Between Two Worlds: Remembering
"Wandering between two worlds,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn."
--Matthew Arnold, 1855.
Designed by Brian Tolle and a collaborative
team of architects and designers, the Irish Hunger Memorial
commemorates all those who died from starvation or left their
homes as a result of the potato blight in Ireland in the 1840s
and immigrated to the United States. The memorial is also
meant to call attention to world hunger today. It is truly
a work of art.
The monument's program is deceptively
simple. It seems that a furrowed, quarter-acre slice of potato
field, complete with ruined stone farmhouse, has dropped from
the sky, after having somehow been transported from Ireland,
and landed atop a more formally ordered pavilion, made of
a very different kind of dressed stone. This slice of field
now functions as the roof of the pavilion, which in turn serves
as one of two ways for us to enter the memorial in New York
City and emerge in an Irish landscape. Taken at face value,
this is pretty interesting, though it could have wound up
being woefully hokey. But, this is only the beginning.
The Irish Hunger Memorial is no less
profound for all its programmed surprises--it is in fact all
the more so. The artist took a real risk--he took a chance
that people would notice more than the program. His is an
act of extreme generosity. By giving over to the public responsibility
for looking more deeply, he gives us credit for being smart
and having real, complex feelings. Yes, the quarter acre of
Ireland resonates with an aura, but it is also a place where
the visitor is sensitively reflected. We spend as much time
looking within ourselves as we do enjoying the delights of
the site. In the end, the real collaboration is between the
monument and the viewer.
Good art is open-ended, requiring participation
to make meaning. With the viewer actively participating in
and arrested by the textured details of this monument, the
meanings here are many, changing, and layered, doing much
of their work upon later, continued introspection.
The historian Simon Schama, writing in
New Yorker , feels that
the monument's success results from its residing between two
usually disparate worlds--the figurative and the abstract:
"Its tiny scalea fragment
of Ireland torn from the blighted wholereminds the
visitor of the unviable minuteness of the lots that, when
the potatoes rotted, left millions destitute. But the grassy
hill, a piece of the auld sod stripped of sentimentality
but not of emotion, is also meant as a space for meditation
. . . By having the landscape virtually enact the story,
Tolle neatly sidestepped the figurative-abstract dilemma
facing designers of historical memorials."
Brian Tolle discussed his process in
an interview with BOMB
" . . . Its an artist-directed
project, but one that really benefited from the collaborative
process. For example, one day we were talking about whether
theres a hill, or maybe theres not, maybe theres
a cairn, maybe theres not, and suddenly its
cantilevered and off the ground. For better or for worse,
the experience and the execution and, frankly, the beauty
of that experience is as important as the concept. I try
to marry those things in a way that doesnt compromise
one or the other. To make something decorative is not the
aim, but to make something thats so highly conceptualized
that its reduced to nothing is equally uninteresting
It is always difficult to portray clearly
an endeavor of this size without sacrificing the intimacy
of the individual visitor experience. This photo
essay is an attempt to give an impression of being in
and engaging with the monument. The viewer will get some idea
of the ever-changing shifts in detail, but even more importantly,
the relationships of the monument to the city around it--the
past and the future woven together into the present.
1 Schama, Simon, "Pangs: A Patch
of Earth," The New Yorker, August 19 & 26, 2002.
2 Brian Tolle by William R. Kaizen, BOMB Summer 2001, No.
Plus see the people
and products behind the making of this project.