Written By Heather M. Higgins, CNN
Video Edited By Nina Raja, CNN
New York – On October 8, the world’s largest celebration of Italian-American heritage will travel up New York’s Fifth Avenue in honor of the exploration and the courage that inspired Christopher Columbus’s discovery 520 years ago.
However, just three blocks to the west, residents and tourists have a rare opportunity to discover Columbus for the first time – at a whimsical art installation that has already caused intrigue and irritation within the community.
“When will you ever get the chance to have this face-to-face experience with the monument, the statue of Columbus,” said Nicholas Baume, director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund, a non-profit with a mission to bring dynamic, contemporary art projects to New York City.
“I think it’s a way of creating an intimacy and turning the public into the domestic in a very unique way,” Baume continued. “And I think it’s a work about imagination, turning a fiction into a temporary reality.”
Japanese intervention artist Tatzu Nishi’s first major U.S. work, “Discovering Columbus,” places a 13-foot-high icon in the center of a modern American living room six stories above one of the city’s most bustling intersections.
This fresh vantage point offers dramatic views of Central Park and Midtown Manhattan from four loft-style windows. But more importantly, many see this exhibit as a teachable moment about Columbus, the statue, and the circle itself.
“The statue was constructed at a time when massive migration to the U.S. was taking place and the immigrants pooled their money to build the statue. It is a physical symbol of their pride and toil,” said John Calvelli, secretary of the 50,000-member National Italian American Foundation, who was instrumental in identifying donors for the project.
After walking around New York for four days, Nishi settled on the statue of Columbus, the point where all official distances from the city are measured. He was initially inspired because the sculpture is hiding in plain sight.
“I like the Columbus monument because it is very high,” Nishi said as he glanced out the window of Stone Rose, a dimly-lit lounge in the Time Warner Center, adjacent to his living room in the sky. “Now people can look the Columbus sculpture eye to eye.”
Nishi’s aesthetic may seem zany to some, but it isn’t his first time intervening in an existing situation.
Ten years ago he constructed “Engel,” a studio apartment on the roof of a 14th century cathedral in Basel, Switzerland that ensconced an angelic bronze weather vane. In 2011 he surrounded the famed Merlion fountain in Singapore’s Marina Bay with a temporary hotel suite and earlier this year he created an installation around the clock face of the train station’s bell tower in Ghent, Belgium.
Baume was the first person to spend the night there.
“This enormous clock, instead of being what told the time to all the citizens of Ghent, was suddenly transformed into the largest bedside clock I think any hotel room has ever had,” he said of his experience.
At the Columbus exhibit, visitors climb six flights up staggered metal stairs encircled by elaborate scaffolding to glimpse the granite column adorned with bronze ships’ prows and anchors. Inside, the once distant silhouette designed by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo in 1892 is center stage in all its marble glory.
Nishi’s 810-square-foot living room is filled with domestic trappings like an eggplant-colored sectional and snow white carpet. A paper thin 55-inch Samsung television is tuned to CNN and The New York Times rests on a coffee table at the figure’s gigantic yet weathered and pock-marked feet. A wooden bookshelf is lined with everything from “Tom Sawyer” to “Friday Night Lights” to Walter Issacson’s biography of the late Steve Jobs.
The dusty rose wallpaper is covered in Nishi’s gold drawings of Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, cowboys, hotdogs, baseball mitts and other images that bleed Americana.
While entertainment shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Mob Wives” have at times perpetuated negative stereotypes about Italians, this installation is not one of them, according to Frank Fusaro, president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation. The 600-member organization has produced New York City’s legendary Columbus Day parade for 68 years.
However, not everyone is thrilled with the Italian explorer’s new penthouse.
“Why did they have to choose such a beautiful and symbolic landmark for such a trivializing display and then obfuscate its absurdity by calling it ‘art’?” asked Andre’ DiMino, president of the One Voice Coalition, an Italian-American non-profit dedicated to combating discrimination within the community.
“It just adds insult to injury to cover it up on Columbus Day – a day of national pride,” he said.
While the Consul General of Italy is personally interested in this exhibition, she understands that some people won’t embrace it.
“It’s normal,” said Natalia Quintavalle. “It happens every time when you have a sort of expression of contemporary art like that which intervenes on something old which represents much for Italians and Italian Americans in New York.”
Others argue that from a civic participation point of view the exhibit is out of character artistically with the area.
“Covering it up entirely obscures it from people walking by who wish to see it on the street,” said Frank Vernuccio, a board member of the Enrico Fermi Cultural Committee, a Bronx non-profit that promotes Italian culture. Vernuccio does not intend to visit the exhibit and he encourages the city to take it down as soon as possible.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg disagrees with the objections. “You can’t see it from the street and here you can get your eyes 10 inches away,” he said at the opening preview in September. “We would have had to cover it to do the restoration anyways.”
The exhibition is a two-for-one project for the Public Art Fund. In addition to the $1.5 million raised privately, the Department of Cultural Affairs granted $1 million for conservation of the monument which will be complete two months after the exhibit closes November 18.
By concealing something we see every day, supporters say, it truly becomes visible for the first time.
“Tatzu Nishi’s work is incredibly innovative because he’s found a way to reveal things to us that we think we know but in a completely new way,” Baume said.
Those who wish to visit “Discovering Columbus” can reserve free timed passes through the Public Art Fund’s website at www.publicartfund.org.