Interviews

The Artist Behind NYC’s New LGBTQ Monument Hopes “the Gay Community Can See Itself Reflected”

Anthony Goicolea, the selected artist to design the state’s official monument honoring the LGBTQ community, speaks about his proposed memorial and the logistics of a public art project.

Anthony Goicolea (image courtesy Anthony Goicolea and the Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

On the morning of New York City’s June 25th Pride Parade, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo unveiled the design for the state’s official monument honoring the LGBTQ community, and specifically those lost in the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016. Shortly after the tragedy in Orlando, Cuomo issued an executive order establishing the LGBT Memorial Commission, which is comprised of 10 queer organizations, like the Stonewall Democrats and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, that together work with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. In October 2016, the Commission ordered a request for proposals from artists to design the new memorial and judged these entries based on criteria like artistic composition, site compatibility, and constructibility.

The governor’s office announced Anthony Goicolea as the selected artist whose work celebrates both the strength and resilience of the LGBTQ community, but also its history of loss and hardship. (This is the first state-sanctioned monument for the Pulse nightclub shooting victims, although the owners of the nightclub recently announced their plan to convert the building into a memorial through the onePULSE Foundation.) Goicolea’s design will grace New York City’s Greenwich Village waterfront area, symbolic of the Village’s history of queer inhabitants. The plans for his monument include a series of nine boulders that vary in size; most will be filled with glass to refract incoming light into subtle rainbow patterns on the lawn. The artist’s design toys with themes of transience and identity, provoking a quiet meditation on the flux of life and the emotional vicissitudes of being queer. I spoke to Goicolea about the details of his proposed memorial and the logistics of a public art project.

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Zachary Small: Before we get to the memorial, could you tell us about your other work? What’s your preferred medium? What themes do you draw on?

Anthony Goicolea: Actually, I work in a variety of mediums. I first became well known for my photographs, but I also produce drawings, paintings, and installations. Thematically, I look at issues of identity and subtexts relating to impermanence. More specifically, I’m interested in how people either assimilate into culture or assert their individuality. How do people present themselves? Do they join a mass unit or do they rebel against it? At the moment, I’m working on a series of portraits, but in these drawings and paintings you won’t see any faces. Things are more focused on body language and performance; or otherwise, the faces of my subjects are composites of multiple faces to create a single image.

ZS: And how has your own life influenced your work? Are you someone who assimilates or strikes out?

AG: As a Cuban-American, Catholic, gay kid in the Deep South, I had all the ingredients for isolation. There’s this idea of wanting to assimilate, but I think as I get older I want to be as different as possible; asserting one’s own individuality is important. And at some point, I guess, a balance is struck. This reflects in the more ambiguous qualities of my work; it doesn’t lead you one way or another, your reaction to it can change over time.

Anthony Goicolea (image courtesy Anthony Goicolea and the Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

ZS: Turning to the LGBTQ memorial, how do you see the elements of your previous work incorporated here?

AG: Mainly, I incorporate those themes in the materials of the monuments, which all convey a sense of translucency and weightlessness at friction with their appearances. The artificial boulders of the project look like solid, granite boulders, but they are actually light and made of bronze. There is an idea here of subverting materials — what you see is not necessarily what it is. Your first judgment shifts. There is also a sense of the beauty within. These seemingly solemn, heavy stones contain light thanks to the glass within them. And the glass components speak to the idea of transition and change. I also wanted this monument to reflect its environment on the Hudson, so the light refracted through the glass will change depending on season, day, weather conditions, and perspective.

One of the large boulders, however, is not filled with glass. It has an internal inscription, which encapsulates this notion of the monument unveiling itself to the viewer. It’s all an experience, and viewers can use the boulders for climbing or to rest. The fact that it forms a circle also forces viewers to enact a sense of community.

ZS: Somewhere else, I think you described the monument as a queer Stonehenge.

AG: [Laughs] Yeah, well, I think that comment got condensed into a soundbite. But I am interested in innate structures. I’m thinking a lot about circular formations that mark time and burial mounds: Stonehenge, Easter Island, African stone circles, etc. Or even how hikers stack stones to mark their path. Those weird, unique desires are built into us as humans, so I hope to capture that innate sense of community in the monument.

ZS: Can you describe the commission process for me? What’s the timeline for a competition like this?

AG: The governor’s office put out a call online and someone forwarded it to me. I’d been brainstorming a few ideas and settled on this idea of using large boulders. (The glass came later.) The office was supposed to announce finalists three months after the call released, but I never heard anything. I figured I didn’t get it, but one day I received a phone call saying I was a finalist. (There must have been a delay in the process — maybe something about reallocation of funds?) Initially, there was a jury comprised of people from the art world, the LGBT center — all these groups with an interest in the LGBT monument. From there my piece was fine-tuned. Soon after the call, we did a site visit with a mediator who conveyed some concerns the committee had with my proposal regarding landscaping, durability, and graffiti resistance. I made a few revisions to the proposal and then presented it to both the City’s committee and the committee in Albany. From there, I think they made final recommendations to the governor who selected the winner.

ZS: It’s rare for an artist to field so many vested interests when completing a project — and with so many different opinions. Did anything major change as a result of these conversations?

AG: Initially, the boulders were in a more circular formation. They were also much smaller. The committees wanted them more irregular in shape and with a greater variety of size. Ironically, my initial idea was for large boulders, but I was concerned my project would be denied because of safety issues with New York City’s strict planning and zoning rules. The fact that they wanted the boulders larger was great.

The initial call had so many restrictions that it created an interesting set of limitations. They wanted people to still enjoy the park and use its lawn. People would use the space, so they didn’t want anything that would pull too much focus. They didn’t want to allocate funds for maintaining it. The monument couldn’t have any water element or moving parts. There was no possibility of digging down into the ground and anchoring something big. These requirements helped me create something that would interact with the environment; I realized that bringing light in was the most feasible way to do that.

ZS: Do you remember learning about the Pulse nightclub shooting? How does your monument enshrine the memory of its victims?

AG: When Orlando happened, I was in Berlin at the time. I received the news from afar. It was upsetting and shocking. Just the idea of attacking people in a club — for the LGBT community, that’s one of the few safe spaces for people. We can go there and be ourselves. Growing up in Georgia in the late ’70s, I never had a gay community. When I first came to New York — seeing areas where LGBT communities congregated, seeing how comfortable they were … that sense of comfort was amazing. To hear that all these people were in a safe space surrounded by friends and family when they were attacked and killed — it sounds sacrilegious. For me, this monument is about creating space where the gay community can see itself reflected outside and in the public, in the community and amongst nature.

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