Controversial From Moscow to Hudson
Provocative Sculptor to Unveil 9/11 Work
By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page A09
MOSCOW -- Not many artists can afford a Rolls-Royce. But Zurab Tsereteli is not just any artist. The star sculptor of the new Moscow under the personal patronage of its powerful mayor, Tsereteli has reshaped the cityscape with his massive -- and massively controversial -- installations.
"Call me whatever you like," the dapper 70-year-old said defiantly one day last week as he maneuvered his gleaming black Rolls through Moscow's perpetually clogged streets while fielding calls on his gilt-rimmed cell phone. "I'm just expressing myself."
His critics -- and there are many here -- have never shied away from calling Tsereteli names. To them, he is a dangerously prolific master of the derivative, a one-man whirlwind bringing the destruction of Russian culture along with his gaudy statues to the most prominent places in Moscow.
For more than a decade, they have mercilessly lambasted Tsereteli's projects -- his 150-foot-tall Peter the Great hovering in the Moscow River over the city's historic center; his vertiginous column in honor of the World War II victory sticking out like a barbarian's pike with a winged horseman clinging to it; his childlike Russian fairy-tale figures right next to the Kremlin.
But Tsereteli's next project may be his most controversial. It will certainly be his most visible, as the artist identified with modern Moscow turns his gaze to the United States. On Sept. 11 of this year, at precisely 9:15 a.m., Tsereteli plans to dedicate his 10-story-high tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on a prominent stretch of Jersey City waterfront across the Hudson River from where the World Trade Center once stood.
His sculpture, titled "Tear of Grief," will take the form of a gigantic polished titanium teardrop encased in bronze; a special cooling device inside the sculpture will produce a constant flow of water making the memorial appear to weep. The names of the dead will be inscribed on the monument's base.
Jersey City officials have approved the monument and pronounced themselves thrilled that it will be the official gift of the Russian government; Tsereteli refused to disclose the cost of the project except to say he was paying for the labor and materials. But in a manifesto, some civic activists have protested it as a "monstrosity," with an "overwhelming scale," "outsized presence" and "simplistic" design, and convened a citywide group to try to block it.
"Everybody was aghast," said Daniel Levin, the president of a Jersey City neighborhood association and an organizer of the anti-Tsereteli effort. "No offense to this 'gift' from the Russian government," wrote a visitor to a Jersey City Web site devoted to the sculpture, "but it seems like they are probably glad to get rid of it."
As he waxed expansive about his plans for the sculpture in his Moscow studio one morning last week, Tsereteli professed himself unmoved by the latest criticism. In fact, he insisted, "there is no debate. Everyone liked it. . . . Why should there be debate when there is a gift from one people to another?" In Jersey City, he said, "they all support it."
Tsereteli said he came up with the idea of his crying sculpture when he saw people crying in the streets of Moscow after the World Trade Center towers collapsed. "Tears can be joyful or tragic," he said. "When America and Russia unite against terrorism and there will be victory, then it will be tears of joy."
Tsereteli's detractors here have mostly been relieved that his latest project is New Jersey's problem -- and not Moscow's -- though they are divided on whether to sympathize with the Americans. "It's a big pity for New Jersey," said writer Olga Kabanova. Other critics wondered if the Garden State hadn't got exactly what it deserved in agreeing to display Tsereteli's work.
But many seemed to take the position of Grigory Revzin, another art critic, who said, "We should congratulate ourselves . . . that it isn't being done here."
In the years since the Soviet collapse, Tsereteli has risen in the Moscow art world from an obscure Georgian who decorated Soviet embassies around the world to head of the Russian Academy of Arts. He has won the city's major art commissions and filled the two museums he controls with rooms full of his own work.
His patron and friend has been Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a Richard Daley-type leader with a penchant for grand building projects and a love for placing Tsereteli sculptures in the city's most visible spots. For the most part, it is unclear how much money Tsereteli has made from the projects or how he won the commissions.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company