Rediscovering a New York Landmark: Columbus Up-Close

Rediscovering a New York Landmark: Columbus Up-Close

September 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm

“One of the most important and difficult tasks an artist has is to reveal something that we all think we already know,” said Nicholas Baume, the director of Public Art Fund at the press conference for Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” installation at Columbus Circle on West 59th Street. Needless to say, Nishi loves a good challenge.

The 70-foot column that supports the statue of Columbus ends here in a coffee table that offers magazine and books to visitors. Photo by Perry Santanachote.

Columbus Circle is one of the city’s best-known landmarks, yet no living person has ever seen up-close the statue atop the column at its center – 70-feet above the ground. Nishi decided to make a more personal introduction between the public and the statue by building a contemporary living room around the figure of Christopher Columbus. Visitors climb up six stories of scaffolding (or take an elevator if you must) to hang out with Columbus for 30 minutes and get close enough to look up his skirt. His swank 810-square-foot  New York City studio is decked with cheeky wallpaper designed by Nishi, furnishings from Bloomingdale’s, a 55-inch flat-screen TV, a wide selection of reading material and dramatic views of the city – a vantage that the Italian explorer kept all to himself, until now.

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“After all these years with only pigeons for company, Columbus is finally getting a taste of the American dream – his own apartment overlooking Central Park and a housewarming with 100,000 of his closest friends,” joked Baume, who describes it as a typical domestic space with all the comforts of a modern living room. “There just so happens to be a 120-year-old, 13-foot-tall, marble statue of Christopher Columbus standing on the coffee table.”

Nishi plays with perceptions of scale and location by bringing the outside inside and making intimate what was once distant. He has an international reputation for revealing a city’s monuments, statues and architecture in a new light and altering their settings. He created similar installations in the U.K., Switzerland, Singapore, Belgium, Japan and Germany (where he lives). “Discovering Columbus” is his first exhibition in the United States. Nishi said he chose Columbus based on its external appearance rather than its historical background. “The impression of a monument is what I look for first, and the themes and concepts come afterward.”

In order to accommodate the artist’s vision, Public Art Fund worked with Tishman Construction to build the structure. Public Art Fund President Susan K. Freedman assured us it is sturdy and sound enough to support thousands of people (though only 30 at a time can enter Columbus’ quarters). Of course, a little more care went into making sure climbers are comfortable.

“Because it’s not trained construction workers going up there, we have what’s called ‘man stairs’ and not constructions stairs, and we made handrails and landings available,” said Freedman. “We do have a security plan should anything happen, and trained first responders are up there, too.”

It may sound complicated to build what is essentially a house on really high stilts, pierced by a column, but Freedman said this was a breeze compared to putting four waterfalls in the East River for Olafur Eliasson’s 2008 exhibition. “Building scaffolding on solid ground is a relief for us!”

At the press conference, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was quick to remind everyone the importance of public art works for the city. “Half of more than 50 million people who visit New York City come here for culture attractions,” he said. “Culturally minded tourists contribute more than $21 billion to our economy.”

He mentioned the scaffolding is also being used for much-needed restoration efforts. “It probably would have been harder to raise money just for the restoration of the statue,” said Bloomberg. “By combining it with art, we get to have both.”

Public Art Fund raised $1.5 million in private funds for the project. The Department of Cultural Affairs contributed $1 million for the restoration of the statue.

Free timed passes in 30-minute intervals are available at or the third floor information desk at The Shops at Columbus Circle. Entry is by timed ticket only. The exhibition is open daily from 10 am-9 pm from September 20 through November 18.