NEW YORK -- A Japanese artist is inviting the public to have an intimate view of Christopher Columbus high above a hectic intersection in midtown Manhattan.
Tatzu Nishi is constructing a contemporary living room on top of the Columbus Monument in Columbus Circle, where a 13-foot statue of Columbus is perched on a six-story column in the middle of a plaza where five busy streets intersect.
Some Italian-Americans say the art project makes a mockery of the great explorer and trivializes history.
"Discovering Columbus," commissioned by the nonprofit Public Art Fund, is a free exhibition that will run from Sept. 20 to Nov. 18.
Nishi has encased the 70-foot-tall column in scaffolding and is in the process of erecting the living room – complete with couch, coffee table and lamps – around the figure of Columbus.
Visitors will climb stairs to reach the living room, where they will have a bird's-eye view of the city and Central Park. An elevator will be available for those who can't climb the stairs.
"Encasing this majestic statue in a cocoon of conceptual art demeans the community and trivializes history," said Rosario Iaconis, chairman of the Italic Institute of America, an education think tank that represents about 1,000 Italians nationwide.
The fund said it received no objections to the art installation from other Italian groups, including the Columbus Citizens Foundation, a 600-member organization that sponsors the annual New York City Columbus Day Parade; the 50,000-member National Italian American Foundation in Washington, D.C.; and the Italian counsel general in New York.
But John Mancini, executive director of the Italic Institute, said those groups "didn't look very carefully at the fine print, which is it makes a mockery of `The Admiral of the Ocean Sea.'"
"If the artist had attempted to stage a living room set around the Lincoln Memorial or the Martin Luther King memorial ... sensitivities would have been aroused," he added. "It's buffoonery masquerading as art."
Nicholas Baume, director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund, said he believed people's response to the piece will be different once they see it.
"What Nishi's work is all about is drawing attention and giving access to the public to urban monuments, statues and architectural details that they wouldn't normally have access to and to present it in a new way that gives it a contemporary relevance and opens our eyes to something that is perhaps overlooked," he said.
"So I think far from disrespecting the Columbus Monument, it will eventually raise the awareness of the monument in leaps and bounds," while giving the public an up-close view of "this quite majestic, carved, marble 19th-century sculpture," Baume added.
In response to criticism that the installation lacked any educational component, he said: "This is not a history project. It's important to understand that it's a contemporary art project, this artist's vision."
The city is providing $1 million for the conservation of the monument – a restoration project that will make use of the scaffolding around the privately funded installation.
"`Discovering Columbus' will give people from all over the world the opportunity to come face-to-face with a majestic work of art normally seen from afar while allowing for the restoration of the Columbus Monument," said Frank Fusaro, president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation, which in 1987 raised $400,000 toward the renovation of the monument.
Said John Calvelli, secretary of the National Italian American Foundation, "It opens up an opportunity to have a dialogue about the role of Christopher Columbus."
"Discovering Columbus" is Nishi's first public art project in the United States. He's internationally known for transforming historical monuments by surrounding them with domestic spaces. His other works include "Villa Victoria," a temporary functioning hotel around a statue of Queen Victoria for the 2002 Liverpool Biennial.
Visitors will be required to reserve passes in advance to climb to the living room.