Rafael Lozano-Hemmer was one of the first people to be infected with the coronavirus pandemic. During a trip to New York in March of last year, the media artist got sick and unknowingly brought the fatal virus back to Canada.
He adds over the phone from Toronto, “As far as I know, I am Patient Zero.” “Because I was so early, I could have been the one who caused Canada to catch it.”
Lozano-Hemmer has asthma, so “it did get hairy for about five weeks,” he adds, but with the aid of medications, he was able to avoid going to the hospital. However, the infection killed two of his acquaintances in Mexico and Spain. “It’s been a period of great loss and mourning.”
With a piece that premieres on Friday at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the 53-year-old has transformed grief into art. A Crack in the Hourglass is an ephemeral, ever-evolving Covid-19 monument that asks how to memorialize a disaster that has killed 5 million people and has no end in sight.
This is how it works. At acrackinthehourglass.net, members of the public from all around the globe may contribute images of loved ones who have died to Covid-19, along with a personalized dedication. They may then watch as a customized robotic plotter lays grains of hourglass sand on a black stage to replicate the person’s picture via live broadcast or at the gallery.
Gravity gradually erases the picture after it is completed. The whole procedure is recorded on the internet, and the same sand is reused in the next photo, creating an unending collection of online monuments.
“It gets laboriously and slowly drawn, one grain of sand at a time,” adds Lozano-Hemmer, who was born in Mexico City. “It’s kind of like a mandala,” she says, “trying to evoke a sense of memory and, crucially, closure because the piece vanishes after a few seconds.”
“We record it and create a web page for each participant, but gravity pulls all of the sand together.” It’s recovered, and we’ll utilize it again for future pictures. Importantly, some people commented, ‘Oh, don’t you think the way the picture vanishes is sort of violent?’ That is, after all, what a funeral is. It’s the end. It’s an opportunity for you to glimpse this vision one final time before you realize it’s over.”
“For me, art has always been a good vehicle for mourning, as well as a vehicle to express continuity,” he continues. I enjoy the thought of drawing hundreds, if not thousands, of individual likenesses with the same modest quantity of sand. It’s something about utilizing the same sand that expresses a feeling of continuity while still marveling at how different each individual was.”
The Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City commissioned A Crack in the Hourglass, which has been operating in a remote mode since November. Its first live presentation will take place in New York, an early pandemic hotbed. Visitors who make a contribution while visiting the museum will be placed at the head of the line, giving them the best chance of seeing their loved one’s picture take form.
The piece is described by Lozano-Hemmer as a “anti-monument,” a striking contrast to the towering 19th- and 20th-century monuments of bronze, granite, and marble that decorate many cities. The 9/11 Memorial’s flowing waterfalls in the footprints of the two buildings in New York, or Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s other recent coronavirus tribute: 700,000 white flags temporarily put on the national mall in Washington to memorialize the American dead, may come to mind.
Another example, according to Lozano-Hemmer: Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz’s anti-fascist monument, a 12-meter-tall lead column in Hamburg, Germany, which gradually dropped into the earth until it vanished from view between 1986 and 1993. “You go to see what’s new today, but you don’t see anything.” All you see is a little plaque that reminds you of what occurred here. You can stand atop the monolith, which is now little more than a footprint beneath your feet. That’s fantastic. What other way is there to depict something so dreadful?
“I find that remembering someone is not always casting their name in a monolith and simply placing it in public space,” he says. An ephemeral intervention, something that vanishes, may sometimes aid memory. These processes that enable us to generate a unique disruption in the way we perceive time may sometimes help us emotionally attach or empathize to a loss.”
Lozano-art Hemmer’s also comes at a time when statues of Confederate soldiers fighting to keep slavery alive are being desecrated, and monuments to controversial people like Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson are being scrutinized.
“Whenever we see a memorial or monument, we remind ourselves that these are very specific stories being told,” he says. Right now in the United States, there is such a tumultuous and appropriately revisionist history of who deserves to be in those monuments because we recognize that they come with exclusions and past injustices.
“The anti-monument approach is more delicate, more relational, and it relies on your participation to exist.” For the last 20 years, I’ve been specializing in that kind of job.”
Will the pandemic’s lessons, on the other hand, be remembered? The worldwide tragedy, according to Lozano-Hemmer, is a rebuke to limited nationalism. “Hopefully, our sense of solidarity, empathy, and understanding of how things are linked will serve us in the future,” he adds. “However, that may be a little naïve. I really hope we’ve learnt something from all of this.”
Drew Sawyer, a curator, is one of the organizers of the project. “Monuments are usually geared towards the idea of nationalism,” he explains over the phone from New York. “But here it’s a global project that allows people to participate no matter where they are.”
“At the end of the day, Rafael is a deep humanist – he believes in humanity – and I believe the project tries to create a space that allows for a sense of shared humanity, even though we know the pandemic has affected different countries and communities unequally.”