In September, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., will become a sea of white — one flag for each American who has died from the coronavirus.
President Joe Biden will see it from the Truman Balcony of the White House, and from a distance, it will seem like it snowed in the nation’s capital. Up close, visitors will see the names and personal messages on at least 610,000 individual flags — whether they are walking the pathways through the three-week art installation or viewing the digital version on their computer screens in a faraway state.
In America: Remember — the largest participatory public art installation on the National Mall since the AIDS quilt in 1987 — will come together because of the efforts of three key people.
The artist from Maryland. The anthropologist at a university in D.C. The software engineer from Colorado.
“People will come and they will be astounded by the visual immensity,” said Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, the artist behind the project. “This is an opportunity for a nation to pause and to really think about what it means to be an American. The country is people. If we don’t care for all of them, if we are going to discount lives of color, the elderly and pretty much anyone we don’t know, that’s not a country.”
The flags will go up in mid-September, arranged in 142 sections, divided by 3.8 miles of walking paths. The design, all in white, is intended to evoke Arlington National Cemetery.
More than offering a bold visual, the art will connect people who have grieved the deaths of loved ones in isolation, perhaps without an in-person funeral, Firstenberg said. It’s visualizing the vastness of loss. And it’s allowing people to participate — digitally or in person — whether or not they know someone who died of COVID-19.
Relatives and friends can enter messages into the project website, and visitors to the National Mall can write a message on a flag and plant it in the grass. Volunteers will use a geolocation app on their smartphones to map the flag, and relatives and friends of the dead who cannot travel to Washington can zoom in online to see their personal message.
“The person at the space can take up the responsibility — only for a few minutes — to write out that personalized message and to plant that flag,” said Sarah Wagner, a sociocultural anthropologist and a professor at George Washington University. “And maybe, for a moment, shoulder a little bit of that burden, partake in a total stranger’s mourning.”
The technical support for the memorial comes from the Lakewood office of Esri, an information technology company that makes maps for cities and counties across the world. Some of the company’s workers are volunteering their time to create the online version of the installation, plus provide the app that will allow on-site volunteers to geolocate each flag so that family members can find it.
“A collective sigh”
Esri software engineer Jeremiah Lindemann had been working on a COVID-19 memorial project of his own when he got the call from artist Firstenberg about her idea for a massive, in-person memorial on the National Mall.
In April 2020, a month into the pandemic, Lindemann built the Coronavirus Lost Loved Ones map, accepting photographs and entries from across the globe. But the effort didn’t take off as he had hoped, with only a few hundred entries. Lindemann figures it was too soon, that people were still in shock at that point in 2020 and unsure how long the pandemic would last, and that his website got lost in a wave of online memorial projects nationwide.
Four years earlier, Lindemann created an opioid overdose map to memorialize victims of the opioid epidemic. The first entry was for his younger brother, J.T., who died at age 23 after struggling with an addiction to Oxycontin.
When Lindemann heard about the Washington, D.C., project, he revamped his coronavirus map and notified the families who had already uploaded photos and messages about the upcoming memorial on the National Mall. About 300 people signed up within the first day.
“The whole intention of this is that the whole country needs a collective sigh,” Lindemann said. “Let’s turn the corner on this, yes, but there were some who never had a chance to grieve.”
“Draw the person in and deliver the message”
Firstenberg, too, tried to memorialize coronavirus victims earlier in the pandemic, in a way she now realizes was premature — the “largest mass casualty event of our lifetime” wasn’t nearly over, she said.
Last fall, Firstenberg planted 267,000 flags on 4 acres outside Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, D.C., one flag for each death from COVID-19 so far. “I ran out of time and space,” she said. “Deaths were mounting so rapidly in September and October that I had no space. We had to deinstall.”
The work felt unfinished, and Wagner, who was leading a research project on mourning and rituals at George Washington, thought so, too.
Wagner drove to the field of flags to volunteer and gather information for her research on the pandemic’s effect on collective mourning. The anthropologist and the artist sat on benches 6 feet apart next to the swath of white flags and discussed how this should not be the end.
People craved a place to share in the sorrow. Firstenberg recalled how a woman in an SUV drove by one day and shouted out her window, “What’s all this for?” And when Firstenberg explained that each flag represented a person who had died from COVID-19, the woman stared at her for a moment and then burst into tears.
One of those 267,000 deaths was her mother’s, just two weeks earlier.
“Something magical in a way happened at the art,” Firstenberg said. “It was heartening to see strangers being validated by others in that space. Compassion and empathy really are at the core of rebinding us as a society.”
Before Biden’s inauguration, Firstenberg had applied to the inaugural committee and the National Park Service pitching her idea for a sea of flags on the mall. She didn’t hear back before the inauguration.
But later, the National Park Service got in touch to ask whether Firstenberg was still willing to create her memorial art project. Wagner, at George Washington University, had told Firstenberg about the Colorado software engineer who had created a COVID-19 memorial map online.
Firstenberg quickly called both of them with the news that the National Park Service had OK’d the project. She’ll begin planting flags Sept. 14, and expects that several thousand will already have messages from the website. The rest will be blank, until people come. Visitors also can help plant the flags of those who die while the exhibit is ongoing.
Walking among the flags, people who lift their gaze will see the immensity of death, but when they look down, will notice a single flag and its message “that reminds them of the humanity of that person,” Firstenberg said.
“I try to create aesthetics that are either unique or utterly beautiful, to draw the person in and deliver the message.”
Before she studied pandemic grief, Wagner worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina with the families of some of the 8,372 missing at the end of the war in 1995. They were lost, victims of genocide who were executed and left in mass graves.
Wagner also worked with the U.S. military as it tried to identify remains of soldiers killed in the Vietnam War.
All of her previous research with families of the missing has similarities to the suffering of those who have lost relatives to coronavirus — their loved ones are not missing, but they missed their opportunity to mourn them through the typical rituals of funerals and gatherings. Without closure, their grief is suspended.
Also, like the families in Bosnia and Herzegovina who fight for recognition that their loved ones were victims of genocide, families who lost relatives during the pandemic have had to grapple with a politicized country in which some people do not acknowledge their deaths or their cause, Wagner said.
The anthropologist was struck by how Firstenberg’s smaller field of flags last fall embodied that reality.
“This is white. This is ordered. This is overwhelming in its numbers,” Wagner recalled thinking at the time.
The memorial will have a much greater impact in the heart of D.C., she said. “That it’s on the National Mall is a forceful act, not a gesture, that the nation seeks to remember,” Wagner said. “It’s an opportunity for us to reckon with loss on that scale, in a physical way, a tangible way, one flag for each life.”
The exhibit will run from Sept. 17-Oct. 3.