BRIAN TOLLE "Eureka" named as "not to be missed" NYC Outdoor Art Installation

By Jennifer Congdon

1. Brian Tolle’s ‘Eureka’ in Federal Hall

Brian Tolle's Eureka is a towering 40-foot sculpture inside Federal Hall. This piece pays homage to New York’s Dutch colonial history by featuring a tall brick facade of a canal house in the style that was common in 17th century New York. However, there is a twist: instead of featuring a flat replica of a typical facade, Tolle choose to create one that appears to be rippling and distorted. When asked about this artistic decision, Tolle states that the piece is a nod to New York’s “fluid, but troubled, transformation from a Dutch seat of power to British colony, to an American platform for diversity and democracy.”

Federal Hall serves as a fitting location for this installation in that in the 1700s, the Federal Hall site was used as a city hall, a site where numerous historic events like court cases and political meetings took place. Tolle’s piece is reminiscent of this monumental, turbulent history.

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Brian Tolle sites Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," as influence for work

From Dirty-Joke Theory to True Crime Classics, Here Are 17 Books That Have Inspired Some of Today’s Leading Artists

Artnet News

From a philosophy of dirty jokes to a true-crime classic, artists share the surprising titles that have influenced them.

It’s officially the dog days of summer, and a perfect time to catch up on our reading lists. To get inspired for the fall, we asked a group of leading international artists about the books, old and new, that have influenced them most. From a book about dirty jokes to artist biographies to true crime—here are 16 books that have made a lasting impression on some of today’s top artists.


Brian Tolle

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

“As a young boy in the 1970s I first saw Truman Capote on the Dick Cavett Show and was mesmerized. The next day I started to read every book I could find of his. What resonated with me was how he embodied the journalist, novelist, biographer, and autobiographer, blurring the lines between these writing conventions. Informed by Capote I begin each project with intensive research, which results in a cross-wiring of fact and fiction.”

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The Irish Hunger Memorial, designed by C24's Brian Tolle, re-opens after renovation

Irish Hunger Memorial Renovations Completed

By Mary Gallagher

The Irish Hunger Memorial was re-opened in late July 2017 after a year-long, $5.3 million renovation. The structure had suffered extensive water infiltration, particularly from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which it had not been equipped to handle in its original state. The restoration cost $4.5 million more than the initial placement of the structure, which was unveiled to the public in 2002 in an evocative launch by former Irish president Mary McAleese.

The memorial is a reconstruction of a cottage painstakingly transplanted from Ireland set amidst a structure reminiscent of a passage tomb and covered with Irish flora. The cottage, dating back to the 1820s, originally belonged to the Slack family of Attymass, County Mayo, one of the first areas to be struck by the tragic potato blight of the mid-1800s. The edifice stands in Battery Park City and the landscape it rests on was designed by artist Brian Tolle, a relative of the Slacks.

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Untapped Cities discusses the influences of "Eureka" by Brian Tolle

40-foot Sculpture Inside Federal Hall Nods to NYC’s Dutch Colonial History

By Nicole Saraniero

Towering over the grand lobby inside Federal Hall is a 40-foot reminder of New York City’s Dutch colonial history. The  massive sculpture, Eureka by Brian Tolle, is of the brick facade of a canal house reminiscent of those that would have been found in 17th century New York.

The surface of Tolle’s piece appears warped and distorted, giving the brick the appearance of rippling water. The artist described the illusion as “a facade of a facade,” intending the piece not to be a replica of a building itself, but the building’s reflection in water. Tolle noted that the visual fluidity of the piece represents New York’s “fluid, but troubled, transformation from a Dutch seat of power to British colony, to an American platform for diversity and democracy.”

The name of Tolle’s sculpture is inspired by the exclamation made by Greek polymath Archimedes when he discovered buoyant force, the upward force exerted on objects submerged in fluids. Eureka was originally created for an exhibition in Belgium, but it’s re-presentation at Federal Hall is meant to evoke reflection upon the site’s transformative architectural and political history. Federal Hall has been the site of many landmark political events, such as the trial of John Peter Zenger which laid the foundation for the freedom of press; the signing of the Northwest Ordinance which prohibited slavery in new territories; and the drafting of the U.S Bill of Rights, all instances that required leveraging of different ideas and political forces.

Eureka will be on display inside Federal Hall until September 8th, 2018 and is being exhibited in conjunction with another integral part of New York City’s Dutch past. 

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Brian Tolle's "Eureka" named a 'not to miss' artwork in New York this week

Artnet News

Editors’ Picks: 7 Things Not to Miss in New York’s Art World This Week

Here's what you need to see in the art world this week.

By Sarah Cascone


7. “Brian Tolle’s Eureka” at Federal Hall

Artist Brian Tolle’s show is inspired by the narrow “canal houses” that were popular in the 18th century in New York, which feature the gabled Dutch facade. The 40-foot sculptural facade is on view to the public throughout the summer. (The exhibition was organized in conjunction with the artist’s gallery, New York’s C24 Gallery.)

Location: Federal Hall, main entrance 26 Wall Street
Price: Free
Time: Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.

—Caroline Goldstein

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By Sam Roberts

If you think the Flushing Remonstrance is a homeowner’s complaint to a plumber, think again. The frayed petition from 1657 is one of the foundational documents of American freedom — and for the first time in three decades it is on display in Manhattan, through Monday at Federal Hall on Wall Street.

The Dutch were known for tolerance — or indifference — to most immigrants to New Amsterdam who didn’t jeopardize the Dutch West India Company’s commercial agenda. Still, the Dutch Reformed Church remained paramount, and Peter Stuyvesant, the Calvinist director-general of the colony, was committed to enforcing its supremacy.

His order penalizing anyone who harbored Quakers provoked 31 residents of Flushing on Long Island — none of them Quakers themselves — to sign a remonstrance, a collective appeal to redress their grievance.

While it wasn’t successful at first, a further appeal directly to the company’s directors in Amsterdam upheld the Dutch principle of “liberty of conscience, not just for Christians, but for everyone.” The legacy of the remonstrance reinforced the right to petition the government, established the rule of law and provided the foundation for freedom of worship, which the Founders enshrined in the Bill of Rights at Federal Hall more than a century later.

The Remonstrance is displayed there in an anteroom off the rotunda, which is dominated by a timely and towering backdrop that evokes its provenance: a 40-foot-high facade of a 17th-century gabled Dutch canal house. The one-ton hand-painted sculpture is by Brian Tolle, who designed the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City and other works. It will be on display through Sept. 8.

Mr. Tolle named the facade “Eureka” for the exclamation of discovery often attributed to Archimedes. The exhibition is a collaboration of the New York State Archives, the Archives Partnership Trust, the National Park Service and the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy.

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Brian Tolle: EUREKA on view at Federal Hall

Brian Tolle, presents his site-relevant 40-foot tall sculpture, EUREKA, at Federal Hall, alongside rare presentations of the Flushing Remonstrance, the 1657 petition for religious freedom, and Washington’s Inauguration Bible

The National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, in partnership with the National Park Service, is pleased to announce the presentation of Brian Tolle’s EUREKA, on view June 27 - September 8, 2018, in Federal Hall, the iconic memorial to democracy on Wall Street. EUREKA is part of a new art initiative, curated by Bonnie Levinson, inviting contemporary artists to investigate themes that resonate with the history and legacy of Federal Hall, melding the past and present, to serve as a catalyst toward the reinvigoration of civic life and a platform for free expression.

For this presentation of EUREKA, Tolle has chosen to exhibit his work alongside a rare viewing of The Flushing Remonstrance, the 1657 New Netherland petition for “liberty of conscience” that served as the precursor to religious freedom, as cemented in the First Amendment written at Federal Hall over a century later. Not seen in Manhattan in over 30 years, the Remonstrance will share a room with the Bible from President Washington’s 1789 inauguration at Federal Hall.

Tolle’s 40-foot tall sculpture, reflecting a rippling and distorted facade of a 17th century Dutch canal house, pays homage to the legacy of 40 years of Dutch rule in New York. Originally created for Jan Hoet’s city-wide exhibition, Over the Edges, 2000, in Ghent, Belgium, its re-presentation in Federal Hall blurs the site’s architectural and political history with the contemporary in the conceptual artwork.

Brian Tolle describes the work: "EUREKA is a sculptural play with illusion—a facade of a facade. Its Dutch inspired form points to New York’s early history and its fluid, but troubled, transformation from a Dutch seat of power to British colony, to an American platform for diversity and democracy. The sculpture is an apparition, a mirage of a building that has been displaced and no longer exists. Like the Dutch buildings of lower Manhattan and the canal that was once Broad Street-—erased with only the street names lingering as a reminder of their existence—EUREKA serves as a marker of Federal Hall’s complex history. Its thin veil floats upwards, into the neoclassical dome of Federal Hall, evoking the strife between form and object, as well as the tension between political volley and social action.”

The artwork’s title is inspired by the brilliant Greek polymath Archimedes exploration of displacement. After finding the upward pressure on a submerged object created buoyant force, Archimedes ran through the streets of Syracuse, Sicily, shouting, “EUREKA! EUREKA!” or “I found it!” I found it!” Tolle envisioned EUREKA as a metaphor for Archimedes’ principle of leverage. With the right tools, Archimedes believed all was possible. “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to stand," he said, "and I shall move the world.”

The nation’s Founders leveraged principles as powerful as Archimedes’ when they codified the historic events that occurred at Federal Hall, including: the acquittal in 1735 of the newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger for libel, after he exposed government corruption, which established the foundation for freedom of the press; the 1765 Stamp Act Congress, which protested taxation of then British colonies without representation, and sowed the seeds for the union to come; and the passing of the first amendments to the Constitution, which cemented in perpetuity individual rights.

“The National Park Service is honored to host Tolle’s magnificent edifice EUREKA and the Flushing Remonstrance, a transformational document to establishing the governing principles of the United States,” said Shirley McKinney, Superintendent for Federal Hall National Memorial. “As the site where George Washington took the oath of office as our first President and the site of the first Congress, Supreme Court, and Executive Branch offices, Federal Hall is the appropriate venue to bring the two together to spark conversations about history through a contemporary lens.”

“As we embark on a new day for Federal Hall, this installation highlights this historic site's potential as an ever-evolving arena for public discourse through the arts," said Marie Salerno, President of the Harbor Conservancy. "Federal Hall must be steeped, but not stuck in the past. This will be a place where artists with diverse perspectives will be invited to interpret the ideas, ideals and flaws of our democracy forged here.

Highlight: Flushing Remonstrance

It is particularly relevant that Tolle’s EUREKA is paired with the rarely displayed Flushing Remonstrance. On view in Manhattan for the first time in three decades, the Remonstrance, a petition to the Dutch West India Company, for “liberty of conscience” was signed in 1657 by 31 residents of the town of Flushing — which became part of Queens, New York. Director-General of the New Netherland Peter Stuyvesant’s ban on all religious practice in the colony outside of the Dutch Reformed Church, led to the persecution of Quakers, among others. The Remonstrance petition for an exception to this ban, is considered by historians to be a forerunner to the first amendment’s freedom of religion clause and is sometimes referred to as the Magna Carta of the New World. Read the text of the beautifully crafted document in The Flushing Remonstrance Revisited, an online exhibit from the New York State Archives Partnership Trust.

EUREKA at Federal Hall is organized by the Harbor Conservancy with the artist, Brian Tolle; National Park Service; Curator for Visual Arts Bonnie Levinson; Performance Designer Angrette McCloskey; and C24 Gallery. The Flushing Remonstrance presentation is made possible by the New York State Archives and the Archives Partnership Trust. Major sponsorship for the installation was provided by American Express.

About the Artist: 

Brian Tolle sculptures and installations emphasize a formal and iconographic dialog with history and context. Using a variety of media, his work draws from the scale and experience of its surroundings, provoking a rereading by cross-wiring reality and fiction. Drawing ideas from a broad-based conceptual analysis, Tolle blurs the border between the contemporary and the historical. His approach involves in-depth research, which is then distilled and directed creating an intuitive personal response. Tolle is acclaimed for his major permanent public artworks including the “Irish Hunger Memorial” in Battery Park City, New York; “Miss Brooklyn” and “Miss Manhattan” at the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge, Flatbush, Brooklyn; and his recent appointment as the lead artist of the East Midtown Waterfront Project, an esplanade between East 53rd and East 59th Streets along New York City’s East River. Tolle's works have been exhibited in the Whitney Biennial; the Tate Modern; the S.M.A.K.; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; the Queens Museum of Art, New York; and the Invitational Exhibition at the American Academy of Arts. The artist is currently represented by C24 Gallery. 

About the Curator:

Bonnie Levinson, Curatorial and Cultural Consultant for the Visual Arts at Federal Hall and the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, curated Brian Tolle’s EUREKA, 2018, and Mel Ziegler’s A Living Thing: Flag Exchange, 2017. Levinson’s career spans over three decades working in the arts with cultural institutions. She served as Deputy Director for External Affairs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Vice President for Development for the New York Public Library, Associate Director of The Hudson River Museum and Assistant Curator of Education at the Delaware Art Museum. She works with cultural institutions creating public arts programming, and consults in development and marketing, and strategic planning. Currently she works with the Making Waves Academy in Richmond CA developing an arts education and artist residency program.

About Federal Hall National Memorial:

Federal Hall is the birthplace of American government. It is where George Washington took the oath of office as the first President and where the first U.S. Congress invented a system of governance that still guides the country today, including enactment of the Bill of Rights. The current building, a former U.S. Customs House and later U.S. Sub-Treasury, is one of America’s finest examples of Greek Revival public architecture and memorializes the first President and our nation’s founding.

About the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy:

Founded in 2005, the Harbor Conservancy is the primary nonprofit partner of the National Park Service’s sites on New York Harbor, including Federal Hall National Memorial. The Harbor Conservancy works to restore and activate treasured monuments, conserve historic collections, and connect communities to opportunities for exploration and recreation in treasured natural habitats and landscapes.

Visitor Information: EUREKA on view: June 27, 2018 - September 8, 2018

Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9am-5pm

Federal Hall:

Main entrance: 26 Wall Street, New York, NY.

Wheelchair accessible entrance: 15 Pine Street, New York, NY

Brian Tolle Selected for The East Midtown Waterfront Project

NYCEDC, working in partnership with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, the NYC Department of Transportation, elected officials, and local communities, is engaged in planning for the East Midtown Waterfront Project to improve access to the East River, enhance bicycle and pedestrian connectivity, and create waterfront amenities for public use and enjoyment in accordance with Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan and OneNYC. The new waterfront esplanade would stretch for 22 blocks and fill a major gap in the 32-mile Manhattan Waterfront Greenway.

The selected design team is led by Stantec and design commenced in October 2017. It is anticipated that the construction of the Greenway will be complete in 2022.  NYCEDC, working in partnership with NYC Parks and NYCDOT, has selected an artist to serve on the design team for the East Midtown Greenway. Brian Tolle was selected through a selection process designed by Via Partnership working with Stantec. The design team assembled an artist selection committee with representatives from City agencies and the community, with members possessing visual art expertise, knowledge of living artists and artistic production, and support for project vision. An advisory panel comprised of representatives from the design team and an appointed representative from Community Boards 6 and 8 was also integral to the selection process.

Forty-seven local, national, and international artists recommended by the public art consultant, the design team, and the community, were invited to participate in the invitational competition. Tolle was selected based upon his qualifications and interviews with the design team, artist selection committee, advisory panel and the community. Selection criteria included:

  • Artistic excellence as demonstrated by past work and submitted materials
  • Experience working on projects requiring collaborative skills
  • Demonstrated understanding of the requirements for creating work for public space
  • Demonstrated appreciation of architecture and public space use and engagement
  • Demonstrated ability to work within budgets and meet project deadlines
  • Ability to engage a wide audience

The selection process included a qualifications review meeting on January 30. This meeting was open to the public. The three finalists selected at this meeting attended a project orientation and design workshop. The final selection was made at a public meeting on February 28. Each of the finalists gave a presentation and answered questions from community members.

Read more here

The Connaught Telegraph discusses renovation of the Irish Hunger Memorial, designed by Brian Tolle

Lead figure in famine memorial project has Mayo roots

March 7, 2018

THE final phase of the extensive renovation of the Irish Hunger Memorial in Manhattan has been completed.

The architectural project manager for the $5.3 million renovation has strong Mayo links. Indeed, the memorial itself has a strong connection with the county – the Famine-era stone cottage at the centre of the memorial came from Attymass.

CTA Architects served as architects for the renovation, and their team was very emotionally involved with the project because of their Irish roots.

CTA Architects' project manager, Frank Scanlon, was brought up around Westport, and in Rooskey, Co. Roscommon. His mother was the late Mary Scanlon (nee Forde) from Westport, as his grandparents were Georgie and Tessie Forde. 

Most of his mother's side of the family are still living between Westport and Murrisk and also near Leenane. His father is Aidan Scanlon, who retired from An Garda Síochána.

The memorial, designed by internationally renowned sculptor and public artist Brian Tolle, originally opened in 2002 and is a contemplative space devoted to honour the Great Irish Hunger and Migration of 1845-1852, while encouraging viewers to contemplate present-day hunger worldwide.

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Brian Tolle in Whitehot Magazine

By Paul Laster

Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes made of ticky tacky/ Little boxes / Little boxes / Little boxes all the same / There's a green one, and a pink one / And a blue one and a yellow one / And they're all made out of ticky tacky / And they all look just the same – Pete Seeger

Questioning the utopian nature of suburbia, Brian Tolle’s colorful sculptures from his Levittown series reveal that the once idyllic perception of these middleclass communities is fading as fast as the American dream. Tolle, who’s celebrated for his public art installation Irish Hunger Memorial in New York’s Battery Park City, is presenting eleven of these poetic pieces, along with a whimsical model of the façade of a 17th-century Flemish canal house, in his current solo exhibition, BENT, at C24 Gallery in New York.

Primarily considered a suburb on Long Island, where the first community was built, Levittown is actually the name of seven housing developments, which are comprised of assembly-line-style structures that were built in New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico between 1947 and 1970. The communities played a major role in the rise of the middle class, as well as the urban flight that devastated big cities. These housing developments also became the butt of a lot of jokes after Pete Seeger made a hit record out of his rendition of singer-songwriter and political activist Malvina Reynolds’ catchy tune, Little Boxes, back in 1963. 

Taking this classic suburban house as his point of departure, Tolle created a detailed mold from a scaled-down architectural model of one of the “ticky tacky” homes, which he cast “just the same” from silicone rubber in a mix of lively colors and then incorporated into quirky assemblages of various found objects that are symbolic of life in the burbs. 

A green house comically grips a pair of crutches in Out of Service; a pink home ironically tops a rocking horse, a bicycle with training wheels and a rusted wagon in Outgrown; a blue habitat with white trimmed windows and red shutters and door lazily rests atop a wheelchair in Old Glory; a yellow dwelling smartly covers a metal shopping cart filled with nativity figures in Jerusalem Ave; while a flattened fuchsia abode amusing conceals a bean bag chair in Go Ask Alice.   

Paired with these witty works are large and small versions of Eureka, the artist’s 40-foot high sculpture of the façade of a 17th-century canal house. Commissioned by curator Jan Hoet for an exhibition in Ghent in 2000, the three-dimensional work required digital technology to add the reflection and wave movement of the canal to the facsimile of building’s surface. Here we see the structure surrealistically laid out on the floor of the lower gallery, which can be dreamily viewed from above.

Curiously enough, dreamy is an apt metaphor for the whole show, as if you’re recalling the relics of an earlier life or discovering your family history—be it 50 or 350 years in the past. WM

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Brian Tolle featured on Wallstreet International

11 Jan — 27 Feb 2018 at the C24 Gallery in New York, United States

C24 Gallery is pleased to present a solo exhibition of sculptures by Brian Tolle marking his inaugural exhibition with the gallery. The exhibition brings together Tolle’s iconic public work, Eureka, on view for the first time in the United States and in a gallery setting, paired with his Levittown sculptures.

A highlight of the exhibition is the monumental installation Eureka. At approximately 36 feet high, when standing, the sculpture is a 3D rendering of the façade of a 17th-century Flemish canal house as it might exist in wave form. Thus, it becomes an uncanny reflection of the kinetic water below it. Originally commissioned by curator Jan Hoet for his landmark exhibition Over the Edges (2000), as a site-specific public installation in Ghent, Belgium, the sculpture is re-contextualized in the gallery space. Lying flat on the gallery’s atrium floor Eureka confronts notions of place and process thereby questioning the function of art in public spaces versus art in specific institutions. Drawing ideas from a broad-based conceptual analysis, Tolle creates a dialogue between the contemporary and the historical and blurs the border between architecture and its evolving environment.

A keen observer of domestic life and identity, Tolle furthers his interest of politics of place in his Levittown sculptures. The sculptures are inspired by the planned housing community, Levittown: the historic town in Long Island, NY, which became the archetype of American suburban life in the early 1950s. Each of Tolle's eleven sculptures is a precise scaled model of an original Levittown home -- cast from the same mold varying only in color and displaying the architectural details of the original structures. The sculptural houses themselves resemble deflated or melting membranes, and are supported by various appropriated mementos of suburban life - found toys, tire swing, shopping cart, a plastic nativity set, and a recliner. These iconographic items rest underneath and inside silicone rubber skins of the houses, emphasizing a dialogue between sites and domestic artifacts.

As the title of the exhibition suggests, the artworks presented in Bent provoke a re-reading, or discord between reality and fiction. The formal play that Tolle visually articulates between shapes and textures, private and public spaces presents a challenge to standard architectural, as well as behavioral conventions and norms.

Brian Tolle's work has been exhibited in the Whitney Biennial, Liverpool Biennial at the Tate Modern, Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, the S.M.A.K. in Ghent, Belgium, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati; the Queens Museum of Art, New York, Havana Biennial, Cuba, the Invitational Exhibition at the American Academy of Arts and numerous other institutions.

His public works include Irish Hunger Memorial (2002), Battery Park City, NYC, NY a one-half acre sculpture on the Hudson River, reshaping the landscape with a full-scale replica of a hillside Irish farm desiccated by the potato famine. Most recently he completed a public artwork in Brooklyn, NY titled Pageant, 2017 and Outflow (2015), Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Other notable public works are Simnai Dirdro (Twisted Chimney) (2010), Caerphilly, Wales, UK, Remembering Walter H. Dubner (2010), Los Angeles, CA., and Stronghold (2007), University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

He is the recipient of awards from the Irish American Historical Society, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, and the Design Commission of the City of New York.

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Brian Tolle in Curbed NY

Manhattan Bridge statues return to bridge entrance with LED lighting and rotation

‘Miss Brooklyn’ and ‘Miss Manhattan’ will return to the bridge’s Downtown Brooklyn entrance in replicated form

By Ameena Walker  

It’s been more than 50 years since the two female figurations known as Miss Brooklyn and Miss Manhattan graced the Brooklyn entrance for the Manhattan Bridge. Both statues were plucked from their homestead by master city planner Robert Moses in the 1960s before being given a new home outside of the Brooklyn Museum. But at long last, the two gracious ladies have been replicated and returned to their original home, reports the New York Times (h/t Gothamist).

Artist Daniel Chester French, who is widely recognized for prominent statues that include the Abraham Lincoln Memorial, crafted the original statues of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s female personas. Back then, the two were stationary, but that won’t be the case this time around. Not only will Miss Brooklyn and Miss Manhattan light up via LED lights, both will slowly rotate in a full circle, getting the best panoramic view that a statue could have.

The process to get the statues was a lengthy one—10 years to be exact—that started with a design competition, won by Brian Tolle, who is also the artist behind Battery Park’s Irish Hunger Memorial, along with a $450,000 commission by the city’s Economic Development Corporation and the Percent for Art Program.

“This area, in its heyday, was a location for car dealerships and after that fell on hard times, with other uses and, honestly, a couple of triple-X uses. Now this is an area where people are living and using Flatbush and Tillary as a connection between neighborhoods, so installing this sculpture now comes at a great moment,” Downtown Brooklyn Partnership president Regina Myer told the Times.

And there’s no need to agree with Robert Moses’ original concerns of the statues being a distraction to drivers. They will be set back from the entrance so it’s something that drivers can view from a distance and pass by without the immediate shock, instead slowly fading into the distance.

Read the full article here

Brian Tolle in The New York Times

‘Miss Brooklyn’ and ‘Miss Manhattan’ Prepare for a Homecoming


Brian Tolle with the replicas that he designed. The long gestation period of the project allowed him to integrate new technologies into the finished results. CreditMichelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Two men were standing around, talking about two women not more than 20 feet away. The two men knew everything about the two women — every curve, every fold of their diaphanous gowns. And they had their opinions.

“The one on the right is the bully,” said Josh Young, who runs a foundry by the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

The other man, Brian Tolle, was not so sure. He said she looked “more relaxed” than the woman on the left, who looked like someone caught “at the moment when the photographer says, ‘Don’t move, I’m taking the picture.’” The one on the right had the grateful look of “the moment after.” Her expression, he said, showed relief that the shoot was finally over and the pressure was off.

The two men could talk like this because the two women are statues — replicas of statues, actually. They were designed by Mr. Tolle, and the steelwork that will support them was fabricated by Mr. Young and his foundry crew.

By the morning rush on Wednesday, the statues will take their places at the Brooklyn approach to the Manhattan Bridge, where the originals stood for 50 years, until Robert Moses took them down in the 1960s.

Miss Brooklyn being moved to her new post in 1964. Both original statues stand outside the Brooklyn Museum.

Mr. Tolle, the creator of the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park in Manhattan, has reinterpreted the female allegories of the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn — Miss Manhattan and Miss Brooklyn, as they were widely known. The originals were sculpted by Daniel Chester French, who is perhaps best known for a later work, the enormous seated figure of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. The original borough statues now stand outside the Brooklyn Museum.

Unlike the originals, Mr. Tolle’s reproductions were cast in resin — in Long Island City, Queens. They will be illuminated from within so they glow at night. They will rotate on two lamppost-like arms.

“I think it will become this beacon on Flatbush Avenue,” Mr. Tolle said.

He envisions not just a beacon, but a slow-dancing beacon. The originals stood still for all those years. These will turn, probably no faster than a car stuck in traffic on a gridlock-alert day. They will survey their surroundings. At times, they will stare at each other. At times, their backs will be turned. At times, they will face Manhattan.

The originals never did that. They were more like bookends, solid and stationary, with cars and trucks rumbling between them. Moses wanted more traffic lanes, as he so often did. They were in the way.

“This area around Tillary Street and Flatbush Avenue was pretty much scraped clean with the extension of Flatbush Avenue,” said Regina Myer, the president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, which will look after the maintenance of the new statues. “It was a place, then it became a nonplace and now Brian’s work is making it a place again.”

Ms. Myer recounted the history. “This area in its heyday was a location for car dealerships and after that fell on hard times, with other uses and, honestly, a couple of triple-X uses,” she said. “Now this is an area where people are living and using Flatbush and Tillary as a connection between neighborhoods, so installing this sculpture now comes at a great moment.”

A postcard showing the statues in their original position at the Brooklyn approach to the Manhattan Bridge.Creditvia Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Special Collections

The new statues will be set back from the entrance to the bridge. Wendy Feuer, the assistant commissioner for urban design, art and wayfinding with the city’s Department of Transportation, said the placement had been carefully considered and would not distract drivers.

“This will be something new, but you’ll see it from far away,” she said, “so it’s not like you’re in a tunnel and coming out and suddenly come upon it. You’ll see it in the distance and then go by it.”

Mr. Tolle said that French was asked to design two allegorical figures — “one representing Miss Brooklyn, the other representing Miss Manhattan,” he said. French’s model for Miss Manhattan was one of his favorites, Audrey Munson. She was the model for nearly two dozen statues in Manhattan, among them the figures in Columbus Circle and Grand Army Plaza and atop the Municipal Building.

The $450,000 project, commissioned by the city’s Percent for Art program and underwritten by the Economic Development Corporation, took 10 years, starting with a design competition. Mr. Tolle said the unexpectedly long gestation allowed him to take advantage of new technologies. “The LED lighting we’re using didn’t exist when we proposed this,” he said.

What would French say about the project and the 21st-century materials and methods that Mr. Tolle used?

“I think he’d be intrigued,” Mr. Tolle said. “The way that sculptors worked back then and the way sculptors work now is not that different. He would make a maquette,” he said, referring to the preliminary models sculptors often make.

“He didn’t sculpt Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, he made the models,” Mr. Tolle said. “Craftsmen, men who carve stone, made the monument. He would have understood the computer-driven machines that made the full-scale models that were then cast in acrylic. It’s a different process, but not that different.”

Read the full article here

Brian Tolle featured on Art in the Catskills

by Simona David

Featured Artist: Brian Tolle

Brian Tolle has exhibited his work in galleries, museums, and public spaces around the world. His projects include Skid Rows for the Queens Museum (2005), Witch Catcher at City Hall, New York City (2003), The Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, New York (2002), Waylay for the Whitney Biennial and the Public Art Fund in Central Park (2002), Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe for Crossing the Line, Queens Museum of Art, New York (2001), and Eureka for Over the Edges in Ghent, Belgium (2000), as well as more recent projects such as Outflow in Calgary, Canada (2015), and Origin at the University of Houston in Texas (2015). Brian’s work emphasizes a formal and iconographic dialog with history and context to produce striking and subtle works that engage the public. Using a variety of media, his works draw themes from the scale and experience of their surroundings, provoking a re-reading by cross-wiring reality and fiction. Brian received his MFA from Yale University, BFA from Parsons School of Design, and his BA from SUNY at Albany. He is currently on the graduate faculty at Parsons School of Design, and is the recipient of the Art Commission of the City of New York Award for Excellence in Design in 2008; the Irish American Historical Society, Irish American Heritage Committee – Irishman of the Year in 2003, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award, also in 2003. He is represented by CRG Gallery in New York City. Brian has a studio in the Catskills, in the historic town of Roxbury, Delaware County.

Simona David: Brian, before we talk specifically about your medium, please tell me how you became an artist.

Brian Tolle: I was born in New York City, and my family moved out to Long Island when I was about five years old. I actually came from a political family. My grandmother was a very active Democrat, and was involved with a number of organizations. She had many grandchildren, none of whom were interested at all in politics. I was in a position in my life when I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do at 18, and going to college. So I went to SUNY Albany, and eventually ended up working full-time as a legislative intern in my junior year. I worked for an Assemblyman from Queens. And it was very challenging, and a very interesting job, but very, very stressful as well, so I would go home in the evenings, and I would draw to decompress from a day that I had just spent working in the Legislature. By the time I finished at SUNY, I was fairly disenchanted with politics, and didn’t want to go further. I moved to New York City, and continued to draw as a passion, and paint and eventually people started to pay attention to what I was doing. I decided to go back to school at Parsons, and pursue a fine arts degree. Immediately after that I was lucky enough to be accepted into all the graduate programs that I applied to, and decided to go to Yale University, where I did my MFA. And I was fortunate once again to be recognized by one of my professors who made some connections for me in New York, and placed me in what was back then a new gallery Basilico Fine Arts. Soon after I graduated I exhibited in New York, I guess in 1995. After that I had a two men show at Artists Space, a non-profit space that continues to exist today. So, it was late coming to it, but once I got there, I hit the ground running.

SD: It’s interesting that you have a degree in Political Science, but decided to shift careers, and become an artist. Did you draw or paint as a child?

BT: I did, I even remember these little sculptures that I was making; and it wasn’t that my family wasn’t supportive – my dad always took us to museums and historic places, but if you don’t come from an artistic family, it’s not apparent necessarily how one might pursue an artistic life. I might have had a certain talent, but it wasn’t something that anyone encouraged me to pursue as a career.

SD: Then you went on to Parsons and Yale and received formal training as an artist, and soon after you graduated, you began showing in New York City, which has always been a big deal. Who were your mentors or influencers during your formative period?

BT: I think the most influential professor for me was Ronald Jones. He is both a critic and an artist, but he’s also had a very politically charged agenda. So it was very easy for me to talk with him about some of the ideas about politics that I might have had in my head, because his work was so politically driven. It made the transition from a political to an arts education very-very smooth, and he supported that approach. The Yale program in sculpture is very small – only eight students graduate in any given class. And the way the program is set up is that it invites many artists, and critics, and curators, and in some cases art dealers, to teach seminars and meet with us in the studio. So we had a very rich and very fluid education.

SD: Have you always been interested in history? Somehow history seems to be playing a role in what you do as an artist.

BT: Yes. Very much so. I grew up in a place called Glen Cove in Long Island, a town established in 1668. So there were a lot of historic buildings in that town; I was the youngest member of the local Historical Society. I’ve always been interested in how history is represented, how it’s repositioned. I’m interested more in the mechanics of it than its specifics. How do we see things at different times? How do our opinions change over time?

SD: I read somewhere that when you were building the Irish Hunger Memorial you were looking to represent a variety of viewpoints, but none of them taking a central or a predominant role compared to the others.

BT: Yes.

SD: Maybe now it’s the time to talk about the materials that you use in your work. I know that you approach each project differently, and you say you don’t have a style. You used stones for the Irish Hunger Memorial, Styrofoam for the Witch Catcher, and acrylic for the project at the Manhattan Bridge. Sometimes you use plaster. Let’s talk about the thought process that you go through when you’re about to begin a new project, your technique, and also the tools and materials that you have in your studio.

BT: Every project, whether be for a public venue or for a museum or a gallery starts the same way, with intensive research. In the case of the Irish Hunger Memorial obviously the subject was provided. For that particular project I went to Ireland, and spent weeks there meeting with historians, visiting historical sites, trying to get a sense of what had happened there in the 1840s – 1850s. I entered into this research without any expectations about what might come out at the other end. So it’s not like I’m trying to use research to prove my thesis. It has more to do with a process of fortification, or enrichment that puts me in a position where ideas begin to gel, and I’m in a position to do something about it.

SD: Is it just about discovering and sharing, or also about renewing interest in certain topics?

BT: At this point in my career often times we’re invited without a proposal. The invitation is based on qualifications. It’s interesting, because we – I say we because I work with my partner Brian Clyne, who runs the studio – and I speak in the we because the scope and the scale of the projects that I do, even the projects that I do for galleries and museums, require the talents of many people, particularly the public projects, which in the case of the Irish Hunger Memorial, is a half of acre sculpture. So the invitation is based on qualifications. And what that does is that it frees us to really explore the possibilities and the meanings of a particular place. You never know where you’re going to land. In the last year we’ve made projects in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, at the University of Houston in Texas, and we’re about to install a permanent work at the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn. So, these are three entirely different venues, with very-very distinct histories.

SD: You once said that the “materials must serve the work.” Talk about your conceptual approach.

BT: If there is a signature or fingerprint in the work is a conceptual one. It has much more to do with how I approach a subject and less to do with how I represent the subject. In the case of the Irish Hunger Memorial, we’re talking about a sculpture that occupies a half of acre of land, and is at the scale and scope that requires architects, structural engineers, landscape architects, lighting designers, graphic designers – it’s a sculpture on scale with the building. That had a very specific requirement. The work that I did for Levittown required that I built a perfect model of the original Levittown house, but then we chose to execute them in platinum silicon rubber, because I wanted them to have a kind of flexibility, and mutability that the originals obviously didn’t have. We really do have to stay flexible and open to the possibilities of the materials that best serve the concept.


BT: I was installing that work for the Whitney Biennial while I was building the Irish Hunger Memorial. I spent my time both uptown and downtown. The Whitney collaborated with the Public Art Fund to install five projects within Central Park – it was in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition, but it was outside in the park. This was a groundbreaking exhibition to the extent that the Central Park Conservancy had always upheld Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of the park’s belief that the park was in and of itself a work of art, and didn’t want art occupying the space of the park. I took on Olmsted’s idea and decided I didn’t want to install a discrete object in the park, but rather to work with nature. I was thinking about that kind of subtle disruption that could happen. I chose to install 75 pumps below the surface of the great lake near the Boathouse and the Bow Bridge that were controlled by a computer, to simulate flashes. Those flashes were programmed by me at different times during the exhibition, and they were in some cases very-very subtle like one splash, two splashes, three splashes in a row, and they’d give the impression maybe of a fish jumping, or a frog lipping, or a stone skipping. And then occasionally they’d do something maybe less benign – all of the fountains would go out simultaneously – in a kind of explosion of water. It was like testing the expression of water.

SD: It’s been said about your work that it has to do more with simulation than representation. I think these splashes can still be seen online whether looking through Google Images or perhaps on your website at Watching those images makes one wonder, was it a fish or was it Brian Tolle playing with water?


BT: Right. That was the whole point. Going back to the Irish Hunger Memorial, it became very clear to me when I became a finalist for the project, that what I was asked to do might actually be considered historical, and that made me very-very anxious. One of the requirements of the Memorial Committee was to create places for historical inscriptions. It’s one thing for an artist to do work that looks historical or create some sort of historical residence within the space of a museum or gallery, because people understand that is art. It’s a very different thing to be asked to organize the history of these traumatic events, the events of the famine. I did not want to officiate over that, and I certainly did not want to have the last word. There are two miles of information on the base of the Irish Hunger Memorial. All of it is in the form of lighting shadow. The text is lit from behind, and the shadow is cast on glass. So what that did was that it allowed for me to provide the space for not only a lot of information, but also information that can be easily changed and updated over time relatively inexpensively – the texts are not arranged in a chronological or categorical way. I wanted the experience to be more of a cacophony. So if you approached the Memorial on one day and happened to read a Quaker soup recipe that was used to help starving people in Ireland in 1847, or statistics about the amount of dog food consumed in the United States, that textural engagement might shape your visceral experience as you move through the monument itself.

SD: I understand that. To me just presenting something in a strictly chronological order has the tendency to a certain extent to become boring. By contrast, when you’re taken by surprise, I think you’re more excited about the experience. Just this year in 2015 you completed two major projects: Outflow in Calgary, Canada, and Origin at the University of Houston in Texas. Let’s talk about these two projects.


BT: I’ve been working up in Calgary for about eight years now developing this project. The City of Calgary’s interest as it related to me was in relationship to their water, drinking water in particular. Calgary is one of the major metropolitan areas that drinks directly from their river. The source of that water is the Bow Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. I spent a lot of time visiting the Rockies, and talking with the people who run the water system. They explained to me various processes that they used to maintain the cleanliness of the water, and how they tried to educate the public. One of the ways that they were thinking about raising public awareness with regard to the water source was to daylight existing outflows. An outflow is basically a storm sewer. In this case they were built in the 1950s, and they’re invisible. Daylighting made it very visible to the public where the water goes. But also by opening up the pipe, certain valval chemicals can gas off before they get to the river. And because of the nature of my sculpture, which is an inverted mountain range, very close to the source of the water, as the water runs through, solid polluters actually collect in the sculpture. In some ways it’s counterintuitive to think of a sculpture of being designed to collect trash before it goes into the river. Part of the mission of the project is to let people understand what’s going on; my mandate is to let the trash accumulate to the point when it needs to be removed.

SD: In this case your sculpture plays a role both aesthetic and functional. How big is the structure?

BT: It’s about 70 feet in one direction, and 35 feet in the other. It’s about 15 feet deep. We used digital topographs from the National Geographic Survey, so we had an actual 3D model of the mountain range. We carved the molds in foam, then poured in a very specialized concrete called ductal, which is manufactured in Calgary. We try to as best as we can to work locally. Of the total amount the city spent on this project, I would say about 80 percent went back to the city itself. We hired local manufacturers. The city hired a local architect Marc Boutin and his Collaborative to design a parkscape that supports the project. It’s been completely integrated into their park system.

Outflow, Calgary, Canada

SD: How did you achieve this incredible texture?

BT: That was the hardest thing, frankly. Here’s we were working with this concrete that is used to make overpasses, and train stations, and this is the first time it’s ever been used for a sculptural project of this scale. It behaves very differently from other concretes: when it’s first mixed it has the consistency of whipped cream. How to make the mold was a big issue. What we ended up doing was getting these enormous blocks of foam, 8 foot by 4 foot by 4 foot. What the fabricator did was to draw the plan of the top of the panel, and the plan of the bottom of the panel on either side of this gigantic block. And then I made a hot wire, and made all kinds of bents in this piece of wire, and then two people pulled this wire through the giant block of foam directed by a third person who would call a number, and they created this texture. The beauty of the texture is the fact that it’s an actual record of the physical effort that went into producing the molds themselves. If it is to describe its color, I’d say it looks like unglazed porcelain.


SD: Another project that you completed this year is called Origin; it’s at the University of Houston in Texas. Let’s talk about this project. And why this name? Did you pick the name?

BT: Yes. The title for me is the most difficult thing. I can’t explain why that is, but often times that’s the last thing. It frustrates a lot of clients. In the case of Houston, I got very involved in the history of the place. One of the things that existed when I went to the site was a lecture hall for the business school which had a very-very large scupper on the roof of the building; the arts administrator asked me not to pay too much attention to it, because it was so unattractive. At the same time, one of the people who was funding the project was very keen of me producing a fountain. I did my research, and learned that Houston does have significant, concentrated rainfalls certain times of the year, but then they have very dry seasons. There is a real water conservation issue in Texas, and in Houston in particular. It seemed to me irresponsible to create a mechanical fountain where water would be wasted. The combination of this run-off water from the roof, and the scupper seemed to me like we could have a passive water feature that happens when the rain falls. That got me thinking about creation myths. There was a tribe of Native people, Karankawa, now extinct – they vanished in the 1820s; they would go to Galveston, and actually Houston was closer to the water than it is today. There were huge oyster mountains from that period, going back thousands of years, when the Natives would cast off shells. And, there was this beautiful pile of shells that I was looking at; the Karankawa had this beautiful creation myth that the first of their people lived in a giant oyster shell in the sky. The child was born as the son of the moon. And the son of the moon cradled, and rocked the cradle, and fell to earth, becoming the first Karankawa. The moon was so distressed by what happened that she would periodically cry, and create these incredible thunderstorms that are part of the Houston experience. I thought that was such a beautiful myth, and that was the answer. I created this giant oyster shell that replaced the scupper. When it rains, the water cascades onto a pile made of hundreds of cast aluminum shells, and the sculpture becomes active when the rain is happening. So, there is a water feature at the University of Houston, it’s just not mechanical, it happens naturally. I should mention in this case, as much as I like to work with local crafts people – the foundation was done by Houston people, but the actual sculpture itself was fabricated in Saugerties by Scott Kolb, the son of pianist Justin Kolb.

Origin at The University of Houston in Texas

SD: You always want to understand first the local scene, then come up with a concept that tells a story. In the case of the University of Houston, when people walk on campus and see this giant oyster shell, they have to think there is a story behind it. Now let’s talk about the Manhattan Bridge project, which will be completed in a couple of weeks.    


BT: It’s eight years in the making. If any of you have been on the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge, until very recently it was a very chaotic spot. About ten years ago the City decided to create a green belt across Flatbush Avenue, and created more order there. I was the first to be commissioned to make what we hope to be a series of sculptures that will be introduced along the Avenue in future years. As part of my research, I wanted to understand why it was that on the Manhattan side of the very same bridge there is a more elegant entry, while on the Brooklyn side there was this no man’s land. As it turned out, it wasn’t always the case. There once was a very grand entrance, so grand in fact that included two sculptures, two allegories by Daniel Chester French, who some of you may know sculpted Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, among other noteworthy sculptures. Those two sculptures were removed, and brought to the Brooklyn Museum when Robert Moses, the great power broker, was planning the trans-Manhattan expressway, which would have destroyed what we know as the SoHo neighborhood. On the Manhattan side the historical preservationists were far more organized, and they prevented that from happening there, but on the Brooklyn side they weren’t so organized, and Moses went away, and destroyed this grand plaza. And then the project was halted, and we were left with this mess. In the 1960s Moses saw history and art as an obstruction to progress. And here in the 21st century I am being asked to enhance the neighborhood by bringing art there. It made perfect sense to me that we bring the two ladies back. The two sculptures that Chester French sculpted for the bridge are allegories: one represents Miss Brooklyn, and the other one represents Miss Manhattan. They currently sit on the façade of the Brooklyn Museum which cooperated greatly with us to make this project happen. So I’ve re-created the two sculptures, cast in a beautiful translucent, white acrylic. I’ve set them on top of a pedestal that is 26 feet high – the design is inspired by the footing of the Manhattan Bridge. In fact the base is being painted Manhattan Bridge blue, to make the connection back to the bridge. The two sculptures sit on top of this pedestal, very close together. Miss Manhattan and Miss Brooklyn will dance over Flatbush Avenue because the two figures actually rotate, and they can survey their surrounding area, and gaze into each other’s eyes periodically. And they’re lit at night. I have to say, this entire project is made by crafts people in New York City.

SD: Do you ordinarily work with many crafters to help you materialize your ideas? Is it you who decides what materials should be used, and how to be used? Do you have lots of engaging conversations with the crafters to see your work completed the way you envision it? I know you don’t start a new project with preconceived ideas, but how does it work?

BT: I know what I’m looking for when I see it, but I rely on people who are spending a lot of their time doing certain things, like this man Ovidiu at Colbar – he’s the most remarkable craftsperson, and he’s committed his life to making beautiful things. Once I see the material, I open up to learning more about the material, what its capabilities are, what the possibilities are. So, it’s part of this fortification process where the craftsperson is actually teaching me something. The biggest mistake an artist can make is to force people to make something they may know it’s not going to be optimal. My position has always been “speak to the people who know better, let them show you what they can do.” Every instance the project is better than if I had gone ahead with what I thought I had wanted.

SD: When we allow ourselves this kind of freedom, we discover things we couldn’t have imagined before.

BT: Precisely. We make changes until the very end, which is a little nerve-racking for the clients.

SD: You’ve created quite a few public art projects as well as museum and gallery pieces. Do private collectors also come to you, and commission you to design projects just for them?                
BT: I’m very fortunate that I have a very loyal collector base. This handful of collectors have been following me around for over twenty-five years, and they’ve always been supportive. I haven’t done a commission in a private residency, but I did a commission for the New School, which Parsons is part of. I did a sculpture for the President’s private reception which was installed a while ago. I’ve recently been asked to consider designing an office suite for a company, which is an interesting proposition, because often times art consultants are hired to select tasteful, interesting works. In this case the consultant came up with the idea of having one artist design all of the works for the office.

SD: You explained that each project is different: the University of Houston invited you directly to submit a proposal. In the case of the Manhattan Bridge project, there was a competition, and you won that competition. How do you feel about showing in public spaces as opposed to galleries and museums?

BT: It’s very different. I teach a course at Parsons on public art. We go through the different art movements, let’s say from the 1960s onward when artists who have influenced me like Agnes Denes and Robert Smithson were making art in public spaces by choice. These are people who rejected the gallery system, because they understood that it was commercially driven and in some cases limiting. I came out of school after the economy had collapsed in the late 1980s and well into the 1990s, and graduating even from a place as prestigious as Yale in 1994 there wasn’t a whole lot of hope to get gallery representation. There wasn’t something that we expected. I guess the difference is that when you show in a museum or gallery you have a captive audience – you have people who frequent these places, you have a collector base who supports these places. 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. In the case of the Irish Hunger Memorial, it’s been a privilege that so many important writers of our time have written about, Simon Schama wrote a piece for The New Yorker magazine, Roberta Smith did a wonderful piece for The New York Times, but Verlyn Klinkenborg, who is on the editorial board of the Times, wrote a beautiful piece, and the most resonant thing he said was that the power of the Irish Hunger Memorial is that it trusts the intelligence of its audience.


SD: Currently on view at the Museum of Art at SUNY Albany there is a retrospective show called “Bordering Utopia: Sculptures by Brian Tolle.” Let’s talk about this show, which will remain on view through December 12 this year. How many works are included in this exhibition?

BT: Corinna Ripps Schaming, the curator of the museum, has been incredibly committed to understanding my twenty year career. We found works that were with collectors in different parts of the country. We even borrowed a beautiful piece from the Tang Museum. I would say there are about two dozen pieces in this show.

SD: What are some of the pieces exhibited there?

BT: The earlier pieces that I made were made of Styrofoam, a material relatively inexpensive. I could achieve a certain scale. One of the nice things that happened with this show has to do with my first show, which included Colonial American frames and windows, and these enormous beams. When Corinna came to the studio about two years ago to talk about the exhibition she fell in love with these beams. And we brought them to the museum in Albany, without any idea of how they might be displayed. It became very clear that they would be this sort of relief sculpture, no longer a sculptural object, but a sculpture that could really be appreciated in relief. For the first time the public is being given the opportunity to appreciate the carving of the beams. It’s completely hand-carved by me.

SD: Another piece included in this show is Witch Catcher, a giant chimney made out of Styrofoam as well.

BT: There have been three Witch Catchers. The first one I produced is the one that’s at SUNY Albany now. Going back to my thirty year old self, I literally cut off about 2,000 Styrofoam bricks and then stacked them as a child would stack them to create a spiral. I would stack them over and over to push them as far as I could. When I finally got to the point when they fell over, I knew that that was the limit of how far I can twist it. There were basically 2,000 Styrofoam bricks that were glued together, and painted.


SD: Let’s talk about the Levittown project.

BT: Levittown was built as a post-war development: William Levitt built 17,500 houses in the potatoes fields in Long Island. There is often a political subtext in many of the projects that I’ve done. In the case of Levitt, one of the things that intrigued me was this classic Cape Cod house that he replicated 17,000 times. Of the 17,000 houses only a handful of them still maintain their original form. I realized that this image of the Cape Cod house was vanishing rapidly, so I made a model out of wood about the scale of a dog house. I actually went out to Levittown and knocked on people’s doors, saying “you got an original door knob, do you mind if I measure and take pictures of it?” Someone gave me an original asbestos shingle that they had in their garage. So we pieced together a house that does no longer exists. We cast twenty of these houses using platinum silicon rubber, so it’s very flexible. The idea was to stretch the house over objects that might have been associated with that period. The installation explores the image that most of us would associate with the 1940s and ‘50s.

SD: Looking back at your career, what do you think has changed after all these years?

BT: It’s very difficult to predict where a career might go. I was somebody who made objects, made things by hand, I made them myself, I didn’t rely on other people to make them. I worked with very limited means. As I’ve gotten more and more involved in public art projects, I became more reliant on other people to provide me with services to build things. And things became more and more abstract. The piece that is being loaned by the Tang Museum was donated. The piece was never taken out of the crate: the collector never installed the piece; he had wanted to, but never got around to it. The piece had remained in the crate since it was purchased in the 1990s. We got to look at this piece for the first time since it was made. It’s twenty years old, and it’s made of Styrofoam, it began to shift a little bit, nothing extreme, but enough that I had to make some repairs. Going through the sculpture and trying to re-think “how did I do that?” Not that it was complicated at all, it was the opposite, but I had to re-think how things were made, I had to re-think how things were painted, and it’s actually been an eye-opening experience for me because my career is growing in such a way that I don’t have the opportunity to make things in the way that I once did. And I really do think that I want to go back to that hands-on approach. It’s something very liberating about being able to put some things together and make meaning out of them.


SD: Talk a little about your studio here in Roxbury. It’s one of the most prominent edifices as you come into town going north.  

BT: When I got out of grad school, I rented a 2,000 square foot store front in Williamsburg. I actually shared the space with a classmate of mine. Two years ago when my lease expired, the rent increased tenfold. Growing up on Long Island, I was drawn to something different, I was always drawn to the mountains. Many years ago my partner Brian and I spent a summer traveling through the Catskills, and settled in this area. We bought a small house outside of Fleischmanns. My dad drove past here in Roxbury, and said “you know, there’s a church for sale; I don’t know if you can afford it, I don’t know how much a church cost, but you might want to look at it.” When I drove up to it, I was so pleased with the humble nature of the building. When you think of a Catholic church, you think of a much more elaborate edifice. This one was such a modest building, but very-very beautifully built. The church was erected in 1925. We bought it intact. This was the perfect place for us to work. We needed the open space, we needed the height, it’s in the village, it’s very convenient for us. The quality of the building supports the kind of work that we do here. Because we’re very-very meticulous in what we do. There are twenty-six stained glass windows in the building. Five of them are visible from the façade, but not from the interior. And I opened up for the first time in the history of this church one of these windows; I intend to do the same with the rest of them. Our priority up until this point was to develop the interior of the building. We’re committed to preserving its historical value.

SD: What is your next project?

BT: I travel quite a bit, developing projects. My next exhibition will be at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in June 2016. That particular work for example is called “Commander in Chief” – it’s all about American presidents. Seven years ago I spent a summer reading every presidential inaugural address, and responded through sculpture. The Pennsylvania Academy has an extraordinary collection of Americana, historical portraiture and sculpture, so I’m going to inject my sculptures into the collection, in conversation with historical objects.

You can read the whole article here




Brian Tolle featured in The Tribeca Trib

Battery Park City's Irish Hunger Memorial: In the Beginning

The discovery of a  1965 snapshot, showing the grandmother of artist Brian Tolle’s partner, Brian Clyne, in a cart in front of a family cottage, became the inspiration for the design of the Irish Hunger Memorial, a recreation of a portion of the house, with stones from the abandoned cottage. 

Artist Brian Tolle, the designer of the Irish Hunger Memorial, speaks last month about the creation of the monument, which was completed in 2002. 

Last month, the artist Brian Tolle, designer of the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, gave a talk about this half-acre site that commemorates the Great Famine, a tragic episode in Irish history that began in 1845 and took the lives of an estimated one million people. Below, in an edited version, Tolle tells how he became involved in the project and his efforts to make the memorial, with its rural Irish landscape and reconstructed cottage ruins, as au­thentic as possible.

So much was serendipity.

I was serving on jury duty and I sat next to a man whose mother was Joyce Schwartz, the art consultant who was vetting all the artists for this memorial. A little later, Joyce called me and said, “I’m a big fan of your work, Brian, but I hadn’t thought of you for this project. Would you submit your qualifications?” 

This was on a Monday and the competition was closing in a few days. Back then, we used slides to show our work and $25 to make a duplicate overnight was a lot of money for me, so I delivered the portfolio myself to the Battery Park City Authority offices. It was the day of their first meeting about the memorial. When I told the receptionist I was there for the Irish Hunger Memorial, I was mistakenly swept into the board room and seated across the table from Tim Carey, who was then the CEO of Battery Park City and was responsible for nearly all of the construction down here. He looked at me and said, “Who are you?” I introduced myself and this lovely lady next to me said, “Oh, it’s so great to meet you. I’m Joyce Schwartz!”

So it was jury duty that gave me the chance to be considered for this project.

An extensive grid of rebar was put in place to hold and strengthen the concrete of the memorial and support the cantalevered structure. The monument contains a million pounds of concrete. 

Five artists were chosen for the final round and each of us was given $10,000. I packed up my bags and I went to Ireland, where I had never been. We had a wonderful historian on the project, and I asked her, “Where can I go to experience the consequence of these terrible events?” She sent me to a small, deserted village in western Ireland where there were dozens and dozens of houses dug into the hillside made out of stone rubble without any roofs. I stood on that hillside and looked over this village and tried to imagine the people who had once occupied this place and were lost, not only physically lost—lost their lives—but lost in time, lost in history. That experience left me feeling a profound sadness, a profound sense of loss. 

I submitted, with my architect and landscape architect, a model made of clay with some presentation boards. It was just a schematic. After we won, we had one year to design and build it. 

I knew pretty early on that in some way a house would factor into this equation, although I didn’t know exactly how. 

 Pink geraniums are among the 52 varieties of plants, none of them hybrids, in the recreated Irish landscape. “When you see a geranium here,” Brian Tolle said, “it is not a big showy thing; it’s a delicate pink thing. We wanted to create a rural place, a fallow place.”

Despite Tolle’s wishes that the stones from the 32 Irish counties that contributed them not bear their names, the stones arrived from Ireland with the names engraved on them. After realizing that so many Irish visitors wanted to see the rocks from their counties, Tolle rearranged the stones along the path for easy viewing. 

“One of our board members wanted to make a gift to the memorial of a 25-foot tall granite Celtic cross with an Irish flag on one side and an American flag on the other,” Tolle recalled. “But I wanted this to be about all of humanity.” As a compromise, a so-called “standing stone” with a Celtic cross of arcs, whose derivation is ambiguous, was placed on the site. 

Having been an artist who made historical-looking objects out of things like Styrofoam and fiberglass, it struck me that it was not an appropriate gesture to simulate one of these deserted houses in Ireland that had a resonance so deep. But nor did I want to participate in the colonial tradition of going someplace and taking stuff. So I put my name on the Irish Landmark Trust list, figuring that would be the responsible way to acquire a house. However, it soon became obvious that that would take a very long time, so we started looking for houses in the U.S. that were made from similar materials. 

 At night, the memorial’s illumination comes from the backlit quotes on the monument walls. 

Let’s get back to serendipity. My partner in life, Brian Clyne, is Irish. One weekend we were home with his mom looking through photo albums and there was a photograph from the 1960s of his grandmother in a haycart in front of their old stone house in Attymass, Ireland. My heart dropped. 

My mother-in-law called her cousin in Ireland and said, “You know that house that grandma was born in? What happened to it?” 

He said, “We still have it. The roof fell in and we kept the cow in it.”

“Can we have it?” my mother-in-law asked.

Again, with serendipity. It turned out that Attymass was the parish where there was the first official report of death by starvation due to the famine.

The infrastructure of the memorial is ex­traordinary. There are 110 90-foot piles to support it and a forest of 6x6 timbers were in­stalled be­fore the concrete was to be poured. The day before we were to pour one million pounds of concrete, the World Trade Center was at­tacked.

This site was a military zone, and at some point the military started pulling out  timbers for a platform. For­tu­nately, I had been giving tours to Irish po­lice­men and firemen who had been reading about the memorial in the Irish Echo. So when they saw what was happening, they stopped its destruction—and saved the memorial. 

A view from the upper level of the Memorial into a room of the rebuilt Irish cottage. A steady stream of visitors strolls through the two cottage rooms and continues on a path  onto the top level, the recreation of a rural Irish landscape, with a river view.

Our site became covered with World Trade Center debris, and despite all the efforts to remove it, after we poured the concrete, it was still on the surface. I was shocked. It represented something appalling to me. I insisted on having it removed. I don’t know if that was the right decision, but it was important to me at the time, So they chipped and sandblasted it, but even now you can see bits and piece of debris embedded in the cantilever.

Every detail was considered for this project. We had an architectural historian study how the house was built, identify significant stones, like a lintel, and those that affect the aesthetic of the houses. If we had used conventional cement it would fall apart in time. So we used a special lime mix formulated in France. 

We planted 90,000 plugs of native grasses and 52 different types of plants. None of them are hybridized, so that when you see a geranium here is not a big showy red thing, it’s a delicate pink thing. Many Irish people come here and say, “Where I come from, these are all weeds!” But we wanted to create a rural place, a fallow place. Though over the years we have had many offers to “spruce things up”! Someone once offered us a thousand tulips. 

The rocks come from all over Ireland, though we did not want them to be marked. When they arrived, I opened the crate and saw that they had all been engraved with names of the counties. I was mad! So I put them all upside down so you couldn’t see the names.

But after the memorial opened in 2002, and we cut the ribbon at the dedication, thousands of eager Irish people went looking for their county’s stone—and could not find them. They were climbing over walls and stepping on young plants. 

I learned a very big lesson that day: You do not mess with Irish people’s stones. 

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Brian Tolle on Art in America


REVIEWS APR. 07, 2009
by Nancy Princenthal

On the one hand, Brian Tolle’s small-scale painted silicone reproductions of the mass-produced houses of Levittown are ghastly specters. Detailed and highly evocative flayed skins (not quite Michelangelo’s self-portrait in the Sistine Chapel Last Judgment, but that’s the idea), they are draped over haunting, period-appropriate supports. On the other, they are big, goofy busted toys—rubber balls with the air let out. Or, each is an unstable mix of the two, a drama deflated, the loss in grandeur a gain for situation comedy.

Tolle made all 14 works in this show (all 2009) from the same mold, a model, roughly 4 feet on a side, of a single-story, clapboard house of the kind favored for the legendary postwar experiment in wholesale suburban housing. The siding in each is given a distinct color; window trim and shutters are painted in a more limited palette. The roofs are always gray, the little chimneys always brick red and generally slumped in comic resignation. And each house participates in an arch, middle-class-American tableau.

Father Knows Best involves a lazy yellow structure slouched in a cordovan leather armchair, which sits on a round braided rug; the whole is raised on a little platform that seems ready to turn, like a World’s Fair exhibit of a home of the future. As a wifely counterpart, there is a prim white house hung over an ironing board that folds out from a wall-mounted wooden cabinet (I Stand Here Ironing). But true to the ethos of its subject, Tolle’s “Levittown” is mostly about the kids. Cheaper by the Dozen shields a coven of stout-legged, life-size baby dolls who huddle under the too-snug roof of a tight little turquoise house; the baby-blue residence that hangs upside-down from a basketball hoop’s rim in Nothing but Net is a slam-dunk image of doing the right thing (the ball goes in) but not quite making the team (it’s stuck at home, no points scored).

As always in Tolle’s work, attention to detail is minute and rewarding. The single outstretched doll’s hand visible through a translucent window in Cheaper by the Dozen is a little scary and genuinely poignant, ditto the luridly spotted forelegs of the worn hobby horse that protrude from Outgrown, a jumble of precariously balanced rusty toys mostly covered by a pink home. Indeed the seriocomic tension of a house that is tidy on the outside but dangerously crammed within is a presiding metaphor. (Unfortunately it seems to have been used as an installation strategy too, resulting in an overcrowded gallery.)

As he has demonstrated in explorations of colonial America (“Overmounted Interior,” 1996) and 19th-century Ireland (the Irish Hunger Memorial, 2002), Tolle is a keen observer of domestic life as expressed in—and shaped by—its material circumstances. His “Levittown” is similarly faithful to the stylistic and experiential coordinates of its subject: simple structures, broad strokes, barely concealed mayhem.    

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Brian Tolle in Bomb Magazine

 by William R. Kaizen


Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Jul 1, 2001

Brian Tolle, artist; David Piscuskas & Juergen Rubin, architects; Gail E. Wittwer, ASLA, The Irish Hunger Memorial at Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority. Brian Clyne, 3D visualizations.

Brian Tolle is currently a very busy man. He’s been awarded a commission by the Battery Park City Authority to design and oversee the installation of a memorial to the Irish Famine. When it’s finished, the memorial will be situated on a half-acre plot in Battery Park City overlooking the Hudson River. The selection committee knew they had the right person for the job when they saw Tolle’s model. It featured a displaced quarter-acre of the Irish countryside, cantilevered out over the sidewalk—a combination of postmodern monument and landscape. All of Tolle’s work deals with memory and the memorial. His objects grow out of detailed historical research that is materialized through crafted work combined with the latest techniques of production. He’s been known to hand carve Styrofoam beams with an Xacto knife so that they look identical to wood, and he’s made a 14-foot robotic, computer-controlled rolling sculpture—all in the name of his conceptual practice. These days his time is spent navigating the numerous technical and political complications of the hunger memorial. On a rainy Friday afternoon Tolle showed me the construction site and then took me back to his Williamsburg studio, where we shared an egg sandwich and talked about simulated environments, Colonial Revival architecture and his work.

William R. Kaizen: The early ’90s saw a critical mass develop around conceptual object making. You went to Yale and were aware of artists such as Mike Kelley, Alan McCollum and Ronald Jones. They were making art objects based on behind-the-scenes research, their methods coming out of Duchamp but eradicating the Surrealist chance operation and replacing it with this archival, obsessive work—the “CalArtification” of the object.

Brian Tolle: It’s certainly part of my training. But it wasn’t enough; I like making things too much. Craft, for a while, became quite an important aspect of my practice.

WK: Craft meaning finish, given that craft for Mike Kelley is about the crappy aspects of the homemade. Were you interested in the opposite of that, on some level?

BT: Yes, it was about making something out of virtually nothing.

WK: Tell me about your piece based on Thomas Jefferson’s folding, portable writing desk.

BT: Jefferson designed that desk, and drafted the Declaration of Independence on it. It’s a historical relic, an existing object, so there’s an element of simulation involved with that first sculpture of mine. What attracted me wasn’t its objectness as much as Jefferson’s particular relationship to it. It was a tool to create other works, but furthermore, at a certain point in his life, he recognized that this object would live beyond him and would have value, and he inscripted the desk. That sentiment inspired me. It was the perfect metaphor for what it is to make art. The inscription ends with, “It’s the identical one on which he [Jefferson] wrote the Declaration of Independence. And if politics as well as religion has its superstitions”—a strange thing for Jefferson to say—”those gaining strength of time, may one day give imaginary value to this relic for its association with the Declaration of Independence.”Imaginary value, that was what hooked me.

WK: You see this uncanny return of history through the memorial running through all of your work.

BT: In my first installation, Overmounted Interior, I built this complete experience. I was doing my usual research and got very interested in the idea of revival style. Why it happens and when, and how changing attitudes are reflected in the mutation of certain forms and styles. It’s about manipulating the past to satisfy the present. So I thought, Why not get to it through more recent reinterpretations? That’s when it became Colonial Revival, revised—Colonial Revival once removed. Of course, each time it gets removed, it gets more distorted. I took little bits and pieces that are commonly associated with the Colonial era. Ceilings are low …

WK: Exposed beams, brick fireplaces …

BT: There is always a hearth. So the gallery had eleven-foot ceilings and I wanted the beams to come down to seven feet, to convey the right feeling. Rather than lower the ceilings, I made the beams four feet thick—that’s how I solved the problem.

WK: The effect of those beams was a surreal displacement of something like Colonial Williamsburg, or the faux marbling painted on expensive interiors.

BT: I never liked the word faux. Like trompe-l’oeil, it connotes surface and illusion at the expense of objectness. Although I use artifice, it’s not the central theme of my work. It’s subtext. There’s play with material, certainly, but I hope the work is given a kind of authority because of the attention to detail.

WK: You were invited to do a piece in Ghent, Belgium, titled Eureka; it was like the Bauhaus thing, artists collaborating with designers. This is the press release: “The project focuses on the relationship among sculptors, designers, fabrication hardware manufacturers, and software companies in creating artwork that expresses the interface between the virtual and the real.” What about that interface? (laughter)

BT: I like working with people and exchanging ideas. I like collaborating. The idea was to try to do something that hadn’t been done before. So there I am, in Belgium—I had been speaking with people about various software packages that simulate actual conditions like wind tunnels, to test airplanes or cars. They create a virtual window and then test the resistance and strength of the material. I was interested in software that simulates real wave algorithms to test the hulls of ships. So I found a building, a 17th-century canal house, and we digitally mapped its façade. Then we created a virtual water plane and tour boats modeled after those that cruise the canal. We piloted the boats through the water to create wake patterns. We then reflected the building’s data onto this modeled surface. The computer model was then output in full-scale 3D using a CNC milling machine—that model was sculpted using Styrofoam, coated with urethane and painted by hand. It was shipped to Ghent in ten sections and installed onto the original building. The result is a collision between water and architecture, creating something between the two. The ripples that disturb the façade in Eureka are actual waves cutting through the building. I wanted to express something that technology enabled me to bring into real time, real space and integrate it into a landscape rather than onto a picture plane.

WK: You’ve taken the actual architectural façade of the building and marked it with this indexical trace of the boats passing by. It’s a virtual brush stroke transgressing the validity, or at least the solidity, of the building’s architecture. You’ve remapped the space of the city using a structure that’s an integral part of the urban fabric.

BT: It gets back to the earlier discussion about the conceptual framework of research-based artwork. I could spend hours explaining the technological significance of this gesture, but at the end of the day, it’s a highly experiential work.

WK: So let’s jump to your next project. Who are Alice and Job?

BT: This is where things sort of go awry. I was asked by Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles to do an exhibition in the old railroad terminal, which is an enormous space. I started investigating Los Angeles history and picked up Mike Davis’s City of Quartz. He makes a reference to Llano del Rio, which was the largest socialist experiment in the United States; 1200 people moved out to the desert between 1914 and 1917. I accumulated a lot of research material, which started to suggest a number of things about the community. [Yale University included some of Tolle’s material in a 2000 exhibition at the Beinecke Library entitled No Place on Earth.] Anyway, a couple thousand acres were cultivated out of the desert; it’s a biblical story. All that remains are a few stone ruins.

WK: Twelve hundred people, that’s not as big as some of the Shaker communities.

BT: No, this was the largest socialist experiment in the United States, not religious. Many of these people were European immigrants. They were led by Job Harriman, a labor lawyer who had run for vice president with Eugene V. Debs. He had also been a very strong contender for the mayoral race in Los Angeles. Alice Austin, a suffragist and self-trained architect, was invited by Harriman to plan the future city of Llano del Rio, but it was never built. They never got beyond their original settlement. It was a very strong moment for socialism. It’s not the politics explicitly that interest me, but the fact that history marches along and occasionally marks something like the Alamo as significant. There’s so much that was left behind because it wasn’t the history that we wanted to remember.

WK: It reminds me of B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. So, all that’s left today is these chimneys?

BT: Yes. I carved each stone out of Styrofoam and used them to replicate the chimneys. It’s a reenactment of a futile process, an ancient process of stacking stones. Job and Alice are essentially monuments. They are the embodiment of all that’s left of this history. A history no longer collectively acknowledged. So I turned it into a story. I decided that Job and Alice were sitting out in the desert one day after everyone else had left, and Job said to Alice, “They’re not going to come back.” And Alice said, “You’re right.”

WK: So you made up a fictional narrative. You got so involved in the research …

BT: Job and Alice don’t know any other place, they only know the desert, but they’ve heard about Los Angeles because their people came from there. They understand themselves against this other. The other is successful; Los Angeles, the capitalist model, survived. So they muster up all their energy, pack their bags and drag themselves to Los Angeles.

My Job and Alice are each 16 feet tall, 12 feet at their bases—they’re enormous. So you enter the gallery and see Job and Alice standing there, and then you go on to see the rest of the exhibition. There are two more rooms, one with window pieces with typical views of the future city that never came to be. The other with a 12-foot diameter well filled with rusted beer cans collected at the site. When you go back into the first room, something’s not quite right, Job and Alice are no longer where they were. They’ve moved.

WK: How quickly do they move?

BT: They move quite slowly. Job and Alice wander the space, they’re constantly in a state of motion. They would do the most bizarre things: Job would go up in a corner and sulk, or they’d march one behind the other—very strange, random activities. If they hit a wall or a person, they’d stop, reorient themselves, and then go another way. They have hidden castors and robots driving them.

WK: You’ve anthropomorphized these things—you’re talking about them as if they were real people.

BT: I never thought that I would. I don’t work figuratively. I’ve tried to create situations where the viewer as figure becomes part of the subject matter. I’m not interested in situations where there’s an empathetic other. When you’re dealing with history, it’s too easy to say, “This is about them, then.” It’s about the experience that you’re having right now. It’s about you.

WK: This brings us to the Irish Hunger Memorial. When someone invites you to make a monument, it’s a very different situation. It is about us, now but it’s always also about them,then. One question is, What’s the difference between a monument and a memorial? All monuments are memorials in some way. Look at the history of sculpture, its incipient moment in the Western tradition in Greece is about a memorialization of the gods, about giving literal embodiment to those mythical figures as a visual, iconic representation of cultural ideals.

BT: The early monuments provided places for the gods to reside. There is a relationship, from the beginning, with architecture: they were making houses for the gods. Battery Park City Authority reviewed the work of one-hundred-some artists and selected five of us to submit proposals for the memorial. I, in turn, selected Jurgen Riehm and David Piscuskas of the firm 1100 Architect to develop a design concept. When it became clear that the landscape was a central element in the design concept, we brought Gail Wittwer on board as the landscape architect. I’ve been using architecture in my work for a long time. I thought, Why not enter into a dialogue with people who make buildings?

WK: The point of the commission’s planners is to memorialize the famine.

BT: The Irish Hunger. Hunger is the Irish term for it, the Great Hunger. The mission was to create a memorial to the Irish Famine, and use it as a catalyst to address issues of world hunger. Per capita, the Irish people donate more money to world hunger than any other nation because of this collective experience. Ireland is one of the most prosperous economies in Europe. And there’s a huge Irish-American community here in the U.S. that’s prospered over the years. There are a number of these memorials to the famine and they are almost always bronze, and they almost always represent an emaciated woman and child.

WK: That’s horrible, an image of what can never be properly represented.

BT: That’s right, and it shouldn’t be. Famine is an unbelievably horrible reality. One million people perished in the Hunger, starved to death, and millions more emigrated. Its subject is land—not only land because land is life sustaining, but the politics of land. The cultivated land on this site will be a quarter-acre. This is significant because the English instituted a poor tax in Ireland, which made landlords responsible for the tax of tenants occupying land less than a quarter-acre. This led to the evictions of the poorest tenant farmers. There is also the issue of indoor versus outdoor relief. The British government built workhouses, rather than delivering aid directly to the poor. It’s the same issue as today: they believed that relief was demoralizing and that it was addictive, that people would become accustomed to being given relief.

WK: Welfare versus workfare.

BT: Exactly. So people had to make a decision. In order to qualify for indoor relief, official relief, they had to be destitute, which meant that they had to surrender everything, including their farms. People literally tore the roofs off their own houses to demonstrate that they had nothing. And they had to give up the other thing that had sustained their life—their land. The population of Ireland in the mid 19th century exploded—it grew to eight million. There are only about five million people in Ireland now; the country’s never recovered. The people were being forced to cultivate more and more difficult land—completely unarable, rocky hillsides; they were literally pushed to the edge. People brought seaweed from kelp beds and piled it onto the rocks to make compost. These were agrarian people who had to build a life from nothing. They had to make the very earth they needed to cultivate.

WK: But this was the heyday of industrialization in the United Kingdom; they were in the one spot in the world that is highly industrialized. As opposed to say, France, which outside of Paris was mostly agrarian.

BT: A lot of the hostility that is still very much alive in the Irish-American community is based on the fact that there was food. They were exporting tons of butter, beef, oats—to England and abroad. Food was leaving the country.

WK: You told me that you were grilled by the selection committee about this simulation of the Irish countryside that you’re planning for the memorial—they asked you if you were being ironic. How do you handle that?

BT: It’s tricky because oftentimes I make objects that look like other things or I make things from materials that simulate other things, but my commitment to expression is paramount. I believe in the subject matter first. I believe in the meaning that is conveyed and only use simulated forms if need be. Again, I didn’t conceive of any of my previous pieces to convey some ironic message about artificiality or fauxness.

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