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The Irish Hunger Memorial


Between Two Worlds: Remembering the Hungry
By Roger Shepherd

Web extra:
• A slide show photo essay
• The people and products behind the making of this project.

"Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
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 The New Yorker 1 , feels that the monument's success results from its residing between two usually disparate worlds--the figurative and the abstract:

"Its tiny scale—a fragment of Ireland torn from the blighted whole—reminds 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 Magazine 2.

" . . . It’s an artist-directed project, but one that really benefited from the collaborative process. For example, one day we were talking about whether there’s a hill, or maybe there’s not, maybe there’s a cairn, maybe there’s not, and suddenly it’s 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 doesn’t compromise one or the other. To make something decorative is not the aim, but to make something that’s so highly conceptualized that it’s reduced to nothing is equally uninteresting to me."

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. 76.

Plus see the people and products behind the making of this project.

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