`The personification of kitsch'

SUN JOURNAL

Monument: A widely successful and equally scorned Russian artist will install his latest project, a tribute to the Sept. 11 victims, in New Jersey.

October 20, 2003|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Zurab Tsereteli, the court sculptor whose work decorates the capital, is used to being derided by critics and rivals as the king of kitsch. At 69, he sails on a sea of controversy, his ego billowing like a wind-filled spinnaker that no criticism can deflate.

Though his work often raises hackles on his home turf, it is his latest project that is roiling the waves in two countries. Tsereteli's tribute to victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States -- a 100-foot splintered pylon with a giant teardrop-shaped glob of glass that he says will exude drops like real tears -- will soon be built on the waterfront in Jersey City, N.J.

Whether from sour grapes or plain disbelief at Tsereteli's success, some members of the Russian art and architecture world see the planned monument as evidence that the taste of U.S. public officials can be as questionable as that of Moscow's leaders.

David Sarkisian, director of the Shchusev State Scientific Research Museum of Architecture in Moscow, says he thinks Tsereteli, whose work is displayed in 18 countries, has "done more harm to Moscow's appearance than anybody else has ever done.

"Tsereteli is a genius of kitsch. He is the personification of kitsch," Sarkisian says. "It is only his limitless energy and push that have helped him get his ugly sculptures put up all over the world. In that sense, Zurab Tsereteli is a world champion in terms of the number of ugly works he has managed to palm off to different countries.

"It is simply beyond comprehension how he manages to be so successful."

The sculptor once tried to sell Baltimore on a 353-foot-high bronze statue of Christopher Columbus. The city rejected the statue in 1997, and it ended up in Puerto Rico.

A proud, extravagant figure, Tsereteli wears a huge gold watch, suspenders and gold sleeve bands. A large metal key lies amid the clutter on his desk, the key to Jersey City. He dismisses his detractors as ignoramuses who don't understand high culture.

"I'm one of those artists who gives birth to ideas and sees them through to the end," he says. "I want my works to live for a long time, and I really wish my works to be appreciated by everyone. But if everyone likes your works, it's a tragedy."

He outlines his vision for the Sept. 11 monument: "There are tears of sorrow and tears of joy. That's the main concept. I am sure that the tears will be tears of joy very soon," he explains, predicting that terrorism would be defeated.

A jumble of ideas compete for attention in Tsereteli's Moscow studio. Paintings cover the wall and are stacked in piles while models of statues and sculptures in different styles cover the floor. His office, equally chaotic, is stuffed with miniatures, knickknacks and photographs of the artist with famous and powerful people. His staff flutters and twitters around like birds on one of his statues.

Under the patronage of Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Tsereteli has left his mark all over Moscow, sometimes evoking outrage. The so-called Moscow Style imposed on the city by Luzhkov has been described in World Architecture magazine as "an abysmal rhetoric of traditional architectural elements, re-created Disney-style in poor-quality materials and with no attention to detail."

One of those responsible for that "flamboyantly ornate style" was Tsereteli, ensconced as a "quasi-official sculptor and architect," another World Architecture article notes. Critics have been especially unkind to his 165-foot, goggle-eyed Peter the Great statue on the banks of the Moscow River, branding it as a desecration of the skyline. A group of political extremists once threatened to blow it up, but Tsereteli says he firmly believes it to be a city favorite.

"I'm the kind of artist who knows what he's doing," he says. The opposition to the statue was "all political, from people who have vanished into oblivion. A lot of people made mistakes in their criticisms [of it]. It's high culture to know and understand art."

Tsereteli created the Good Defeats Evil sculpture of St. George outside the United Nations. His statue of Columbus, created in 1991, was his most controversial work, rejected by at least four other U.S. cities, including New York and Miami, before it was accepted five years ago by Catano, Puerto Rico. Like much of Tsereteli's work, it was a gift from the artist, although the transport of thousands of pieces cost the taxpayers about $30 million, and it has still not been erected.

The 660-ton work was mired in scandal for its height, cost and historical inaccuracy, depicting Columbus at a ship's wheel, not the tiller of his day. The statue had to be shortened by 50 feet because it could pose a hazard to landing planes, and houses were destroyed to make way for it.

"This is where Columbus actually entered America. He didn't go straight to Fifth Avenue, did he?" Tsereteli says, as though Puerto Rico had been his first choice for the site.

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