A large swath of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., has been covered with more than 670,000 white flags—one for every American life lost so far to COVID-19. The installation, entitled In America: Remember, is the work of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg and is on view through October 3.
Visitors can walk through the immense field of flags and stop at a table to “personalize” a flag with the name of someone who has died during the pandemic. All weekend, people have been doing just that.
Those who can’t visit can dedicate a flag online until September 30 at www.inamericaflags.org and their messages will be handwritten on a flag by a volunteer and also included in an online compilation of the messages. Marking the installation is a sign that keeps a running tally of the death toll.
The field of COVID flags is one of the largest participatory exhibits on the National Mall since the presentation of the AIDS Quilt in 1987.
Firstenberg, 62, said that the flags are meant to be a “canvas” for family members and friends to leave messages about their loved ones, while providing a way to give meaning to the numbers. She said the repetition of the white flags can be seen as a reference to the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
“When numbers get so large, it becomes difficult to really understand them,” she told Reuters while touring the site last week. “So I, as a visual artist, wanted to make the number physical. I wanted to physically manifest it.”
Many of the COVID-related deaths have received little-to-no acknowledgment, and this is a way of coming to terms with the loss, she explained.
“Once you take one flag and think about all the grief that is embodied by that flag, then you lift your gaze,” she said. “That’s the power of this art: understanding the immensity of our loss…Taken holistically, this is a physical manifestation of empathy.”
The 20-acre installation is located just north of the Washington Monument, close to the intersection of Constitution Avenue and 15th Street N. W. It’s a follow-up to an exhibition from October 2020, in which Firstenberg installed 240,000 flags near RFK Stadium to mark the number of Americans who had died from COVID as of last fall. Her goal at that time was “to make visible the human toll of the continuing pandemic.” The number of flags has tripled since then.
According to the installation’s website, Firstenberg is a “social action” artist based in Washington, D. C. and a former legislative aide in the U. S. Senate. Her work addresses issues such as homelessness, human dignity, drug addiction, gun safety and politics.
The exhibit is open for participation weekdays from 10 a.m. to sunset and weekends from 9 a.m. to sunset.
As of last Friday, when the installation opened, more than 670,000 Americans had died of COVID—one in every 500 Americans. Firstenberg plans to add more flags every day as the death toll increases.