— By WILLIAM R. KAIZEN
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 nineties 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.
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
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?
it was about making something out of virtually nothing.
WK Tell me about your piece
based on Thomas Jefferson’s folding, portable writing desk.
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
see this uncanny return of history through the memorial running through all
of your work.
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 . . .
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.
The effect of those beams was a surreal displacement of something like Colonial
Williamsburg, or the faux marbling painted on expensive interiors.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
So let’s jump to your next project. Who are Alice and Job?
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.
hundred people, that’s not as big as some of the Shaker communities.
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.
It reminds me of B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. So, all that’s left
today is these chimneys?
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.”
So you made up a fictional narrative. You got so involved in the research .
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.
How quickly do they move?
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
anthropomorphized these things—you’re talking about them as if they were real
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
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.
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?
The point of the commission’s planners is to memorialize the famine.
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.
That’s horrible, an image of what can never be properly represented.
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.
Welfare versus workfare.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
Let’s not use the word faux. If you look at your work across the
board, there’s a play with the expectations of the object as a piece of
material and as a historical thing and then there’s the undermining of
those expectations. It’s not just about using plastic that looks like wood,
it’s also about this relationship between apparent material and then
apparent presence, and then the undermining of that presence, which is
really at the heart of the simulacrum. What’s different in your plan for
the Hunger Memorial is the literalness of the materials. You are going to
Ireland and getting an actual house from the Irish countryside, you’re
using Irish flora—you will actually reconstruct a piece of the Irish
countryside in New York. There are two different levels: one is the actual
hill, and the other is what’s underneath it, the base that supports this
landscape. The underneath has this architectural postmodern feeling to
it—it will contain text—while the top tries to be as real and naturalistic
as possible. So there’s another layer of play, of constructed versus real
Well, what is a true material when you’re talking about landscaping? There
are different levels of engagement. This is the first time that I’ve
actually shared the textual process; that pedestal, that cliff face, that
block at the bottom, is the language. It is the verbiage, the research. The
structure is made up of language. So what happens in the Hunger Memorial is
a landscape supported by language. The public relations people called it
transplanted or rerooted landscape, but that’s also not true because it’s
suspended between here and there. Not just between Ireland and the U.S.,
but also between past and present. So you bring something over like a
fragmentary landscape from Ireland—it wouldn’t have made any sense for us
as a design team to integrate it as a park. It’s absolutely an
that sense, it is a simulacrum of the Irish countryside. There is an
engagement with what it means to try to relocate a culture and memorialize
it. This is the function of a memorial, but this is a memorial that’s about
the displacement of a population and about the inaccessibility in time of
that original moment and place. In the attempt to recuperate that, you’re
making the past present.
tend to romanticize the past. That’s the difference between language like
“rugged landscape” and how it translates in the press: “Rolling green
hills.” The Irish community in this country is a group distinct from the
people who remained; they share a common heritage but they’ve evolved into
two different peoples. One group continues to experience the landscape on a
daily basis, actually using and changing the landscape, building new
buildings, new roads. And the other group left at a moment that’s frozen in
their mind because that’s the event: their departure. It’s a collective
memory. It’s an idea of place that’s suspended between these two worlds: it
exists as an imaginary thing here and it exists as a reality there. To
bring these two things together is the challenge. Irony is not the
solution. I committed to designing a memorial. Before I said yes, many
things went through my mind. I was being asked to represent a very complex
history by a living public who came together and asked for an artist to
express something that they feel . . .
I like this question you’ve raised, of your responsibility to different
constituencies: the public in Ireland who stayed, the group who immigrated
whose families have been here for four generations, and the city itself,
this collective government organization that’s representing this event to
the rest of the city’s population and the world. The other responsibility
is to your own sense of politics and artistic legacy. Is it going to be
difficult to come up with a non-compromised final site?
If the site were ever “compromised” it would occur over the long run. And
that’s not a question for me to worry about—it’s outside of my control,
which is fine. I’ve consciously put the onus on all those constituents to
maintain the integrity of the project.
To upkeep the landscape?
I don’t know if people are anticipating how much this thing is going to
change over the course of the year. All these plants that we’re talking
about importing from Ireland are indigenous species, there’s nothing
hybrid. Beautiful things will happen in the landscape in the spring and summer
when wildflowers come up. There are also weeds and thistles included in
there as well. People will find logical ways to move through the potato
furrows; they’re going to make paths. We’re going to have to adjust to the
conditions as the environment, as the culture, as the population comes into
You’re recreating this living thing and somebody will have to tend it. Are
you going to leave the tending to the city?
Yes. Really I’m just setting up a framework. The memorial is eventually
going to be connected electronically to a library on the north side of the
site that will be set up as an archive and research center. It will
contribute information to the audio component in the passageway, which
hopefully will change and respond to new information about world hunger.
Whereas the tradition of the monument is something that is unchanging,
unyielding, that continues to persevere as the world changes around it. You
know what happens—eventually people just forget about it because attitudes
change, the event was so long ago that it’s just a block of stone in the
park. The Hunger Memorial is something that can go in either direction, it
can be neglected, in which case it gets more wild. Or, I’m dead and the
architects are dead and somebody says, “It would look nice if we had tulips
planted there.” It will reflect changing attitudes and cultural shifts.
This is one of the oddest things about a memorial project, it’s like going
to a collector’s house and seeing your art hanging over the toilet; it’s
not going to stay exactly how I imagine it.
you consider this a piece of art in the same way you do your other work?
I think it is. I don’t know how to do anything else, really. Let’s not lose
sight of the fact that I worked with a team to develop the design. I
understood the value of that kind of an exchange, of allowing for people of
different disciplines to come to the table. But the parameters are
established by the artist. It’s an artist-directed project, but one that
really benefited from the collaborative process. For example, one day we
were talking about whether there’s a hill, or maybe there’s not, maybe
there’s a cairn, maybe there’s not, and suddenly it’s cantilevered and off
the ground. For better or for worse, the experience and the execution and,
frankly, the beauty of that experience is as important as the concept. I
try to marry those things in a way that doesn’t compromise one or the
other. To make something decorative is not the aim, but to make something
that’s so highly conceptualized that it’s reduced to nothing is equally
uninteresting to me. As far as conceptual problems, what do you see?
Well, how is the text going to function? And how does it relate to
geological strata? You have text going around the floating base that
upholds the landscape and this base also represents geology.
Well, it’s only very loosely based on the strata or the accumulation of
geological history. That was the excuse so that it wouldn’t become a place
for blocks of didactic text. Whenever we think of Ireland we think of
lyricism, Joyce’s lyricism, and that kind of rhythm. It didn’t seem
appropriate for the text to be expressed in a block form that was
definitive and authoritative. And so by creating these strata, we provided
8,000 linear feet of space for text. The text is inscribed in glass,
sandwiched between the layers of stone. That amount of space allows for
multiple interpretations, experiences, descriptions of the events as they
unfolded, presented one next to the other, one on top of the other, one alongside
the other in a way that attempts to express the extraordinary complexity of
But you’re not selecting the text?
The base is the space where many of these different constituent groups can
come together. My role is to organize what is said, to present it—not to
say it. Because there is no large space in which to inscribe a complete,
narrative text, the result will be fragments of many histories, bumping up
against one another. There is an executive committee and an Irish historian
who will provide the text. I’m very interested in seeing what they choose.
Could you have eliminated the text altogether?
was a requirement that there be a text. There needed to be a place for an
inscription. One of my earliest criteria was to use landscape as
contemplative space. So I created a place that’s purely experiential;
there’s no text on the landscape surface of this memorial. It’s all about
place, it’s a juxtaposition of places because you’re also surrounded by all
this glass and granite of Battery Park City. The base is lit, and at night
this thing that seems rather imposing and solid by day actually fractures
and radiates light by night. So the solidity of the foundation that
supports this element is fractured, fissured.
You’re making the text itself and its variety of voices the foundation of
this landscape, as if memory were based on these various voices who are
fighting and contesting over history, maintaining it in our minds and informing
how we think about life today. This is a function of memorials in general.
This memorial has another purpose, as a touchstone for a much larger issue,
which is world hunger. Whether it’s a desert or an Irish landscape, land as
subject is the point that we enter into the discussion. We’ve committed to
the idea of allowing for this to be updateable; there’s a sound system in
the passage cut through the base of the memorial which leads to the
landscape. It will not only allow for different voices to be heard—we’re
also talking about a people who lost their language; the British eradicated
Gaelic—so it’s an opportunity to hear that language spoken, as well as
Irish music and storytelling. It’s also updateable in the sense that we can
talk about hunger as it appears in different places in the world. I would
love for this to become a popular place, a place that provides information
and a space for contemplation.