The Best Public Art of 2021

“This fall, in the throes of the COVID-19 Delta variant outbreak in the United States, within a country struggling with the weight of an unfathomable collective grief and battling through pernicious anti–public health propaganda, artist installed her monumental In America project on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The premise: […]

“This fall, in the throes of the COVID-19 Delta variant outbreak in the United States, within a country struggling with the weight of an unfathomable collective grief and battling through pernicious anti–public health propaganda, artist installed her 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 blanketed the north lawn around the Washington Monument.

“A year before, Firstenberg first carried out an earlier version of this project in the area surrounding RFK Stadium, an iteration that conjured the nearby Arlington National Cemetery. Just as Firstenberg had done in her previous iteration at RFK, passersby on the National Mall were invited to dedicate single flags to loved ones and friends killed by the pandemic by writing messages to them. In carrying out this project on the National Mall, Firstenberg elevated the stage of her work, focalized the scale and pain of the pandemic in the heart of the symbolic core of the nation, and created a place and archive of images necessary for mourning and connection in the midst of mass compounding loss.

“Sweeping views of the installation could be seen covering much of the grassy footprint around the Washington Monument, rising to over 700,000 flags by the end of the temporary installation. Sited at the edge of Constitution Avenue, between 15th and 17th Streets Northwest, the installation of flags was framed by nearby monuments and museums, the White House, and a large somber billboard on which the national death toll was updated each day. This feature was as photogenic as it was necessary to ground this artwork as part memorial and part indictment. Adding to this, for those seeing the installation from up close, you could find a small, pointed section of flags near the main sign highlighting the cumulative death toll of New Zealand (27), a country that took an early stringent approach to confront the pandemic, next to a collection of flags representing what the cumulative death toll ‘could have been’ if the United States had ‘adopted New Zealand’s approach’ (1,809). These details pushed this temporary installation with enduring perspectives and sightlines, in grand and granular ways.

“One afternoon in September, I took my students from the nearby Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at the George Washington University for a tour of the Mall that closed with a visit to In America. We plotted our approach from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where we happened to see White House helicopters encircle the area above the installation. We later learned that it was President Biden viewing the memorial from above. Minutes later, when we approached the installation from ground level, we stopped to listen to the sound of the breeze working its way through the sea of flags, flapping and clamoring, harkening and haunting. We eventually split up, as my students moved through the massive installation. We all lost one another for minutes at a time, snagged by the handwritten note on a particular flag, ruminated on another viewer’s reaction, or swept up in the entirety of the project and this pandemic. When we found one another again, just before sunset by the billboard sign, we gathered to pause and take in what we went through together. There, we could feel the rush and release of grief and glimpsed a prospect of accountability.”

—Paul Farber

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-best-public-art-2021

Dong Anker

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