Imagining a Memorial to an Unimaginable Number of Covid Deaths

In cities, especially, monuments have become not just an artistic genre unto themselves but evanescent, ever-evolving tributes to those we lost — and continue to lose.

Article by Mark Harris

MEMORIAL_1An aerial view of the unfolding of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in 1992. Although the project is never finished, the quilt, which was recently honoured on its 35th anniversary, includes more than 50,000 panels. Photography courtesy of the National AIDS Memorial.

One day, probably in the not-too-distant future, somebody will propose, and somebody else will design and somebody else will build, an official memorial to Americans lost to Covid-19 — 1,055,000 as I write this in early October, 2022, more than perished in any war in US history. And it is easy to imagine that that memorial will be built in New York City, where so many of the country’s most shattering losses occurred in the pandemic’s initial months in 2020.

But it is harder to imagine what such a memorial will, or should, look like — perhaps because memorials, while they are locations for collective remembrance and mourning, also carry within them a kind of reassurance: that happened. We lived through it. One function of public memorials is to make the unthinkable thinkable by putting it in the past tense, and when those memorials are erected in the hearts of cities — places of action and motion and life — they create a meaningful tension between the stillness of stopping to remember and the movement of going on with one’s day. Covid, though, doesn’t live in memory yet; while New Yorkers may be just far enough past the sight of morgue trucks on the street (that happened; we lived through it) to define that horror as its own era, we’re not fully out of it. A Covid memorial right now would resemble nothing so much as New York’s single worst Midtown tourist attraction, the National Debt Clock, sometimes ticking up quickly, sometimes slowly, but never stopping. It’s not yet time to look back. 

The idea of memorials is as old as the desire of humanity to mark a loss by assembling a pile of stones — first literally, at a gravesite, later architecturally, with pyramids. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum; Grant’s Tomb is actually Grant’s tomb (the resting place of Ulysses S Grant, the 18th US president, in New York). “We remember that you were here” is a statement and also a prayer: perhaps if we honour our dead, someone will remember that we were here. Memorials are retrospective but also aspirational: they are statements about who we mourn and prescriptions for how we mourn; in a way, they are self-portraits.

Large cities make good homes for memorials, in part because all cities are themselves dynamic, teeming memorial sites — every sidewalk, every store, every high-rise is constructed atop a spectral earlier version of itself where generations before ours went about their days. Manhattanites live on a street grid that in some downtown areas has been in place for 200 years or more, and pretty much anyone in a metropolis crosses every street in the paved-over footsteps of the dead. But what we want from memorials has changed as cities themselves have changed. Increasingly, they ask us to consider not simply the past but our relationship to grief, community and endurance, our own mortality and even the fallacy of imagining that monuments themselves
always permanent.

'Sanctuary', a memorial built to honour victims of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, designed by David Best, burns after being set alight as part of a ceremonial burning, at the Miners' Welfare Park in Bedworth, near Coventry, Britain, May 28, 2022. Photography courtesy of REUTERS/Andrew Boyers.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, redefined everything about public monument art, starting with our physical relationship to it. Created by the Chinese American architect Maya Lin and completed in 1982, in the face of outraged opposition from those who flinched at her youth (Lin was 21 when her proposal was chosen) and, frankly, her ethnicity, and who wanted a more valorising and heroic design, what Lin envisioned was unlike anything that had preceded it — a structure that asked people to descend rather than to gaze upward to the heavens, and a design that was both physically vast and intimately tactile. Lin’s work, in which more than 58,000 names of Americans who died in Vietnam are etched on a 150-metre-long V-shaped granite wall, was the first major American war memorial to understand that some tributes to the dead can and should be experiential metaphors; to approach the Vietnam Memorial (from one side, because head-on isn’t possible) is to fall, step by step, into something darker, larger and ever more overwhelming until you reach a vertex of loss that is both its highest and deepest point — a convergence of names of the dead. The memorial was made to awe but also to be as private as the fingertips of a sole mourner caressing the etched letters of one name. Opponents of the design, unable to imagine the comfort it would bring to countless survivors and family members, disparaged the memorial as “nihilistic” and “a black gash of shame”, so alien to them was its combination of severity and modesty. They managed to get a traditional statue of three soldiers erected next to it two years later, but that seems to stand more as a tepid memorial to an earlier kind of memorialising than to those we lost; after Lin’s profound and inherently political work, there could be no going back to larger-than-life men on pedestals.

Washington is a city more conducive than most to memorialising; so much of its public space is low, wide and stately, built to venerate history, with ample room to breathe and contemplate. That’s not the case in New York. Perhaps that’s why many of the memorials in such an insistently vertical city are low-slung, competing for your attention with the pavement rather than with the skyline. The most striking of these is the 9/11 Memorial, completed in 2011, a site that asks you to stare downward at reflecting pools built in the footprints of the World Trade Center towers (the names of the dead are inscribed in bronze along the borders), with water falling into a void and creating an effect that the architect Michael Arad, one of its co-designers, described as “absence made visible”. It has become a major tourist destination but, having escorted a few eager non-American friends there, I can’t muster any distress at the fact that it’s now swarmed by international travellers; it feels appropriate that the world should come to touch New York City in a place where New York City, for a brief time, touched the world. And while I will always cringe when I see visitors grinning for selfies outside the Dakota apartments, where John Lennon was murdered, I like the Strawberry Fields mosaic tribute to the Beatles musician on a nearby Central Park pathway, even as it has changed from the spot of sombre reflection it was when it was first created to one of snapshots and TikToks, of busking and hustling, of joy and opportunism. The sentimentality of loss can have a joltingly short half-life; that feels like something Lennon would have understood.

The mural honouring George Floyd at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, painted by artists including Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera and Greta McLain near the spot where its subject was killed by police in 2020. Photography courtesy of Octavio Jones/Reuters.

A memorial that is designed to vanish seems like a contradiction in terms but, in practice, many of the most powerful memorials are now improvised or evanescent, and that knowledge can put us in even closer touch with loss. The embrace of ephemerality in urban memorials is a break with the past but, at the same time, we still want them to be at least temporarily tangible and concrete: for all of the e-condolence books we may sign and online candles we may light — and for all the Zoom services of the past three years — we still yearn for memorials to be things rather than virtual things, even if those things are intentionally impermanent. In England, “Sanctuary” (2022), an intricate 20-metre-tall Covid memorial made of wood that almost looked like lacework, was designed by the American artist David Best to rise high and then be burned to ash in May last year as a representation of the singular beauty and fragility of a human body. A white-painted ghost bicycle chained to a street sign, or a modest, makeshift combination of candles and balloons and teddy bears in a doorway: these are tributes that we understand at the moment we see them will eventually be treated as street debris collected by sanitation workers, so that the inevitability of their transience becomes part of our sorrow — and the reality that everything changes all the time doesn’t need explaining to anyone who lives in a city. “Where did that come from?” and “Where did that go?” are familiar psychic conditions of daily urban life.

Memorials can also evoke reminders of other losses. When Queen Elizabeth II died in September, newspapers were filled with pictures of the bouquets of flowers, several metres deep, that citizens were leaving at various palaces. That display felt peaceful; an efficient system was set up by Buckingham Palace to reroute the flowers to Green Park and Hyde Park, and a polite request was issued not to leave food or anything that could attract rats. But it was not possible to look at the display for the queen without thinking of 1997, when, for 12 days after Diana’s death, the sea of flowers outside Kensington Palace grew and grew until it became not just an expression of sorrow but an unprecedented public protest, a tide pressing against the palace gates demanding that grief be let in, and let out.

And more often than was the case 50 years ago, memorials can themselves be activist. Think of the many George Floyd murals, from Bethlehem to Berlin to Nairobi, and in so many American cities that have been troubled by police violence. One of the first of those memorials, created by Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain and others on the side of Cup Foods at the Minneapolis intersection where Floyd was slain, has claimed not only that wall but the area around it: painted, defaced and then restored, it is a memorial by and of the people, a demand that space be made for memory and grief and anger.

The New York City AIDS Memorial in the West Village, completed in 2016 by Manhattan’s Studio AI Architects, featured Steven Evans’s LED installation “Songs for a Memorial” in 2022. Photography by Celeste Godoy Photography, courtesy of the New York City AIDS Memorial.

I think of grief and anger whenever I walk through New York City’s AIDS Memorial, an open space in the West Village that was completed in 2016 by the Manhattan-based Studio AI Architects. The design for the park was, appropriately to the history of AIDS activism, not arrived at without dispute and complaint and recrimination. Even today, its plaza approach — a set of slatted walls and roof panels, all widely vented to create an open, airy pavilion that consists only of an engraved granite pavement by the artist Jenny Holzer, a modest fountain and a couple of low benches — has its share of detractors. I know one activist who won’t set foot on the site, insisting that it has no more gravitas than a bus stop. But I love it. I love the fact that it is built on a triangular island with a design created out of dozens of triangles, a shape uniquely meaningful in the LGBTQ movement and a statement that the site is intended to memorialise activism as well as loss. I love the fact that on one side, it defiantly faces a luxury condo that is itself an attempt to overwrite rather than to acknowledge history — those buildings across Seventh Avenue rose on the block that used to house St. Vincent’s Hospital, an epicentre of the early pandemic, and it seems apt that its residents, when they look out of their windows, should be reminded of where they live and of what their homes are built on. And I even love the fact that many people treat it as just another of the city’s pocket parks, a small public space for work, life and pleasure. Last year, I ran into a beloved gay writer there; he was sitting under the triangles with his MacBook Pro balanced on his knees, working on a script and, to be honest, maybe doing a little late summer cruising. Gay creativity and gay longing both asserting themselves even atop tragedy felt right to me.

There are many approaches to AIDS memorials, the best of which are tailored to their individual communities; the one in the gay mecca of Provincetown, Massachusetts, is 14.5 tonnes of grey quartzite, its top surface carved to look like the water that borders the town on three sides, as if to suggest that all life on that spit of sand will one day be claimed by the dark and deep. The fact that the memorial, by the American artist Lauren Ewing, rests on the lawn of Town Hall in Provincetown’s centre is in its own way a statement that there was nothing marginal about the pandemic, nothing fringe about the lives it took. 

But perhaps the most moving tribute is one of the earliest, the AIDS Memorial Quilt — honoured last month on its 35th anniversary in a series of artist-led panel-making workshops at the Whitney Museum of American Art, organised by the New York and National AIDS Memorials and the Manhattan-based fabric company Maharam. The quilt — now spanning about 111,500 square metres and containing over 50,000 panels — is a collective work of art fashioned from individual expressions of grief. It embraces all the contradictions of memorial art and draws its power from them. It is handmade but immense, giant yet mobile and crafted with a kind of love that swells into rage when you take in its vastness. It can be subdivided and come together again; it can be in more than one place at once. The quilt is a memorial and a metamemorial, since many of the original panel makers are now themselves gone; it is a monument to lives lost and a statement that lives are still being lost; it is history and it is current events. And 35 years after it was first displayed on the Mall in Washington, it continues to do the impossible: it tells us, defiantly, that a memorial is a living thing.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 50 of T Australia with the headline: “We Were Here”