For three weeks in September, the symbolic heart of Washington, D.C., will be covered by more than 610,000 white flags, each about a foot tall, representing the American lives lost to COVID-19 and holding written memories from loved ones. The flags will be packed tightly into 60-foot-by-60-foot quadrants on 20 acres near the Washington Monument and the National Museum of African and African American History and Culture.
The installation, “In America: Remember,” created by D.C. artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, will also have a virtual component: Volunteers on the ground will transcribe virtual submissions and upload a picture of the flag to the In America website.
Like the AIDS quilt, which nearly 34 years ago was draped across the National Mall, Firstenberg’s “In America,” which will be up starting Sept. 17, is a collective response to a virus and public crisis.
“When a nation is in the midst of trauma—and this is truly a large-scale, slow-motion, mass-casualty event—it’s hard to really conceptualize it,” Firstenberg said. “That was one of the things I wanted to do. The other thing was to acknowledge each death. So many of these deaths were happening in private, behind closed doors without public acknowledgment.”
This is Firstenberg’s largest project to date, although her previous works have also involved large numbers. In 2016, the artist folded 10,752 paper airplanes to advocate for bipartisanism in an exhibition at American University’s Katzen Arts Center, and in 2019 she displayed names and ages of shooting victims on an American flag at the H-Space Art Gallery.
Firstenberg, 61, began dreaming up the COVID-19 project early on in the pandemic — in March 2020. To the social-issues artist, the loss of life — especially the elderly and people of color — was being characterized by some politicians as trivial and something that had to happen for the sake of the economy.
“I was so disturbed,” she said. “I knew as a visual artist that I had to create art that would help people understand the magnitude of this loss. So I arrived at the idea of planting flags.
A flag will ripple in the wind and interact with the environment. And the mass of them would really look like what it really was at that time: a flag of surrender.”
The first iteration of the project took place last fall on four acres outside RFK Stadium, with 267,080 white flags planted in an array that recalled the rows of tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
Firstenberg paid for the flags, and installation and deinstallation was done by volunteers, with help from Ruppert Cos., a Maryland construction and real estate company. By the time the last flag was pulled from the ground, Firstenberg was already figuring out the next stage for her art.
After reaching out to the National Park Service and securing more space and time on the Mall than she had bargained for, Firstenberg began the process of increasing her original exhibit threefold. In the time between her first exhibition and her second, almost 400,000 more Americans have died of COVID-19.
Unlike at the RFK iteration, where memories and messages could be added only on-site, people will be able to add messages online using software developed by Esri, a national mapping and spatial analytics company. The virtual aspect is also meant to involve people who may not have lost a loved one and feel separated from the project, said Estella Geraghty, Esri’s chief medical officer.
“For example, I personally have been dealing with COVID ... [but have] not lost anybody close to me from COVID,” she said. “So I might feel distanced from this project and just observe it like you do with many memorials in D.C. But people will have the opportunity to work with these index cards that we’ll print off from the submissions on the website. I could go to the installation and ... transcribe somebody else’s note onto a flag for them so I can feel part of the whole process.”
Firstenberg said she hopes that when visitors see the shocking field of white, either pulled by curiosity or grief, the sheer volume of flags will help show that the lives lost are much more than a statistic.
“We have to remember that this happened and learn from it,” she said. “We can never let this happen again. Never again.”