Art reference

The best public art of 2021

“This fall, amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 Delta variant in the United States, in a country grappling with the weight of unfathomable collective grief and grappling with pernicious anti-public health propaganda, the artist installed its monumental In America project on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The premise: Firstenberg and a team of associates planted small palm-sized white flags en masse, each representing a life lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. The flags were placed on thin wires, installed by piercing the ground, and in turn covered the North Lawn around the Washington Monument.

“A year prior, Firstenberg had first completed an earlier version of this project in the area surrounding RFK Stadium, an iteration that evoked nearby Arlington National Cemetery. Much like Firstenberg had done in its previous iteration at RFK, passers-by on the National Mall were invited to dedicate unique flags to loved ones and friends killed by the pandemic by writing messages to them. By carrying out this project on the National Mall, Firstenberg has elevated the stage for his work, focused the scale and pain of the pandemic at the heart of the nation’s symbolic core, and created a place and an image archive necessary for mourning. and at login. in the midst of compound mass loss.

“Panoramic views of the installation could be seen spanning much of the grassy footprint around the Washington Monument, reaching over 700,000 flags at the end of the temporary installation. Located at the edge of Constitution Avenue between Northwest 15th and 17th Streets, the flag installation was framed by nearby monuments and museums, the White House and a large dark billboard on which the national toll of dead was updated daily. This feature was as photogenic as needed to ground this part-memorial, part-indictment piece of art. On top of that, for those who see the facility up close, you can find a small pointed section of flags near the main sign highlighting the cumulative death toll in New Zealand (27), a country that has taken a strict approach at the start to confront the pandemic, alongside a collection of flags representing what the cumulative death toll “could have been” if the United States had “taken the New Zealand approach” (1,809). These details pushed this temporary installation with enduring perspectives and sightlines in a grand and granular way.

“One September afternoon, I took my students from nearby George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design for a mall tour that ended with a visit to In America. We plotted our approach from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where we saw White House helicopters circling the area above the facility. We later learned that it was President Biden watching the memorial from above. A few minutes later, when we approached the facility from the ground, we stopped to listen to the sound of the breeze weaving through the sea of ​​flags, flapping and clamoring, nagging and haunting. We ended up going our separate ways, as my students moved through the massive facility. We all got lost for minutes at a time, hooked by the handwritten note on a particular flag, ruminating over another viewer’s reaction, or swept up in the entirety of the project and this pandemic. When we met again, just before sunset near the billboard, we came together to pause and understand what we had been through together. There we could feel the rush and release of grief and glimpse a perspective of responsibility.

—Paul Farber