Hunger artist: David Frankel on Brian Tolle – On Site – artist’s monument to commemorate the Irish potato famine, New York City
— By DAVID FRANKEL
VISITING FAMILY IN TIPPERARY a few years back, I was told of a place somewhere close–though I doubt I could find it again–that was described as a kind of memorial to the Irish famine of the 1840s and ’50s. In a history populous with trauma, the famine–the Great Hunger, it is called–is a vaster one; spend time in Ireland and you will likely hear talk of it eventually, but it drifts on the edge of memory and visibility, everywhere and nowhere, present in vacancy, in the spaces marked by the ruined cottage and field walls of the emptied western counties more than in any solid monument. I decided to see this memorial, which was actually a graveyard for the famine’s local dead. It was down a lane, which quickly turned unpaved; and since the day was wet–in fact it was pouring–the lane was mud, impassably so. We never reached the cemetery itself, but we got to a place where we could see it through the rain. There was no monument nor even any gravestone. What we saw was an empty field.
The famine–outcome of several years of blighted potato crops and worsened, it is widely accepted, by British crisis mismanagement–killed more than a million people, at a low estimate. I can’t say that the field in Tipperary was the best way to commemorate such suffering, but even so the place, or the circumstance, had a sharp intensity. And by some strange chance the artist Brian Tolle, maker of the new Irish Hunger Memorial in downtown Manhattan, has aimed for something similar, though he surely thought out his plan a good deal more carefully than did the caretakers, if there were any, of that Irish graveyard: Tolle, basically, has designed a hillside field. Halfway up, above a meadow, is a roofless Irish cottage. Around the house, stone walls bound a plot of bare earth, which might in Ireland once have been sown with potatoes, and outside these low barriers is thick greenery–all species native to Ireland, such as blackthorn and nettle, planted and left to run wild. Climb the field, looking ahead to the s ky, and you might almost be somewhere in Connaught–until you reach the hilltop view at the summit and are reminded that the monument’s Battery Park City site overlooks the Hudson, and beyond it the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where so many forced to leave Ireland arrived in America.
But you won’t, of course, have forgotten where you are, surrounded as the site is by lower Manhattan. And what’s so strange about Tolle’s monument, sponsored by the Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority and to be dedicated in July, is this meld of simulacrum and real. You see it also in his previous work, for example, Eureka!, 2000, in which the facade of a riverside building in Ghent, Belgium, reproduces the ripples in the water below, as though the house’s reflection had flipped upward on a hinge to cover its front. That piece, though, has a cartoonish, Disney World-like feel; the Irish Hunger Memorial is an encompassing environment, its plants living plants, its cottage an actual, famine-era Irish cottage, dismantled on-site in Mayo, then shipped stone by stone to New York and minutely reassembled. On the other hand the hillside rests on a base like nothing you’ve seen: a quarter-acre concrete shelf with a scalloped edge, slanting upward like a bleacher. Supporting this shelf, which rises from ground l evel to twenty-five feet high, is a limestone wedge with a narrow door and corridor at its tall end, a passage designed, says Tolle, to recall the strait stone tunnels of ancient Irish tumuli-grave mounds, by no coincidence. This somber entryway leads you up under the earth and into the house.
Monuments of loss often practice a compensating presence, through figurative sculpture or some mighty form like an obelisk or arch. (The World Trade Center site, incidentally, with its own much debated plans for a monument, is right opposite the Irish Hunger Memorial.) But Tolle is clearly more moved by Maya Lin’s 1982 design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, which from a distance can’t even be seen. You might say Tolle adapts Lin’s downward carving of the earth by rotating it upward into a hillside. Like Lin, too, he leans on writing: The sides of his wedge-shaped support structure, as they gradually lift, are lined with frosted-glass windows framing reading matter on the famine. Other details of the monument restate history less obviously: The quarter-acre size of the plot, for example, reflects the maximum amount of land Irish farmers were permitted before being disqualified from famine relief. The cottage is unthatched, says Tolle, because many families had to tear off the roof of their house to prove themselves destitute, again to qualify for relief. Others lay down at home to die, knowing the thatch, unmaintained, would fall on them in time–the nearest they would come to Christian burial.
The issue in Tolle’s monument may end up being that it is almost too pretty. Despite its physical and instructional detail, you wonder whether its distinct surrealness, as a patch of Irish farmland dropped downtown, may touch it with the Disney aspect of the Ghent piece or of historical theme parks–reconstructions of the old way of life–that have sprung up in Ireland and elsewhere. What will be the place’s mood? One of solemn memory? Or perhaps this will be a kind of park, a grand green height with a view. Children will love the ruined cottage and the empty potato furrows in the field, and families will stroll there. But if the story embedded in the place seeps through at all, this won’t be such a bad thing.
David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.