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Sculptor gets laughs in New York with monuments to fake tragedies

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It all started in 2016 with a bronze statue commemorating the tragic day in November 1963 when a giant octopus upended the Staten Island ferry, killing nearly 400 people in New York.

Wait, what — a giant octopus? Artist Joseph Reginella smiles. Yes, you read that right.

In 2017, another statue appeared in Battery Park, at the lower tip of Manhattan — a monument to the Wall Street bankers trampled to death in October 1929 when circus impresario P.T. Barnum’s elephants broke into a panicked stampede while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Hard to believe? Well, quite.

A few months ago, strollers along the water’s edge in New York found a new statue dedicated to the six crew members of a tugboat who were abducted by aliens in July 1977.

The three memorials to three made-up tragedies sprung from the vivid imagination of Reginella, a 47-year-old sculptor and jokester who has made an art out of monuments commemorating non-existent victims. Reginella — who makes his living building models and props for movies, amusement parks and department stores — realizes it’s rather a peculiar hobby.

He makes the bronze sculptures in his spare time, in the basement of his Staten Island home.

His 2016 sculpture of the octopus sinking the ferry was such a popular hit that he decided to produce a new monument each year along the same lines — and following the same sophisticated sense of humor.

Documents to lend credibility

Reginella begins by choosing the date of the invented disaster with care — and having it coincide with a real tragedy.

The ferry “sank” on November 22, 1963, the day president John F Kennedy was assassinated.

The elephant stampede took place on October 29, 1929, the day of the massive Wall Street crash.

The tugboat crew “vanished” on the night of July 13, 1977, when a huge blackout plunged New York into darkness.

The idea is that the enormity of the real events will make people think — maybe — that they somehow missed the other tragedy that he invented.

“That was my vehicle to kind of try to have people believe this,” he told AFP.

“And then I took the template — I had such great success with this, it really went crazy — that I continued the tradition.”

Each statue comes with a plaque explaining the event in earnest tones, designed to lend a whiff of authenticity.

The elephant stampede, for example, is described as “one of the most horrific land mammal tragedies in our nation’s history.”

And at a moment in America when everyone goes to Google to verify or look up information, Reginella pushes the joke onto the internet, conjuring up a panoply of fake documentation, including newspaper articles and online documentaries to bolster the illusion.

For his latest piece on the tugboat alien abduction, there is even a tourist brochure offering boat tours to the site where the sailors were allegedly kidnapped.

A curious observer can type “octopus” and “Staten Island ferry” into YouTube and find a black-and-white documentary featuring archival footage of putative wreckage, along with witnesses and experts talking about the disaster.

Each event has its own website with souvenirs on sale, including real t-shirts priced at $25 each and reproductions of the original model for $100 a piece.

Published in Daily Times, December 25th 2018.

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