A June 10 article incorrectly said that statues by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli are located on the interior of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Tsereteli supervised teams that worked on the exterior statues and played a major role in the project to replicate the original paintings in the interior. The article also incorrectly described Tsereteli as "an obscure Georgian" before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tsereteli received a number of high state awards recognizing his work in the Soviet years. (Published 6/18/04)
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.
"No city has developed as fast as our capital of Russia," Tsereteli exulted. Then the sculptor did a little tap dance. "Hurrah," he said.
His statue of Peter the Great, installed in 1997, became the first major Tsereteli controversy. One group threatened to blow up the gigantic rendering of Peter on board a sailing ship, while others demanded to know why the czar, who built a new capital in St. Petersburg rather than remaining in Moscow, was being memorialized here.
Tsereteli's sheer productivity means his projects can be seen throughout the city -- in different styles. At one of his museums, he has installed a massive apple, with Adam and Eve entwined inside it. In the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that Luzhkov had rebuilt in the 1990s, hundreds of Tsereteli statues adorn the interior, postmodern copies of the original religious works destroyed by the dictator Joseph Stalin. One current project is a series of sculptures honoring contemporary Russian figures. One of them, called "Sound Mind in a Sound Body," looks suspiciously like President Vladimir Putin and will soon be installed in Tsereteli's museum; Luzhkov is represented by two sculptures, one showing the mayor as a tennis racket-wielding sportsman, the other as a street sweeper cleaning up the city.
David Sarkisian, director of the State Schusev Museum of Architecture in Moscow, has been one of Tsereteli's most persistent critics over the years, perhaps best known for calling him the "king of kitsch." Actually, Sarkisian said in an interview, "I didn't call him the 'king of kitsch,' I called him a genius of kitsch. He is using understandable models in a very kitschy way."
Sarkisian said he considered Tsereteli the man who has "personally done the biggest damage to the city" with his sculptures, but he added, "He is an artist in his way, always close to the power and always very successful. In certain countries, such artists prosper -- people who are serving the taste of the ruling power."
Revzin, culture critic for the newspaper Kommersant, said Tsereteli was an example of the "Disneyland" artist, "if Disneyland was directed at producing PR for power." Like several other commentators contacted for this article who refused to speak in any detail about Tsereteli on grounds that they were furious at the amount of attention he commanded, Revzin said. "It's an amazing phenomenon that the only internationally well-known artist we have is Tsereteli."
But the genial artist, wearing a broad smile and a three-piece, custom-made suit with oversize gold cufflinks, is by now so used to such insults he parries them with a well-practiced speech.
"Art takes time," he said. "It happens that people make mistakes, which is why the Eiffel Tower was criticized. Art will always find its place." He also said he had never let unkind words of the reviewers stop him: "How can I believe someone who can't draw, doesn't know anything about art and writes foolish things in order to show themselves off? Such a person doesn't have any effect on me. If it did, I wouldn't produce so many things."
He claimed that even bitter foes of his Peter the Great statue had come around to it. "They saw this czar and they were scared, now they are praising it. . . . People are apologizing, saying, 'It's a sin that I criticized such a great work,' " Tsereteli said.
Kabanova, who writes for Rossiskaya Gazeta, found herself in the unusual position of agreeing with him.
"Every year it's harder and harder to speak about Tsereteli. He's become not a sculptor but rather some kind of natural phenomenon, as if it were raining for a month and you criticize the weather, but if the rain continues for an entire year, you consider it just to be the climate," she said. "You can call it Stockholm syndrome, and we are in the state of a hostage who starts to like his captor."