Yorkers who live in aeries brimming with multimillion-dollar pieces of giant artwork might respond with indifference, but like most of the people who entered the room with, I found myself smiling and staring with marvel. And then, because of the time restrictions and my desire to free up space for the next group, I was descending the stairs and back on the street, exiting an ingenious and surprisingly powerful work of public art. Columbus Circle did not, and will not, look the same.

In the "living room," Columbus's pediment at left
In the living room
More photos:
View from the summit, outside the "living room"
Broadway, from the summit
The line, from the stairs
The crowd, from the stairwell leading to the summit
The line to see Discovering Columbus
The crowd
Before we could enter the room
The doorway leading to the living room
In the room
Inside Nishi's installation
Central Park
Central Park
Looking east, from the tower's "living room"
Looking east, up Central Park South (60th Street)

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