New York Times, Critic’s Notebook
A Memorial Remembers The Hungry
— By ROBERTA SMITH
The Irish Hunger Memorial opening today on the edge of the Hudson River near Manhattan’s southern tip could be New York City’s equivalent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, an unconventional work of public art that strikes a deep emotional chord, sums up its artistic moment for a broad audience and expands the understanding of what a public memorial can be.
The work commemorates a 150-year-old tragedy, the great Irish famine of 1845-52. Although the subject lacks the national scope and immediacy of the war in Vietnam, the Hunger Memorial, which is in Battery Park City, illuminates Ireland’s tragedy in undeniable human, even universal, terms; it can grip the viewer with its combination of information and spatial experience.
The new memorial is a startlingly realistic quarter-acre replication of an Irish hillside, complete with fallow potato furrows, stone walls, indigenous grasses and wildflowers and a real abandoned Irish fieldstone cottage. The 96-by-170-foot field rests on a giant concrete slab that is raised up and tilted on a huge wedge-shape base. It slopes upward from street level to a height of 25 feet. A packed dirt path winds up the slope, culminating in a hilltop with sweeping views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
The field is a walk-in relic of a distant time and place tenderly inserted into the modern world almost as if it were an offering. From the riverside, the towering end wall of the plinth is shadowed by the broad overhang of the concrete slab, and cut by a ramped entrance that leads into the back of the cottage. Intended to resemble an Irish burial mound, or tumulus, it also suggests that the landscape has been flown in on a large spaceship — especially at night, when it is lighted from inside, creating an eerie glow. From its inception, the memorial was also intended to be a reminder of world hunger. The plinth is lined with glass-covered bands of text that mingle terse facts about the Irish famine with similarly disturbing statistics about world hunger today, along with quotations from Irish poetry and songs.
But the work’s potential for contemporary resonance may be unusually great: today’s dedication ceremony occurs in a city that saw history change course a short distance away less than six months after the groundbreaking for the memorial on March 15, 2001.
Located two blocks from ground zero, the Irish Hunger Memorial is likely to be embraced by many as a symbol of the hundreds of firefighters, police officers, rescue personnel and office workers of Irish descent who died in the World Trade Center attack. It was half completed when the attack came, and its earth-moving equipment and raw materials were commandeered during the rescue effort. But local police officers and firefighters familiar with the project protectively guarded the half-finished memorial from inadvertent damage or dismantling.
The Hunger Memorial will almost certainly add to the growing debate about the future use of the land on which the World Trade Center once stood. By coincidence, six proposals for the redevelopment of ground zero, each including plans for a 9/11 memorial, are about to go on view at Federal Hall National Monument.
Perhaps most important, the memorial has arrived at a time when Americans, especially young Americans, have a deeper understanding of tragedy and grief, of fate’s capriciousness and of the complexities of power.
The work, which was created by Brian Tolle, a 38-year-old New York sculptor, exemplifies contemporary art’s ability to meet the public’s need for meaningful monuments with an appropriateness that may surprise both advocates and opponents of the new. While the low-lying black marble wedges of the Vietnam Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, might be called populist Minimal Art, Mr. Tolle’s memorial is a form of populist postmodernism, a combination of reality and simulacra, of high and low, a layering of different historical periods and contrasting points of view. It is also a typically postmodern blend of existing art styles — Realism, Conceptual Art and Earth Art — bound together by historical fact and physical accuracy.
The work may cause a rolling of eyes among the original Earthwork artists. Their works tend to be hewn from the vast expanses of Nevada and New Mexico, miles from anywhere or anyone. In contrast, the memorial has a slight theme-park preciousness and detail. It is earthwork as Pop Art, a miniature at full scale.
But it also belongs to the tradition of the war memorial in the form of a deserted battlefield. Like those at Verdun and Gettysburg, it is a figure-less terrain in which the viewer stands in for the heroic statue. It commemorates human failure, human loss and human perseverance in a war fought with land, food and political might at the cost of at least one million lives.
The piece brings to fruition efforts dating back several decades to build a memorial to the famine in New York, where so many Irish immigrated to escape its reach. It began to take shape when Timothy S. Carey, president and chief executive of the Battery Park City Authority accompanied Governor George E. Pataki on a trip to Ireland, and the two men began to discuss Vesey Green, a half-acre square in Battery Park City, as a possible site. Upon their return, after the authority was formally charged with creating a monument, Mr. Carey selected a steering committee and hired Joyce Pomerantz Schwartz, an experienced art consultant, to guide the process of selecting the artist.
Battery Park City’s 155 acres already include 13 large-scale public artworks, the Museum of Jewish Heritage (A Living Memorial to the Holocaust) and the New York City Police Memorial. Financed by the Battery Park City Authority, the new piece has only slightly run over its original $5 million budget, Mr. Carey said.
Mr. Tolle was among 13 artists selected from an initial review of 150 portfolios and one of five awarded a $10,000 stipend to create a model and proposal for the site. The selection of his scale model — like the budget projection, it’s surprisingly close to the final outcome — was all but unanimous. He chose as collaborators Juergen Riehm and David Piscuskas of 1100 Architects of New York and Gail Wittwer-Laird, a landscape architect.
The only conditions were that the memorial be a contemplative space, retain the harbor view and incorporate text. The third condition reflected Mr. Carey’s view that too many memorials and monuments become mute because they contain so little specific information about the events they commemorate.
Both Mr. Carey and Mr. Tolle relish the idea that the memorial can change and grow. Paths that form through the grass will be kept. Mr. Tolle devised an ingeniously flexible method of mounting the texts: they are silk-screened onto strips of clear Plexiglas that are simply leaned against the glass bands from the inside. When lighted, they appear to be etched, but they can be easily changed, injecting new facts about world hunger or additional history about the famine.
Mr. Tolle says that the project is ”a synthesis of my interest in history, architecture and trying to make a memorial for a particular event that also lends itself to adaptation.” He describes the memorial as ”a little fragment of Ireland built on a heap of language,” and this is almost literally true. Excluding the tons of earth that blanket the tilted concrete shelf and the irrigation system buried in it, nearly every particle of the monument has an Irish origin and a historical logic.
The 62 plants — including wild yellow iris, nettle and blackthorn — are specific to the Connacht boglands in County Mayo, whose rural landscape inspired Mr. Tolle. The fieldstone house and walls were imported stone by stone from a farm in the area belonging to Tom Slack, a cousin of Mr. Tolle’s partner, Brian Clyne. (Built in the 1820’s, the house had a dirt floor until 1945 and was occupied until 1960; it was donated to the memorial by the Slack family.)
The slope of the memorial is dotted with 32 large stones, one from each of Ireland’s counties, and an ancient pilgrim stone, carved with an early Irish Cross of Arcs. The surrounding plaza and the base are clad with Kilkenny limestone, a green-gray stone that is studded with small, white, featherlike coils — fossils from the ancient Irish seabed.
The quarter-acre size of the monument adheres to the infamous Gregory Clause passed by the British Parliament in 1847, which decreed that cottiers whose plots exceeded that size would not be eligible for relief. The cottage is roofless because many farmers tore the thatches off their homes to prove destitution and qualify for relief.
The sentences that gird the limestone base from bottom to top have been gleaned from contemporary reports, newspaper editorials, parliamentary debate and parish priests and show how many people in the midst of the tragedy grasped its awful proportions. And also how many did not. In one line, the recipe for the soup ladled out in British-run soup kitchens (12 1/2 pounds of beef to 100 gallons of water) is compared with the recipe used in the soup kitchens established for victims of the famine by American Quakers (75 pounds of beef to 100 gallons of water).
The question of whether this elaborate artwork will have meaning beyond Irish history, or even beyond world hunger, is largely moot. It shows one instance and one cause of the immigration that has shaped and continues to shape New York City. It shows instances of suffering, prejudice and mismanagement so specific that they can’t help but reverberate into our own time.
Mr. Tolle said he considered the tilt of the work crucial in separating the memorial from its setting. Without it, he said recently, ”the piece would be a folly.” But the slant that isolates the Hunger Memorial from its setting also establishes a crucial similarity. The Irish farmers tilled their land so intently that it became close to man-made, just like Manhattan. The crampedness, oldness and ekedness of the field, so unlike most American terra firma, itself communicates a sense of human determination and toil. It is a fragment from a man-made island placed upon another man-made island, one symbol of endurance atop another.