Out of America: 500-ton Columbus causes a colossal headache

WASHINGTON - Since Christmas is the season, among other things, of pointless general knowledge contests, here is a question to tax the best of you: why is a 500- ton copper statue built by a Russian and donated to the United States causing such a fuss? The simple answer is that the work, more widely known as 'Big Chris' or 'Chris Kong', depicts that much-vilified explorer Christopher Columbus - and no one has the faintest idea where to put it.

Now you might have assumed that the great Columbus controversy reached its zenith a year ago, but not so. Certainly that was the error of Zhurab Tsereteli, as he toiled away in Moscow blissfully unaware of the eddies of America's political correctness debate, and of how the intended celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landfall in the Bahamas was degenerating into a rancorous dispute: Was the explorer one of history's towering figures, or a white European supremacist who initiated the destruction of America's native civilisations? The aftermath is with us still.

Little more than two years ago, all seemed set fair. In the old Soviet Union, Tsereteli had long been churning out his behemoths with huge success. But by the late 1980s, for reasons now abundantly clear, the market for his prime subject Lenin was rapidly disappearing. Moscow's relations with Washington, on the other hand, were improving.

So, Tsereteli innocently reasoned, why not keep his workshops operating by building (there is no other word) a veritable Columbus colossus, 311ft high, which could be presented to the US in 1992 as symbol of the rediscovered friendship between the Soviet and American peoples? The work was given the anodyne title of 'The New World'.

During their Moscow summit in summer 1991, Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev visited Tsereteli's studio to inspect the project, and gave it their personal blessing. Since then, alas, everything has gone wrong. The Cold War may be officially over. But nobody on this side of the Atlantic wants the thing.

They first approached New York, which by any reasonable calculation should have been the perfect home for 'Chris Kong'. Tsereteli was already a proven success in the Empire state: two of his statues adorn the campus of one of its universities, while an admittedly more modest 39ft rendering of St George slaying the dragon stands at UN headquarters. But for all its love of giant structures and strong Italo- American connections, the Big Apple would have nothing to do with a monument that would top the Statue of Liberty by six clear feet.

The obvious second choice was Miami, not far from the Bahamas and whose large Hispanic population might have been presumed to be sympathetic to a venture which after all was sponsored by the Spanish crown. However, Miami was no more enthusiastic than New York. At which point Columbus, Ohio's state capital and largest of the myriad US cities and towns named after the explorer, entered the fray. But out in the heartlands too, the problems of 'Big Chris' are starting to look insuperable.

One difficulty is money. Although the Russian authorities are footing the dollars 25m ( pounds 16m) bill for the statue itself, the city fathers of Columbus - which already has a perfectly serviceable monument of the great man - have declined to fork out the extra dollars 22m it would cost to ship and assemble the statue and prepare the required four-acre site, complete with an obligatory museum.

In the last few weeks, a group of businessmen from Cleveland, Ohio's biggest city and arch-rival of Columbus, have expressed an interest in erecting the statue there. But are the bleak shores of landlocked Lake Erie really the right spot? Predictably too, the state's Native American community is up in arms at the very idea of glorifying a man synonymous for them with five centuries of genocide. And not only that: 'The statue is ugly,' complains a spokesman of the Native American Indian Centre in Columbus, 'the whole country will be laughing at us'.

And so, for this ill-starred, oversized descendant of the Socialist Realism school of sculpture, the odyssey continues. As I write, only the 14ft-tall head of 'Big Chris' has made it to these shores, in storage at a warehouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The remaining bits, more than 1,000 in all, are in the Russian city of St Petersburg, crated up but with nowhere to go.

In Columbus they have not entirely abandoned hope. 'A statue like this only comes along once every 100 years,' says one member of the New World Monument Foundation of Columbus, which still insists it will proceed with the project early in the New Year. As for Tsereteli, he remains in the running for a consolation prize, a statue to adorn the brand-new 1996 Olympic Stadium in Atlanta. But Columbus, in every sense, was the big one. Tsereteli is more than miffed; as for Genoa's most famous son, he must feel like the Flying Dutchman.