On the National Mall, The Largest Participatory Art Project in a Quarter Century Makes Tangible the Human Toll of COVID-19
Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg explains what drove her to bring the immense work back for a second year.
Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg has planted 695,000 white flags on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—one for each person in the U.S. who has died of COVID-19.
The massive installation, titled In America: Remember, is a reminder of the human cost of the still-ongoing pandemic, even as thousands of Americans refuse to get the vaccination that could keep them from becoming part of the death toll.
Underneath the shadow of the Washington Monument, it took a team of 150 landscapers, their time donated by Ruppert Landscape, three complete days to install the sea of white flags, spaced 10 inches across in 60-foot grids. It helps make tangible the sheer scale of loss that is otherwise unfathomable.
It’s the second year Firstenberg, a longtime hospice volunteer, has staged an artwork of this nature in the nation’s capitol. Last year, she put up 219,000 flags at the D.C. Armory for In America: How Could This Happen…. The five-week project concluded with a total of 267,000 flags when she ran out of space to continue adding to the display. A selection of flags from that original piece are now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on view through December 14 in an installation called “A Nation Grieves.”
The sequel opened on September 17, with 670,032 flags. It remains on view through the end of this weekend, and still continues to grow. In fact, In America is the largest public participatory art installation on the National Mall since the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was last shown in full there in 1996.
Visitors are invited to inscribe a flag with handwritten dedications to the deceased from their loved ones. You can walk through the installation on nearly four miles of grassy paths, stopping to sit and reflect on benches placed throughout.
We spoke with Firstenberg about what inspired her to respond to the pandemic through art.
Why did you want to bring the project back for a second year and how have your feelings about the pandemic changed since you last staged the work?
I did not expect when I closed the art installation in November 2020 that this would happen again. But people from the Trust for the National Mall and from the National Park Service saw that art and worked with me to bring it back.
The National Mall is the greatest stage, and to have the opportunity to call attention to such a tragedy was something I felt I had to do. Words aren’t working any longer. Words are falling on unlistening ears. It really is incumbent on visual artists to help translate and reflect back to society what is happening in the hope that things will improve, because art can effect positive change.
What kind of reaction have you gotten to the piece from visitors this year?
I did not expect how much solace and comfort this art would provide people families whose loved ones died from COVID-19. I knew that they would bring their grief, their outrage, their anger. What I didn’t know was what the flags would give back.
Some people said they didn’t have a funeral, and this is the only public memorial they had. “We’ve gathered family around our dad’s flag,” they said.
Another woman said “I have been so isolated in my grief in my dad’s death. But coming here and seeing all these flags, I realize I have had a lot of company—I have not been mourning alone.’
It’s been so gratifying to let my art do this for people.
Have you had any negative reactions?
We haven’t had any damage to the flags or any efforts to disrupt the piece. We did have one woman who said, “My mother didn’t die of COVID. She had COVID and she died of a heart attack. I need to take her flag out of here.”
I said to her, “this is not about taking the flag out. This is about your grief for your mother.” We talked for awhile, and she thanked me and she left. What she was really saying was, “I’m in pain.”
Do you think art can help people comprehend the scale of loss that we are dealing with here?
The beauty of this art installation is that even seeing so many flags, it’s still so hard to comprehend. But 11,000 flags have been personalized. If a person walks through any pathway, they’ll see a flag that’s been personalized for a loved one who died. That helps them understand the magnitude of the tragedy. It goes from understanding the number to understanding the amount of grief this art represents.
The number represents that America is in pain. This art represents the pain that we all are suffering.
Do you hope these flags help remind people who are complaining about ongoing health restrictions or mask and vaccine mandates what is really happening here, and how without precautions this number will continue to grow?
I don’t think they will be compelled by fear to change their behavior. They are demonstrating such antisocial selfish behavior by not protecting other people by getting immunized and wearing masks.
We need more art to help them find their own dignity in all of this. I hope this art touches them to get vaccinated and to wear masks and stop fighting mandates. But we need more art to help people flip their cameras, stop with the selfie mentality, and start focusing on others.
It seems as if COVID-19 is becoming an endemic disease. Does that change the way that you think about this project and do you plan to continue it or restage it in the future?
It can’t be extended because the permit for use of this space is limited. We just hosted a congressional delegation, many of whom asked that we bring the project to their community. I’m going to encourage people to replicate this art in their own community.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the project and what it represents, and its potential to be ongoing for the foreseeable future?
As an artist, this project has been overwhelming not only in its physical scope, but in its emotional scope.
I’m not trying to document what is happening with COVID. My goal was to reclaim the dignity of each person who had become a number but to also give our nation a moment of pause. I wanted to create a moment of reflection so we could say “Oh my god. We cannot let this happen again. What do we need to do to find our better selves?
See more photos of the installation below.
“In America: Remember” is on view on the National Mall, north of the Washington Monument, between 15th and 17th Streets, Washington, D.C., September 17–October 3, 2021.
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