On viewing the Tatzu Nishi Columbus Circle project

Six years ago in Tokyo a gallerist introduced me to the work of Tatzu Nishi — he was going by Tazro Niscino then, one of many iterations — who had just participated in the 2005 Yokohama Trienniale and was soon to do an installation at the Hermès store in the Ginza.  Conceptually, the work was fascinating: he constructs domestic spaces around the sculptural elements of public landmarks and then invites people to visit, as if entering a living room that just happens to have as its centerpiece the pinnacle of a church steeple or a weather vane on a rooftop.  But at the time I only saw the documentation and couldn’t experience the work directly; now, Tatzu Nishi has done an installation (through 18 November) at the Christopher Columbus statue on Columbus Circle in New York so I went to see it.

At the center of that scaffolding is a sixty-foot pedestal topped with a thirteen-foot marble statue of Christopher Columbus designed by Gaetano Russo and installed in 1892 for the 400th anniversary of his sailing to America.  The white shed on top, which looks like it might be a work space for a construction crew, is Tatzu Nishi’s fabricated living room.

At the top of the scaffolding you enter into a living room that is deliberately banal, though it was nice enough — and New Yorkers, of course, being obsessed with real estate — that I overheard several conversations speculating about how much a space like this would sell for if it was on the real estate market.

The pink wallpaper (also designed by Tatzu Nishi) is worth a close up, if only because its cartoonish depiction of American icons is probably the feeblest aspect of the installation.

The room has couches and chairs, a bookcase, some newspapers and magazines lying around, a television tuned to CNN.  And then there is the decoration on the coffee table.

I found this change in perspective on the sculpture from something distant, monumental, and frankly most often ignored to an intimate work (albeit large) that developed texture and detail to be quite successful.  I had never looked at that sculpture before.  I don’t just mean from this perspective but, really, from any perspective: I walked by it many times but if the circle were not named for Columbus I don’t know that I could have told you who was on the pedestal.  Now, I can tell you what his shoes look like.

The impact of this seeing-for-the-first-time effect is not to be underestimated.  I spent an hour and a half with this work — it needs much less but I felt at home and in no hurry to leave it — and watched a succession of newcomers enter the room.  Almost every one of them said aloud, “Oh, that’s so cool” or some variation, usually dragging out the last two words into many syllables.  Now, ‘so cool’ is not an art historical term, exactly, but it suggests quite an experience.

So, what were they reacting to?  Roberta Smith, an art critic at the New York Times — previously, I have admired her insights about Ryan Trecartin’s work even if I disagreed with them — gave Tatzu Nishi’s installation a somewhat lukewarm review, writing, “Mr. Nishi has achieved a nifty bit of Surrealist displacement without moving the sculpture an inch — albeit not quite as nifty as I’d hoped.”  I am not entirely sure why Smith approached this as a Surrealist work — she later makes another reference to expecting “a bit more Surrealist bang for my six-flight climb” — but it is no surprise, then, that she was disappointed.  I think what Nishi is attempting is to invert Surrealism: rather than making reality seem strange he is taking something strange — or, anyway, a sculpture that is inhumanly scaled and usually inaccessible — and recontextualizing it, making it seem entirely normal.  So Smith concludes her review, “While oversize, the domesticated Columbus statue is not as startling as I thought it would be. It didn’t seem all that out of place…”  That strikes me as being Nishi’s very point.

I think what people were responding to on their ‘so cool’ entrance into the space was not the mind-trip of Surrealism but rather the intensity of truly seeing something that they had only ever semi-seen before: the veins of the marble, the texture of the weathered stone, the gaze of the figure, the sculptor’s every detail made new simply by the change in perspective.  I would contend that is worth climbing six flights of stairs.  But get a timed ticket and go soon because it ends 18 November and when I went yesterday it was already sold out into next week.


On the subject of seeing for the first time, one of the most transfixing contemporary art works I’ve ever experienced was Douglas Gordon’s “Play Dead; Real Time” (2003) at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea.  A video camera is set up on a low dolly and circles an elephant.  That’s it: that’s the whole work, projected on a couple video screens.  True, the elephant rolls over and plays dead and then rights herself and the title of the work suggests that is important but to me it was almost incidental.  Basically, it’s just an elephant.  But I can tell you I had never really contemplated at an elephant before — I had always processed them, at a glance, with my mental image of an elephant — and that experience has stayed with me for nearly a decade.  Here is an excerpt on YouTube but the scale and context contributed a lot to the experience, especially since the video was shot in the Gagosian Gallery space in which I saw it projected.


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