DC art installation paints striking picture of COVID-19 scope

October 23, 2020

By the end of the installation, titled "In America: How Could This Happen..." the grassy area in the 2000 block of East Capitol Street, will contain an estimated 240,000 flags. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

With RFK Stadium as the backdrop, more than 160,000 small white flags — each representing a person who has died from COVID-19 — have been planted in the grassy D.C. Armory Parade Ground.

The artist is hopeful the public will add to the outdoor exhibition during its two-week display — new flags will be added each day, as coronavirus deaths increase.

On Friday, artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg was joined by family members and friends who have lost loved ones to the novel coronavirus.

By the end of the installation, titled “In America: How Could This Happen…”, the grassy area in the 2000 block of East Capitol Street will contain an estimated 240,000 flags.

“It’s not a number. These are individual lives,” Firstenberg said.

The Bethesda artist said she undertook the public art project to try to visualize how many people have been affected by COVID-19 — not just those who have lost a loved one to the disease.

“It’s an opportunity to look at people and realize we’ve all suffered in this,” Firstenberg said. “We’ve suffered the loss of jobs, income, educational opportunities.”

Firstenberg said she hopes the installation will be unifying.

“I hope this will bring us together, in this time of ridiculous divisiveness,” she said. “To not only think about our pain, but also really think about the pain other people are going through.”

She added, “If we can’t unite over this, then really, who are we as Americans? This is our collective grief.”

Members of the public are invited to visit during daylight hours until Nov. 6 to plant flags, which are available at the display, and personalize them with the names of lost loved ones. Visitors must wear face masks, and hand sanitizer is available at reception tables.

Each day, Firstenberg will update the total number of COVID-19 deaths on a large display, standing next to the sea of white flags.

“This gives us a place, and a chance to be together, socially-distanced, in our grief,” she said.

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