RFK art installation commemorates lives lost to Covid-19

Riley Hawkinson

Over 265,000 white flags are seen standing in the shadow of RFK stadium, each commemorating an individual death due to the Covid-19 pandemic. An excellent example of the phrase “pictures speak more than a thousand words”, this piece of art manages to instill a feeling of sorrow, anger, and perhaps moral culpability. It stands as a jarring reminder that each flag, each life, could have been prevented, could have been saved. 

Visitors gathered in front of the memorial and observed the (grave)yard with a sense of communal mourning. This exhibit is not only added to by Suzzane Firstenberg, the artist behind the installation, but also by members of the D.C community. There were white flags being handed out at a station, which people are welcome to place in memory of lost loved ones. 

This exhibit shows the humane side of this pandemic, which is often reduced to solely numbers and statistics. Watching as individuals, couples, families, children, and the elderly placed flags down showing the sudden loss in their lives, I can see a message the exhibit is conveying. This sea of flags is personal and innocent. Dark, haunting, full of despair, and unfortunately, getting worse by the day.

At the entrance of the installation stood a small plot of 25 flags, representing the death toll in New Zealand. To the left, a larger grouping of 1,675 which would have been the number of deaths due to Covid-19 if the U.S had New Zealand’s death rate. Looking up to the seemingly never-ending rippling field of white, we see the true America’s death toll—A staggering 265,146 plus. 

The 25 flags of New Zealand represent leadership and accountability, traits that a democratic government should possess. And yet, comparing  the two countries’ number of flags, it’s hard to recognize those characteristics. The idiosyncrasies and wrongly-placed priorities of this country have undoubtedly been brought to light over the past  months. One can’t help but wonder, how could this happen in America? 

In the darkest of days, however, Americans found their hope. When the country went on lockdown back in March, ironically, a communal feeling of isolation also shadowed the nation. And yet, people found comfort in each other, knowing that everybody was going through the same thing. Just like 9 months ago, this exhibit allows for visitors to connect with each other in person. Talking, sharing stories, and finding comfort in socially distanced circles show how America’s collective grief paved the way for newfound connection and empathy for others. 

Covid not only created holes in families, but has caused long lasting rips in the seams of America. Suzzane Brennan Firstenberg successfully created an exhibit to translate statistics and numeric death tolls into a remarkable and moving piece.