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A Memorial Remembers the Hungry

By Roberta Smith of the New York Times, July/16/2002

Photographs by Sandro Cafolla t/a Design By Nature.  Supplier of Seed and Plants to Memorial.

The Irish Hunger Memorial opening today on the edge of the Hudson River near Manhattan's southern tip could be New York City's equivalent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, an unconventional work of public art that strikes a deep emotional chord, sums up its artistic moment for a broad audience and expands the understanding of what a public memorial can be.

The work commemorates a 150-year-old tragedy, the great Irish famine of 1845-52. Although the subject lacks the national scope and immediacy of the war in Vietnam, the Hunger Memorial, which is in Battery Park City, illuminates Ireland's tragedy in undeniable human, even universal, terms; it can grip the viewer with its combination of information and spatial experience.

The new memorial is a startlingly realistic quarter-acre replication of an Irish hillside, complete with fallow potato furrows, stone walls, indigenous grasses and wildflowers and a real abandoned Irish fieldstone cottage. The 96-by-170-foot field rests on a giant concrete slab that is raised up and tilted on a huge wedge-shape base. It slopes upward from street level to a height of 25 feet. A packed dirt path winds up the slope, culminating in a hilltop with sweeping views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

The field is a walk-in relic of a distant time and place tenderly inserted into the modern world almost as if it were an offering. From the riverside, the towering end wall of the plinth is shadowed by the broad overhang of the concrete slab, and cut by a ramped entrance that leads into the back of the cottage. Intended to resemble an Irish burial mound, or tumulus, it also suggests that the landscape has been flown in on a large spaceship especially at night, when it is lighted from inside, creating an eerie glow. From its inception, the memorial was also intended to be a reminder of world hunger. The plinth is lined with glass-covered bands of text that mingle terse facts about the Irish famine with similarly disturbing statistics about world hunger today, along with quotations from Irish poetry and songs.

But the work's potential for contemporary resonance may be unusually great: today's dedication ceremony occurs in a city that saw history change course a short distance away less than six months after the groundbreaking for the memorial on March 15, 2001.

Located two blocks from ground zero, the Irish Hunger Memorial is likely to be embraced by many as a symbol of the hundreds of fire-fighters, police officers, rescue personnel and office workers of Irish descent who died in the World Trade Centre attack. It was half completed when the attack came, and its earth-moving equipment and raw materials were commandeered during the rescue effort. But local police officers and fire-fighters familiar with the project protectively guarded the half-finished memorial from inadvertent damage or dismantling.

The Hunger Memorial will almost certainly add to the growing debate about the future use of the land on which the World Trade Centre once stood. By coincidence, six proposals for the redevelopment of ground zero, each including plans for a 9/11 memorial, are about to go on view at Federal Hall National Monument.

Perhaps most important, the memorial has arrived at a time when Americans, especially young Americans, have a deeper understanding of tragedy and grief, of fate's capriciousness and of the complexities of power.

Brian Tolle

The work, which was created by , a 38-year-old New York sculptor, exemplifies contemporary art's ability to meet the public's need for meaningful monuments with an appropriateness that may surprise both advocates and opponents of the new. While the low-lying black marble wedges of the Vietnam Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, might be called populist Minimal Art, Mr. Tolle's memorial is a form of populist postmodernism, a combination of reality and simulacra, of high and low, a layering of different historical periods and contrasting points of view. It is also a typically post-modern blend of existing art styles Realism, Conceptual Art and Earth Art bound together by historical fact and physical accuracy.

Index - NYIHMG - DBN and the Irish Hunger Memorial at Battery Park City


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