As the number of deaths related to COVID-19 surpasses a quarter-million in the U.S., artists are embarking on ambitious projects to remember the coronavirus pandemic’s victims.
A parking lot outside the Queens Museum in New York City was transformed into a loving salute to health care workers this summer when artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada painted his 20,000-square-foot mural of a doctor wearing a mask.
Thousands of American flags were planted on the National Mall this September as the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. surpassed 200,000 cases. Volunteers who organized the installation in Washington, D.C., hoped that the flags could symbolize the increasingly unfathomable scale of loss that the coronavirus pandemic has caused.
And in Philadelphia, dozens gathered near the Schuylkill River on a chilly October weekend for a series of video projections that promoted collective healing and mourning. The event, organized with the help of local artists, included a number of messages superimposed on a surgical mask, like “It didn’t have to be this way” and “Memorialize the missing among us.” Those temporary memorials are gone, but their existence has inspired artists to start thinking about what comes next. And for many organizers, envisioning a permanent monument to victims and first responders must happen soon, to avoid risking a loss of momentum or political support.
“The time is now,” said Paul Farber, director of the nonprofit Monument Lab, which studies the role of public art in civic engagement and collective memory. “Because we are both mourning our losses and fighting for our lives, it’s important that we have urgent forms of commemoration.”
Traditional monuments have for centuries commemorated important political leaders and war veterans; rarely do governments dedicate memorials to victims of a disease. Despite 50 million people worldwide dying from an influenza virus a century ago, for instance, the 1918 flu pandemic is barely remembered in statues and stone.
Of the few examples that exist, many were only recently unveiled: a 2018 graveyard bench in Vermont and a 2019 garden plaque in New Zealand’s capital. Some historians have suggested that the lack of memorials contributed to a mass amnesia around the disease, which in turn may have contributed to a lack of preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic.
There is one disease calamity, however, that has been widely memorialized in recent generations in the U.S.: the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. There are several memorials around the country to victims of the virus; New York City even has two official commemorations situated only a few blocks away from each other in Manhattan.
But perhaps the most recognizable of them all is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, initially displayed on the National Mall in 1987 and covering a space larger than a football field, with 1,920 panels representing the dead. Artists are already taking inspiration from that generation of activism.
Like a spiritual successor to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, an online memorial project for Asian and Pacific American communities impacted by COVID-19 and the rise in racist violence during the pandemic has taken a collaborative approach. Artists in partnership with New York University are working on A/P/A Voices by collecting oral histories and digital artifacts, including artworks and videos, for an archive that hopes to preserve public memory of this difficult era.
But creating a physical monument in the U.S., where bureaucratic red tape and funding can keep projects in the planning stages for years, will likely take more time. Even the temporary memorials that have appeared across the country required considerable effort. It took months for Farber and his collaborators to organize the video projection series in Philadelphia, called Cleanse.
“It was about being aware that we were all holding loss,” he explained. “And we realized that any effort to build a site of memory had to deal with the catastrophic losses of life to both the pandemic and systemic racism.”
In New York City, Councilmember Mark Levine floated the idea of transforming Hart Island, the site of mass burials for victims of COVID-19 and the many diseases before it, into such a memorial. That suggestion eventually became a bill, which is now sitting in committee before it can receive a vote from the New York City Council.
“Typically, America meticulously chronicles the lives of those that we have lost,” Levine told NPR. “I guess because of the scale of this pandemic — and that it’s not a one-day event but an ongoing disaster — we have done very little of that.”
And given the manifold ways that the coronavirus pandemic has upended life for Americans — and the way that COVID-19 has become politicized — public monument experts say it’s unlikely that a single monument will be able to address the totality of the disaster.
“We will need all the techniques we can muster to mark how profound the catastrophic loss of life has been,” said Farber, who envisions future memorials standing in front of city halls and hospitals across the country. “Having official recognition that more than 250,000 Americans have died is important.”
Other countries have already begun their own efforts to memorialize victims and health care workers. London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced in late November that his city would build a memorial garden to commemorate the thousands of lives lost to the pandemic in the British capital. Planned for the city’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the site will consist of 33 blossoming trees, one for each of the city’s boroughs.
Uruguay has made even more progress. The architecture firm Gómez Platero is leading a $1.5 million project to create a monument to the victims of COVID-19 — the world’s first large-scale memorial to those lost in a pandemic — on the shores of Montevideo, under the direction of Uruguay’s president, Luis Lacalle Pou.
The monument will take the form of a massive circular structure that is nearly 130 feet in diameter. The circular platform is expected to welcome up to 300 visitors at a time and contain an open void at its center, which will look down toward the rolling ocean.
According to Gómez Platero, such monuments mark our shared cultural and emotional milestones. “By creating a memorial capable of activating senses and memories in this way,” the firm said in a statement, “we can remind our visitors — as pandemics do — that we as human beings are subordinate to nature and not the other way around.”
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