During the COVID-19 pandemic, I started to experiment with public art as a means of dealing with my own trauma and grief. I wanted these pieces alternatively to serve as blessings, as hope, and as friendly admonition to care for each other even when things are hard. They are part of a continuing project to bring unexpected magic and surprise to the world around me.
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May 2020 -- Last week, a New York City police officer told me about Mayor de Blasio’s plan to hold a parade to commemorate frontline workers once we emerge from our COVID-19 quarantine shutdown. Somehow, I missed that news when it had circulated a few weeks prior. I instead have been helping to provide tablets to those dying in hospice care, worrying about the increasing rates of unemployment and hearing the stories of loved ones who have passed away from the virus. While I desire to commend those who have fought to save lives, it feels imprudent to celebrate our heroes before we have had a moment to mourn our dead. Understanding and acknowledging grief and loss make us more compassionate humans. Failure mourn publicly leaves me to wonder: Do we care so little for human life that we do not want to acknowledge its passing?
Parades do not allow for reflection, nor encourage recovery. Parades signify success. Parades are the raucous, hubris-filled, valor promoting legacy child of a past century. Parades mark only heroes. Those who live lives of great heroics are important, but so too are those who live quieter, less visibly heroic lives. Today, it feels heroic merely to live. We do not need a parade until we have truly halted the pandemic. But, even then, perhaps we need something with less pomp and more substance.
Yet, we do need something now. We owe it to the bereaved to recognize the dead and our collective loss as we lift quarantine measures, risk more lives and step out from our houses in tentative contact with the outside world.
As an artist, I have been struck by a need to recognize those who have died and those who are struggling to live. My response has been to leave floral-based art pieces around New York City: some of these encourage social distancing, some of these are intended to spark hope and some to help recognize the tens of thousands who have died. Flowers feel like the most appropriate medium because they are used to express a range of emotions. They hold a traditional spot in our mourning and our blessing rituals. And they are poignantly appropriate: cut flowers die but still offer comfort and hope.
In order to reconcile our failures, we must be able to understand their impacts on your lives. There is no more evident sign of failure than loved ones buried in caskets. Yet, at this moment, our dead are invisible. We cannot gather to remember them; rather, they wait in refrigerator units and funeral homes hidden from sight: 81,000 people have died in the United States; 300,000 people have died globally, and these numbers are mutable. These numbers also feel mute-able.
When we cannot see the dead, we can pretend this issue is not nearly as large as it is. Yet, for every person who dies, researchers at Penn State share that 2.2 children and 4.1 grandchildren will be directly impacted. Acknowledging death is less about those who have died, then it is about the living. Mourning allows us to address existential human questions and to reaffirm the solidarity of our group. It is a moment to collectively mark what has happened, to reckon with it and to move forward with the knowledge that death has happened at scale, that we are responsible and that we can do better in the future.
Rather than a parade, I’d like to propose the creation of a public art project that can serve as a visual reminder of the enormity of lives lost but also that can allow us a moment of reflection and solidarity. The pandemic is not done. This is not a memorial. This is a moment to ask: now what can we do better?
I have partnered with a team of other creatives who would like to expand on my work and release 81,000 (and counting) local, organic flowers into the East River. The Flower Project would flow from the top of Manhattan, nestle near the Bronx, past Brooklyn, and then release out to sea. We can also use The Flower Project to serve as a gathering point for the world, and release 300,000 flowers highlighting the number who have died globally. The project is intended to be meditative, calm and simple but also pointed: to visualize the lives we have lost as a necessary step to ensuring a better future.
We will document this in photographs and video and place these images online where they will be housed in a digital site. Each flower will link to the obituaries and stories of an individual who has died. In such a way, we can have a reflective moment of accounting and mourning that spills into a website devoted to sharing the stories of our humanity. This installation is a way to collectively recognize, grieve and prepare for what will inevitably be a hard few years.
There is a long history of art providing a framework for communities to mourn together. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama and the AIDS quilt are examples where public art projects have allowed groups to acknowledge failures of government and society and move forward. Research by Watkins et al in 2010 showed that repeat visits to the Vietnam Memorial helped to reduce PTSD in soldiers. When the AIDS quilt traveled around the country, public grief, and activists, mobilized widespread public pressure and increased federal funding for AIDS research, prevention, and treatment from $900 million in 1987 to $7.7 billion in 1997. Art allowed for grief which drove forward action and reconciliation.
My proposal is not a replacement for a memorial. We will need a permanent way to grieve and connect together. There are few memorials for the pandemic victims of 1918: “The mass amnesia helps explain the lack of preparation for the Covid-19 crisis, say scholars like Geoffrey Rice.” And, in the future, we will need one because more people will die, more systems will crumble, and we will need to do better than we have in the past. I would like to encourage the artist community to begin to think now about what we can do. I am happy to work with others to champion this effort.
Our society is in need of reconciliation. Mounting death tolls point to systemic flaws within the organizations in our country that respond to catastrophic moments: economic, medical, political, and social. Although we had been warned of a pandemic for decades, we did not appropriately plan for it and now we are looking at years of lingering and uncertain impacts. When we choose to make heroes out of front-line workers without first acknowledging the dead, we are highlighting the successes of the system rather than the failures. If we do not acknowledge the failures of the system, we cannot begin to address them.
I want to memorialize and cheer on all of those who are tirelessly fighting to save lives from COVID-19 and I do at 7pm every day and through donations to organizations around the city. But valor is not the only trait that is worth recognizing. So too is grief and the accomplishment of a life well lived.
A society that does not assume responsibility for its dead stands little chance of building a world that is good for the living. Disenfranchised grief (i.e. grief when we are unable to immediately mourn) stays with people in ways that can result in long term suffering. Research by K. J. Doka in his book Disenfranchised Grief notes that “people with disenfranchised grief often have difficulty coping with subsequent losses. The pattern tends to repeat itself resulting in further disenfranchisement and unhealthy coping mechanisms.” Our lack of remembrance of the 1918 flu has come back to haunt us now. Our acute disenfranchised grief also holds the potential for long term societal impacts.
My proposal gives us a way to see the bodies because I believe deeply that if we do not find a way to acknowledge our dead, we will suffer long term negative psychological and social impacts. We need to grieve together. Grieving together helps us imagine new possible worlds.
I think there is a special kind of heroics in admitting our flaws: that we let people down, that we didn’t see them, that we failed to save their loved ones. When we admit our flaws, we can grow. When we mourn together, we can grow. If we ignore this moment and turn our eyes away from the bereaved, we will be threatening our future. If we can come together, mourn together and bravely engage together, we give ourselves an opportunity to be better prepared for the next big threat to our humanity.