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'Genius of Kitsch' Has His Say on Meaning of 9/11

Russian's artwork will be installed in Jersey City. The critics are horrified; he's unfazed.

October 14, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

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 memorial to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. -- 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 Jersey City waterfront.

Whether from sour grapes or plain disbelief at Tsereteli's success, some in 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, said he believed Tsereteli, whose work is displayed in 18 countries, had "done more harm to Moscow's appearance than anybody else has ever done."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 97 words Type of Material: Correction
Sculptures -- An Oct. 14 article in Section A about Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli incorrectly stated that transporting a Tsereteli sculpture to Puerto Rico cost $30 million. That was the estimated cost of transportation and construction, according to Puerto Rican officials. The article also said that another Tsereteli sculpture was offered to Jersey City, N.J., after it was not named as a finalist to adorn the World Trade Center site in a December 2002 competition. In fact, the sculpture had not been entered in that competition, which was held to select an architect to rebuild the site.

"Tsereteli is a genius of kitsch. He is the personification of kitsch," Sarkisian said. "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," he said.

A proud, extravagant figure, Tsereteli wears a huge gold watch, suspenders and gold sleeve bands. A large metal key lies 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 said. "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 outlined 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 said, predicting the defeat of terrorism.

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 M. 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 noted. 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 said he firmly believed it to be a city favorite.

"I'm the kind of artist who knows what he's doing," he said. The opposition to Peter the Great 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 at the United Nations. His 350-foot Christopher Columbus, created in 1991, was his most controversial work, rejected by at least five U.S. cities, including New York, before it was accepted five years ago by 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 to accommodate landing planes, and there was more anger when houses were destroyed to make way for the statue.

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

An early model of the Sept. 11 work consisted of an enormous bronze eagle fighting a dragon, surrounded by a forest of 190 pylons 150 feet high, each with its own big glass teardrop. Another model was a four-sided edifice with water running down wires, with symbols of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.

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