The Irish Hunger Memorial, a public art project designed by sculptor Brian Tolle in Battery Park City, re-opened to the public late last summer after undergoing major renovations to address damage caused by water infiltration in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Originally built in the early 2000s, the monument opened for the first time on July 16, 2002. Roberta Smith from The New York Times described the monument as a “typically postmodern blend of existing art styles — Realism, Conceptual Art and Earth Art — bound together by historical fact and physical accuracy.”
A methodical thinker, Tolle had spent plenty of time in Ireland doing research for this project which occupies half of acre overlooking the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island. The centerpiece is an 1820s stone cottage brought from Ireland. Also, stones from Ireland’s 32 counties and Irish flora were incorporating into the project, a reminder of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52.
Tolle had installed two miles of historical references on the base of the Memorial, in the form of a lightning shadow. The text, lit from behind with the shadow cast on glass, is changed and updated periodically, so visitors approaching the Memorial on one day might happen to read a Quaker soup recipe that was used to help starving people in Ireland in 1847, and on another day statistics about the amount of dog food consumed in the United States. The artist believes that this textural engagement with the Memorial ultimately shapes visitors’ visceral experience as they move through the monument itself.
Tolle, who teaches a course on public art at Parsons, is alert to the fact that art shown in a museum or a gallery space is dedicated to a captive audience, an audience of interested gallery or museum goers. When it comes to public art, the artist explains: “There is no way of controlling, nor would you want to control the audience in a public space, so you never know who is going to come across a project, and how they might respond to it.” With that in mind, the artist envisioned a memorial that trusts the intelligence of the audience in interpreting the event of the famine and its historic significance.
By its very nature, public art is free and accessible to anyone. When it blends well with its surroundings, it gives meaning and shapes the identity of the space. Public art is also a reminder of the shared community values and aspirational goals.
Tolle will lead a special tour of the Irish Hunger Memorial this Saturday, October 28 from 2 to 3 pm, and discuss the history of the Memorial, as well as its recent renovation. A staff horticulturalist will be on hand to discuss the Memorial’s native Irish plantings as well.
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