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Let’s get back to talking about New York City’s enormous sad potter’s field at Hart Island (hey, why are all of  my readers leaving?) Well anyway, when we left off, we had explained that the island is rich in poignant, important-to-remember narratives.  For example, the island’s history strongly contextualizes mistakes made early in the 1980s HIV crisis (not that we’ll ever have another viral pandemic hideously mismanaged by pro-big business apparatchiks in national government).  How can we draw attention to this history and properly memorialize the souls whose mortal remains are interred there?

As an artistic exercise, I thought about what sort of memorial would fit a small coastal island next to one of the world’s busiest ports.  Despite advocacy by the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization (which also helps family members locate graves and works to beautify the site) , it is still difficult to visit the island, so the monument needs to be visible from the water or the coast. However, New York is already a chaotic place! We don’t need any more giant light beacons or 100 meter tall green ladies (although if you know of a friend for Lady Liberty, maybe let me know in the comments).

There is a sort of building from the past which fits all of these criteria perfectly: a lighthouse! Most of New York’s original lighthouses have been retired or are now cultural sites/tourist spots instead of working maritime devices.  I am sure we could fit a memorial sculpture in (in fact my favorite New York memorial is exactly such a thing), but how would we make it obvious that it is a monument to victims of HIV?

As a preliminary attempt, I designed this lighthouse  in the shape of a virus.  I painted it a cheerful pink to make it pop-out from the muted coastline colors of Hart Island, and of course to call attention to the unhappy stigmatization of queer communities which made the ravages of AIDS so much worse than what should have been.

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Model for Hart Island AIDS Cemetery Memorial (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019)

Let me back up slightly and explain this somewhat peculiar model. The base is largely irrelevant (it is meant to illustrate that the lighthouse/sculpture needs to be landscaped into an appropriate vantage point on the old AIDS cemetery on Hart Island).  There is, however, one important landscape feature which doesn’t read very well in this little diorama: I hoped that the pathway from the main path over to the memorial plaque at the base of the lighthouse/sculpture might be a site where mourners and interested entities could place mementos.  I thought if these were all the same color (a chromatic convergence easily accomplished with an inexpensive vat of enamel) it would make the overall presentation more powerful and emotional. I chose pink since it is a sacred color to the LGBTQ community (I also thought the light beacon might be pink as well), however there are other virtues to pink.  It is visually bold and highly visual, however it conveys renewal, joy, and beauty. It is an unusual memorial color for an unusual memorial. But it is just an idea (pink is also one of my favorite colors). Black, white, or rainbow would all work too and each of those options also have many strong supporting reasons.

A virologist might point out that this actually a bacteriophage (or actually an abstracted  symbolic likeness of one).  That is entirely correct.  I wanted this to be a symbolic likeness so as to not have people’s final resting place overshadowed by an overly realistic version of the disease which killed them.  in the past, such a memorial would probably have had robed allegorical deities and subdued personifications of Death and suchlike figures (in the manner of the extremely beautiful USS Maine monument at Columbus Circle), however in the modern world I don’t think we have many (or any) sculptors capable of such exquisite figurative work, plus such a sculpture would fail to feature the component of hard-won medical knowledge which needs to be central to this monument.

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Speaking of which, why have a monument at all? I am sure there are readers thinking this is all “too much” or something we don’t need in a world of monetary woes and immediate problems.  I am more sympathetic with such a point of view than you might expect from someone designing abstruse neoteric memorials! However I think we really DO need pandemic memorials.  Consider the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. We swept it under the rug and moved on with jazz age excess as fast as possible.  In doing so we forgot about the critical lessons of the Spanish Flu (to say nothing of its victims and its stringent hardships), and that was obviously a terrible mistake.  There are, of course, even more victims of Spanish flu than there are AIDS victims right there at Hart Island.  Maybe we actually need a comprehensive viral pandemic monument to honor them and the AIDS victims, and the souls who have suffered and perished in the continuing coronavirus pandemic.  That final post of this three-part series will have to wait though (since I need to get back to my studio).

In the mean time, please take care of yourself. Be safe and be of stout heart.  Hart Island reminds us that these terrible times have happened before (how could we have forgotten??) but it also reminds us that the pain and loss and suffering have all been endured before and that we grieved and kept moving forward.  Perhaps that is the real secret to navigating treacherous passages which are memorialized in funeral monuments.

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Oh, one more thing. Please leave your comments and opinions below.  The more points of view presented, the better that memorials are able to represent all sorts of different viewpoints!

USS Maine Monument designed by Harold Van Buren Magonigle and carved by Attilio Piccirilli

USS Maine Monument (designed by Harold Van Buren Magonigle and carved by Attilio Piccirilli, 1913, marble)

Here is an image of my favorite war memorial sculpture in New York City (which has no lack of amazing memorial sculptures from conflicts throughout American history). This is a memorial to the 260 American sailors who perished in 1898 when the battleship Maine unexpectedly exploded. When the battleship blew up, it was located in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, and the event quickly became a casus belli for the Spanish-American War (a lop-sided conflict which announced the U.S. as a great world power). The events surrounding the destruction of the Maine–and the attendant yellow journalism, which led to war–are complicated and controversial: you can read about them elsewhere (although, frankly, it seems likely the battleship exploded because of an accident rather than due to Spanish perfidy). Today we are concentrating on Attilio Picarelli’s glorious sculpture, which was placed in Central Park at the Columbus Circle entrance in 1913. It is a triumphant celebration of American imperial might, but it is also a poignant evocation of the sodier’s forced estrangement from his family (which sometimes lasts forever–as in the case of the sailors of the Maine).

The Front of the Monument: The Antebellum State of Mind:  Courage Awaiting

The Front of the Monument: “The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting”

The monument takes the form of a classical trireme-style warship made of marble with a huge cenotaph in the middle. Atop the cenotaph is a gilded figure of Columbia–a pre Uncle Sam allegorical figure who represents America. All eyes tend to focus on the triumphant Columbia, who is riding in a seashell chariot drawn by three hippocampi (she is reputedly cast from metal from the actual cannons of the Maine, which were raised from the watery depths after the Spanish War was won), however it is the figures near the base which are finer artworks. In the front of the statue, Justice stretches out her arms in a plea for vengeance for the murdered seamen as the nation starts out for war. At her feet, a beautiful mother holds a disconsolate child (left at home by a soldier father or perhaps orphaned outright?). A muscular nude man (who represents the soldier) is forced to turn away from her. At the ships prow a beautiful youth holds a victory wreathe. On the right side of the statue is a half slumbering old sea god which looks like Proteus (and represents the Pacific Ocean). On the left side is an Athenian warrior reclining, whose warlike trappings are at odds with his serene pose and distant expression: he represents the Atlantic Ocean. At the back of the statue is a group of figures titled “The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War”. The statue is engraved with the names of the men who died when the Maine sank.

The left side of the Monument: an allegorical figure of the Atlantic Ocean

The left side of the Monument: an allegorical figure of the Atlantic Ocean

The stone figures are carved with unusual skill and grace which is so often absent in American civic statues. Their faces are solemn and beautiful and every line is simultaneously forceful and yet delicate. Although it takes time to tease out the allegorical meanings of the groupings, there is no mistaking the grave solemnity of the figures.

The back of the monument: "The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War."

The back of the monument: “The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War.”

Coral Reef at Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge

Coral Reef at Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge

It has been a while since this blog waded into the murky & sordid waters of politics, but recent national news demands notice…and, for once, the political news is good rather than awful! My favorite action by President George H. Bush (the 43rd president of the United States) was the creation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument–which the former president announced on January 6, 2009 just days before his second term ended. The monument included 199,500 square kilometers (77,020 square miles) of reefs, beaches, coastal waters, and unique atoll landscapes around the unincorporated United States Pacific Island territories. I have included a map of the exact area below instead of mentioning all of the little atolls, seamounts, and micro islands individually. Suffice to say, I only recognized the names from World War II naval battles. All commercial use of this part of the ocean is now prohibited: there is no factory fishing, mining, or drilling allowed (although right of passage is permitted as are research and recreational activities—including sports fishing).

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The exact details of the park can be found on the Fish and Wildlife Services website, but the net effect is that a large and beautiful part of the Pacific has become a wildlife park, free from the insatiable hunger and wanton destruction of “resource extraction corporations”. But that is all just back story: the news gets better. Last Tuesday (June 17, 2014) the current president, Barack Obama, announced his intention to vastly expand the protected area of Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (which, btw, desperately needs a snappier name). If the president follows through with his plans, the PRIMNM (the acronym is also not euphonic) will expand to 2 million square kilometers (782,000 square miles) thereby doubling the amount of protected ocean refuge in the entire world! The unspoiled site is not currently a major location for drilling, mining, or even fishing (although no doubt the all-devouring tuna fleets will weep and beg and claim that anything less than unfettered access will result in their destruction).

Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

My greatest concern about the present state of the world is the rapid destruction of the ecosystems of the world’s oceans. Because of overfishing and dumping, the oceans of Earth are emptying of fish, turtles, mammals, birds, and invertebrates while filling up with jellyfish, carbon dioxide, mercury, and plastic crap. If you are like me, you probably live a wretched existence as a disposable drone in some cubicle farm—which makes the concerns of the world’s last pristine coral reefs and natural fish hatcheries seem very distant and abstruse. Yet the world spanning ocean is not just a source of postcards, sashimi, and fishsticks, it is the cradle of life on the planet—the central and irreplaceable ecosystem which reaches out endless tendrils that touch all living beings. Our survival is contingent on the health of the oceans.  So I would like to salute President Bush for founding the sanctuary and I would also like to congratulate President Obama for his choice to expand it! Who knew we had politicians who could actually accomplish something worthwhile? Let’s have more bold choices like this so that the ocean of the future is not just a giant dead pool of salt water.

Kingman Reef (The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument) Photo by Enric Sala

Kingman Reef (The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument) Photo by Enric Sala

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