The Hudson Bike Path is such an elegant solution to cycling in the city: take the cyclists out of the streets and plonk them by the shore on a wide smooth path that runs almost in a straight line down to Battery Park. It takes a good half hour to make the ride – past the basketball courts under the Westside Highway, past the Space Shuttle and A12 Blackbird on the deck of Intrepid, past the heliport with its waiting black Escalades. This is where New York differs from London’s streets with its cars, trucks, motorbikes and cyclists all crammed together on the narrow roads, cussing each other out to claim their tiny space. A ride through London is like a journey through time: from the young sprawl of the suburbs along old roads – some of them Roman – down to the oldest road of them all, the Thames. There’s not a street or cul-de-sac without its own peculiar history.
Near Battery Park, it all gets complicated – there are traffic diversions and squads of cops waving traffic through red lights. Right on the very balls of Manhattan, where Broadway and Broad Street meet the FDR Drive there are nests of steel cables, girders, cranes and full-fat tractor-trailers. Construction workers hang around. They look like the job has beaten them into a shape. When they smoke, drink coffee and make telephone calls everything looks ridiculously small in their hands. On the corner of Broadway and Prince Street a camera crew film the actor who played Bobby Baccalieri in The Sopranos. Clutching a microphone, he towers over a passerby. ‘Do you believe in karma?’ he asks. Yes, the streets are narrow canyons. Yes, it’s noticeably colder as you ride between the office blocks. Yes, you get lost in the scale, but you also get lost in the idea of all this matter rising up around you – the people, their gyms, the toilets that flush gallons of water every five minutes; old addresses high above the ground.
Later that evening we have our sense of scale further yanked around when we see the installation, Discovering Columbus by Japanese artist, Tatzu Nishi. It’s a vibrant re-imagining of the statue that stands in the middle of its titular circus. At around five stories high, old Chris is normally well out of view for most New Yorkers, who being New Yorkers probably walk past everyday without noticing him. Now for a brief time, they can get up close and personal by climbing the tall flight of stairs that thread up between the scaffolding that surrounds the monument.
Nishi has constructed a living room with Columbus standing squarely in the centre. Through the six windows you can see down 8th Ave and across Central Park. It’s quite the camera phone catnip. Nishi’s original idea was to build a living room around a sculpture of a naked woman on 5th Ave. It’s not important the sculpture he eventually chose is of Columbus. The point of the sculpture is to draw our attention back to the public works of art that surround us. He couldn’t get permission to build around the woman, but he did get Columbus and he’s quite happy with the way it turned out. Obviously, he wanted the room to be slightly smaller, but seeing as the city was footing the bill and wanted as many people to see it, they got the final say. ‘They shut their ears,’ Nishi says through the translator.
Nishi said that when he first looked at the site he didn’t know the monument was originally erected in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in America – he was only interested in its aesthetics, location and height. But as he talks about the different elements that make up his piece, it starts to become relevant. For one, the audience just can’t divorce Columbus’ status in American history from the statue. Depending on your knowledge of history, he’s either a hero or villain.
A subway rumbles many stories below and the installation vibrates, Nishi explains that the interior is supposed to look quite mundane. You got to be kidding me: it’s pink and covered in a kitschy hand drawn pattern featuring a cast of hotdogs, Coca Cola bottles, Mickey Mouse, Michael Jackson, The Empire State Building, McDonald’s, the Wild West, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. A woman asks the significance of these icons. Nishi says they represent America. ‘Hotdogs really?’ she says quietly. It occurs to me that Monroe, Jackson and Elvis are quite tragic figures.
On Nishi’s terms, Discovering Columbus is a success. It’s a big work that draws our attention to the art that surrounds us. It gives back the sense of scale the monument’s lost to the tall buildings. It’s incredible to get up close and see all the little details that have been hidden away high above. When we look at Columbus standing in his living room it’s inevitable we wonder what he would have thought of today’s New York and his new, temporary home.
But the work also strips its subject of meaning. This is public art as spectacle: a practice that can successfully travel the globe because it asks nothing more from the world than to provide it with material. It invites us to pose in front of Columbus with our cameras without asking why this man is standing on a plinth.
Nishi thinks that Columbus probably wouldn’t have liked his installation, and it’s a shame his work fails to draw out the reasons for that. The Ikea furniture, the broad but ultimately inconsequential choice of books and the outdated iconography of the wallpaper all add up to a pretty timid critique of American culture. Discovering Columbus invites us to look closely at our monuments, but not at why they’re there in the first place. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity.