Ann Hirsch, A+J Art+Design
“One Breath: Memorial to Massachusetts Epidemics” places the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the context of the many known pandemics and epidemics that have impacted the region since the 17th century. Few of these pandemics have been memorialized.
The memorial’s proposed site is a location on the Boston Harbor shoreline. Eighteen glass-and-stone monoliths frame an expansive view of the water as one proceeds with one’s back to the city of Boston into the memorial. The memorial site is 60 feet long and 8 feet high.
Frosted glass slabs, lit from within at dusk, are embedded into rough-hewn stone; thus, an ancient human memorial tradition joins with a modern glass form.
The harbor-facing sides of the glass of each monolith present the individual stories of historic Massachusetts epidemics from “The Great Dying” to COVID-19.
A descending ramp passes through this series of monoliths, progressively growing narrower until finally terminating in a suspended platform that offers a place to pause for contemplation in front of a timeless view of the water. The narrowing passage, confined platform, and distant view evoke the contraction of physical and social space, the isolating effects and the broken sense of time COVID-19 caused as many of life’s daily routines were upended.
As one turns and ascends up from the platform toward the city, the space opens up again, suggesting our eventual recovery. Movement into and out of the memorial flows like respiration, inhalation then exhalation, a function that was deeply impacted by COVID-19. The path into the memorial transforms through increasing constriction to isolation then transcendence, and the passage out provides another type of transformational experience: the grounding of historical perspective, which knits time back together as we return to collective experience in a changed world.
We emerge from the memorial with the perspective that pandemics have happened before and will again, that more shared memory of past pandemics could have impacted the response to COVID-19, and that it is up to us and our collective memory to decide how we will respond to the next pandemic as a community.
A raised path crossing in front of the memorial descends downwards on either side. The space beneath the raised path could be the location of an interpretive visitor center to house displays that enhance visitors’ understanding of the history of pandemics, and specifically the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ann Hirsch of A+J Art+Design is an artist based in Somerville.