On June 12, 2016, 49 LGBTQ+ people, friends, and family were gunned down with a Sig Sauer MCX on “Latin Night” at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In New York, by way of response, Governor Andrew Cuomo established the LGBT Memorial Commission, which organized a design competition “to create a memorial honoring the fight for equal rights and all victims of hate, intolerance and violence” near the Christopher Street Pier in Manhattan’s Hudson River Park. The site has an important history as a place of refuge and exploration for queer populations; the New York City AIDS Memorial and the Stonewall National Monument are also both only a few blocks away.
The winner of the competition, Anthony Goicolea, is currently installing a circular arrangement of subtly imposing, boulder-like sculptures, each of which will refract light through seemingly dense surfaces and draw visitors close — to the forms themselves, and to one another. In this interview, Goicolea, a visual artist whose multimedia practice has long dealt with materiality, identity, and individuality, discusses the challenges of working with such a fraught topic and place in the service of a community whose experiences of public space are often threatened, if not outright violent. Taking his practice out of the gallery and into the city, here Goicolea sketches his plans for an architecture of empathy, whose muted monumentality is potentially both its greatest vulnerability and strength. – JM
What was the competition design process like?
The Request for Proposals was really specific. There couldn’t be any water, it couldn’t require much digging because there are a lot of mechanicals underground there. It had to be graffiti- and “scratchiti-” resistant, weather-resistant. It had to take into consideration that there’s not a lot of green space and that people actually use that lawn and lay out there. It had to fit within a particular footprint. It had to be low maintenance. I just started thinking of things using the actual earth, and I’ve used these big boulders in my work before, and so it seemed like something that I wanted to investigate.
I settled on these large boulders that look like granite — the traditional material for headstones — but are actually made out of bronze. Then they’re split and filled with what they call diachronic glass, which is basically just layers of glass that have these really thin metallic sheets in them, so when you’re looking at the glass, it almost looks like a gasoline spill. You can still see through it, but it works kind of like a prism and separates the natural light into a full color spectrum.
Does it need to be actual glass to have that effect?
I don’t think acrylic or resin is as effective. I also liked the symbolism behind it. Often, in ceramics, if something breaks you bond it together with gold, and where it’s broken actually becomes stronger than it was before. The idea is that the stone has been broken and then faceted back together with something that’s seemingly delicate and fragile but ultimately makes it stronger. It’s a mutable memorial in the sense that, as the seasons, time of day, and where you’re standing change, the memorial will change as well.
It’s solid bronze?
It’s hollow, but it’s bronze, so it’s still really heavy and dense. When you first see it, what you think you are seeing is not actually what it is, and that’s very much the case with people who have preconceived notions about the LGBTQ community without having much experience with them. Once they meet somebody from the community, then they realize they may not be what they thought. We’re not out to convert people or give them unwanted make-overs.
How is the bronze going to change over time?
The patina is what makes it look like the granite. And as it wears from use, it’ll be polished down closer to what you traditionally think a bronze is. I like the idea that certain rocks will get worn down and you’ll see the evidence of the people who have come and interacted with it.
Your husband Paul Kelterborn happens to be one of the co-founders of the nearby New York City AIDS Memorial. Having seen that competition, design, and production process from a front row seat, I’m curious if that affected your thinking. In other words, not just the practical issues, budgets and things like that, but also planning for things like community board meetings.
They already had some community board meetings, but I think whenever I conceive of something, I always try to look for the pitfalls of everything first, to head them off at the pass. It doesn’t matter if it’s something that I’m just making for myself or if it’s something that’s a larger collaborative piece, I try to anticipate what could be the problem areas. So it is true that in seeing what the community board meetings were like for the AIDS Memorial and the kind of concerns that people had, I knew that there were certain things that I was going to have to address. But those expectations didn’t always pan out. For instance, initially I designed the boulders to all be three or four feet tall — a very manageable height in terms of safety and production. But the jury liked the idea of having some variety in size. So now they sort of ramp up from two or three feet to six feet. Much bigger than I ever would have guessed they would let me go.
The final brief said, “In the wake of tragedy in Orlando, Governor Cuomo established a commission to create a memorial honoring the fight for equal rights and all victims of hate, intolerance and violence.” How specifically were you thinking about the Pulse Massacre as you worked?
For me Orlando was the impetus, but the ultimate goal was something that both dealt with that horrific loss of life and also celebrated all the achievements of the LGBTQ community. I thought a lot about how the LGBTQ community has always sought out safe spaces, and the adjacent piers were an important part of that in New York. Growing up, the first time I went out to a gay bar, it was shocking to me to see all these people just being themselves. There was no sense of vulnerability or fear. And I think for a lot of people in our community, the piers were a safe space in a similar way. My hope is to acknowledge that history of place and create a sense of safe harbor there, enclosed but open to the city at the same time.
Thinking about the brief, but also about the materials, how do the themes and formats fit into your ongoing visual art practice?
I often work with translucent or semi-translucent material. And I like subverting expectations. So I have sculptures where they look like they’re being propped up by these beautiful white pillows, but the pillows are actually made out of plaster and cement. Or I’ve made structures where these big foundation walls that look like cinder blocks are actually made out of glass. I’ve also worked a lot with the notion of multiplicity and how things, when duplicated, take on different meaning.
How is your own personal identity, and identity more generally, dealt with in your work?
I’ve always been interested in the idea of in-between states and the incubation period for things. In early self-portraits, I explored the idea of adolescence and youth. For me, the notion of that awkward period between boyhood and manhood felt really ill-defined and hazy. I remember learning in sex-ed that when a girl has her first period she’s “becoming a woman,” and I was like, “So what is it for a guy?” And when I asked people, even later in life, they all had really widely varying answers. In my work I explore the notion of not necessarily fitting into a specific identity. Being a gay kid from the deep south in the ‘70s with a Cuban-American background, I never felt fully in one community or the other. I still often hear, even from relatives, “Oh, you’re not really Cuban,” or, other relatives, “You’re not really American.” It’s interesting to want to have some sort of definition but not be granted it, and so it’s something that I explore in my work. With the memorial in particular, I focus on an inscription from Audre Lorde that will be engraved on the inner face of the largest boulder. Lorde talks about how we shouldn’t shed our differences, we should celebrate them. That’s what creates a community.
How much of your work has been in an urban setting, outside of the gallery?
I’ve worked outside the gallery but never really in a city. I created an installation of photos of snow scenes with Alaskan huskies on billboards in the middle of the summertime forest on the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art. I’ve worked with performance and choreography and film. But the bulk of my work begins in my studio, alone. I think this will be the first time operating in an outdoor urban environment, where I’m answering to so many people. It’s definitely the most bureaucratic thing I’ve ever done.
Can you speak to me a little more about the place? Working urbanistically involves a lot of different players, and the site came totally pre-cooked. Did you gain any insight from them as to how it was selected?
I think that they liked that it’s in the West Village, and that it’s a rare chunk of land that is relatively flat and open. And it looks out onto the piers and the Statue of Liberty, which was a big thing for them as well. Equality and freedom and pursuit of happiness. I think it all factored in their selection process.
Back to the Orlando prompt, it’s clear that this space is especially important in the current political context. There’s a need to reinforce certain social bonds that are under threat. But your project seems to operate with a slower temporality — it’s heavy, unmovable — perhaps connecting to longer-running struggles. I’m thinking of the way that the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project’s mission is to insist that LGBTQ+ history doesn’t begin and end with Stonewall. It’s a much bigger set of questions and set of characters and concerns, etc. Do you see a connection there?
I don’t know if I thought about that so directly, but I feel like it’s addressed in the sense that I wanted it to be a memorial that’s always changing, with that comes a kind of impermanence and mutability. So I play with those kinds of juxtapositions: a heavy lightness and a durable fragility.
You spoke a little bit about the formal and almost affective ways that the project is dealing with the site by orienting views and creating a comforting environment. Thinking about experience, can you talk a little bit about the way that this project will engage with different generations and beyond LGBTQ+ visitors?
I think for me, somehow, sitting is key. That the boulders offer a place for people to sit and relax and enjoy the view of the Hudson and the sunset, or to sit and reflect on people they’ve lost. I can imagine that kids are really going to like the idea of climbing on them, and I want them to be something that straddles the line between being beautiful and playful and celebratory while also solemn and peaceful. So for me what’s important is the fact that it’s not a memorial that you look at, it’s a memorial that you become a part of. Really the stones are simply the pedestals for the true memorial, which is the people that are sitting there. They can be sitting by themselves but with other people in this arranged format, so, alone, but not alone. Alone together.