When Brian Tolle was commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art to create a new work honoring Benjamin Franklin, he spent months reading about his subject and visiting historical sites and archives before he finally settled on three images.
One was the rattlesnake, which Franklin immortalized in his “Join or Die” political cartoon supporting the Albany Plan of Union in 1754.
“Franklin wrote about snakes often,” Tolle told an audience at the ICA in late January, shortly after the installation was completed as part of Philadelphia’s citywide celebration of Franklin’s 300th birthday. “He wrote about rattlesnakes as one of the most perfect symbols of America—it would strike if provoked, warning before it did. He also found a two-headed snake, and he kept it in a jar as a specimen. And he used it again to make a case for a unified government.”
To make the sections of a rattlesnake move and clack against each other, Tolle used—what else?—electricity (specifically, electromagnets).
While Franklin divided his original rattler into eight parts, loosely representing the colonies (“I think he snubbed all of New England,” said Tolle. “He just lumped it together.”), Tolle divided his snake into 50 sections, a more understandable reference point for contemporary audiences. He painted each segment red or blue, based on the results of the last presidential election, and organized them in the order of their admittance to the union, starting with Delaware and ending with Hawaii.
The immense portrait of Franklin on the gallery wall comes from the $100 bill, also known as the Benjamin. “Franklin, as some of you know, made a lot of money making money,” said Tolle. “He was a great proponent of paper currency.”
After Tolle met a printmaker in Vermont whose printer could print micro-type, they scanned a Benjamin and replaced the lines in Franklin’s face “with his own words at one-point size,” Tolle recalled. “So what you have is an image that contains, in addition to his entire autobiography, many of his most famous writings—thousands and thousands of words contained on this tiny note.”
He then reversed the process to normal, 10-point type and printed it out on “hundreds of sheets of paper—Quarto-sized, which was the standard size then. And so my print is hundreds of individual sheets of paper that will then be gathered left to right and bound in this new abstract book about Franklin.”
Ultimately, said Tolle, “I constructed an image of a man through language.”
The final image came from the famous “Rising Sun” chair in which George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention. “It’s a little carved sun,” said Tolle. “And Franklin made a very compelling speech during the convention where he said, ‘I didn’t know if it’s a sun rising or setting, and now I know it’s rising.’
“I wish I could say the same” about the current state of the nation, said Tolle. “I decided that since I got so depressed thinking about that, I had to make it more cheery. So I took it and stylized it, and made it psychedelic-cheerful. But I positioned the mural on the horizon of the floor.”
Brian Tolle’s installation at the ICA’s Project Space runs through March 26.