Art exhibit features over 200K flags representing US Covid deaths
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Thousands and thousands of small white flags stand sentinel outside the Washington D.C. Armory in Southeast, near RFK Stadium. When the breeze blows, the flags ripple in unison like a vast troupe of dancers, swaying between the long shadows cast by the trees that line the armory parade grounds.
Each flag represents an American who died from COVID-19 — 230,068 as of Sunday morning, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“It’s just so evocative,” says Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, the Bethesda-based artist behind this public art installation.
Firstenberg, 61, began to conceptualize the piece in March, a few weeks into the pandemic, when she heard Texas Lt-Gov Dan Patrick suggest that elderly Americans could be willing to succumb to the virus in order to preserve the US economy. The sentiment horrified Firstenberg, who has spent 25 years as a hospice volunteer.
“I know how valuable each life is, because I’ve had the opportunity — the honour — to be with people at a very difficult time in their lives, as they’re saying goodbye,” she says.
Firstenberg began looking in August for a place where she could display a work that fully captured the magnitude of the public health crisis. She eventually secured a permit from Events DC to use the land outside the armory.
A trained sculptor, she spent hours deciding on the materials she should use for the project. She initially planned to use small American flags, but soon found they were hard to get a hold of during an election year.
“I would have had to source them from China, and that didn’t really make sense to me,” she says.
So she pivoted to white engineering flags — 250,000 in total, to make sure she’d have enough to match the death toll estimates. To her, white represents innocence, not surrender. It also allows people to write the names of lost family members or loved ones directly onto the flags.
She also called a local landscaping company, Ruppert Landscaping, for advice on how to best place the flags. When the owners heard more about the nature of her project, they jumped on as a philanthropic partner, donating landscaping guidance and three days of installation support.
The resulting work, “IN AMERICA How Could This Happen…,” will be on display through Nov 6, with Webcams streaming birds-eye views of the installation.
The work is meant to be a participatory project: Members of the public are invited to help plant flags each day as the death toll rises. All participants must wear masks and maintain social distancing. Free hand sanitizer and masks will be on hand.
“This is public participatory art,” she says. “I want the community to come plant flags right alongside me. I want them to realize the importance of individual lives.”