Bethesda artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg has planted hundreds of thousands of white flags in a Washington, D.C., exhibit — one for each life lost to the coronavirus in the U.S.
The flags wave on the D.C. Armory Parade Ground, beneath a red billboard updated each day with the official death toll, as reported by Johns Hopkins University. “In America — How could this happen…,” the billboard reads.
There have been more than 230,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.
The art installation is designed to help people internalize the virus’ true cost.
In mid-August, a Washington Post article quoted a government official saying that 170,000 deaths was just a statistic. The comment “flipped a switch” in Firstenberg, she said.
She couldn’t let that attitude go uncorrected.
Firstenberg spent 25 years volunteering at a hospice center, and wanted to dispute the notion that even one death could be a mere number, much less 170,000 of them.
“As the number becomes larger, it becomes easier to dismiss because people can’t comprehend it,” she said. “So when numbers become too big and words no longer are listened to, it’s time to use art.”
Art helps people comprehend the true weight of the loss, she said. A death count is just a data point, but art allows people to viscerally feel the toll.
At first glance, the Armory land appears to be a field of white tulips. It’s beautiful and awe-inspiring, she said.
But upon further contemplation, the number of deaths, enough to cloak the grounds with flags, is horrific. Visitors must balance two competing notions — the site’s beauty and the tragedy it represents.
The display represents her style as an artist. Firstenberg creates aesthetically beautiful artwork that, upon closer look, has a far deeper meaning.
She became an artist 11 years ago, after taking an adult pottery class at the Landon School in Bethesda. There, she struggled to center her clay on the wheel before giving up. Instead, she molded a large bust out of the clay.
Immediately after, she began learning how to work with other materials.
The installation in D.C. went up on Oct. 23. Firstenberg worked with the mayor’s office to secure permits to use the site.
In picking a place for the exhibit, Firstenberg had a few requirements. She wanted to show the full death count, not a representative portion that people would have to scale up in their minds.
Additionally, she hoped for one contiguous plot of land that people could both see from their cars and walk through. Ultimately, she decided on the Parade Grounds.
Trees stand guard around the site, she said, and it’s uninterrupted by any nearby commercial signs.
After picking a place, Firstenberg chose a type of flag. She wanted all of the flags to be the same, to show that each life was equal.
Firstenberg couldn’t find enough American flags so close to Election Day.
She decided on small white maintenance flags mounted on wires. The white represents innocence, Firstenberg said.
The central part of the exhibit is 165,000 flags. Ruppert Landscape in Laytonsville donated more than 400 hours of labor to help install them. Members of the public helped plant the remaining flags in the exterior sections of the Parade Grounds, under the trees.
There are flags and Sharpies at the site, so people can personalize flags to honor loved ones. If they cannot make it in person, they can fill out a form to have a volunteer make the flag.
When visitors come, Firstenberg asks that they focus on one flag and imagine the life story of the person it represents. Think of the family members who cared for the person, the medical professionals who tried to save them, their friends and even acquaintances they might have passed by, she said.
Though the nation’s response to the pandemic has become politicized, she said, she sees her work as separate from the fray.
“It’s giving us an opportunity to unify despite ideology,” she said. “If we can’t unify in our loss, because we’ve all lost so much in this tragedy, then what does it say about us as Americans?”
The exhibit is a way to make public the mourning that now must happen in isolation. People who could not visit loved ones who died in a hospital ward or who could not hold funerals and physically come together to grieve now have a space to do so.
Once, while at the site, Firstenberg watched a deaf man, through an interpreter, console a stranger crying over the death of his uncle. Another time, she saw an emergency room doctor set up 12 flags for patients he could not save before hurrying back to his next shift at a hospital.
On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the memorial and spoke.
Additionally, chef José Andrés attended to announce a partnership with “In America” and World Central Kitchen, his nonprofit that uses food to heal communities. The organization helps restaurants feed people in their communities, delivers meals to older people, and provides food to children who relied on school meals.
The exhibit will be in place for the rest of November.
Firstenberg is ordering more small white flags as the death toll rises.