the covid memorial project

Paul Chan Wants Us to Look Up at the Night Sky

Part 12 of 15 proposals to help us remember the pandemic’s toll.

Art: Courtesy of Paul Chan
Art: Courtesy of Paul Chan

A year after New York City went into lockdown, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 of its residents. The tragedy’s scale has made it difficult to comprehend the private griefs so many of us have experienced: the million heartbreaks of lost friends, lost livelihoods, lost neighborhood fixtures, lost senses of belonging. Instead of proposing a grand permanent memorial, we asked a wide range of New Yorkers about the moments from the pandemic that stood out to them and how they would want those experiences to be commemorated. In response, a selection of architects and artists translated those memories into proposals for temporary installations. We imposed no budget limit and no restrictions: The result could be a sculpture, a mural, a pavilion, a song — anything that could become part of the streetscape for a while. Presented here is one of 15 concepts submitted by architects, designers, artists, and composers; the rest will appear over the course of this week.

Client: Bitta Mostofi

Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs

“The pandemic made us feel isolated, but it emphasized how we are all connected,” says Mostofi, who works to create and forward the city’s policies to serve immigrant New Yorkers. “As much as we try to make division and see differences among our communities and erect barriers, it ripples. You can’t isolate the experience to one community.”

As commissioner, she noticed that “the pandemic exacerbated the issues that we normally already focus on: nutrition, poverty, and access to primary care. The systems we have failed to respond to those needs of those most impacted: people of color and the undocumented. How do we connect people who are left out of the health infrastructure? How do we make sure a message is received by all children, regardless of the language of the parents?” But it was also very personal. “Some organizations we work with lost 40 members; some lost seven in their own family.”

Art: Courtesy of Paul Chan

Artist: Paul Chan

Location: The heavens above.

“Bitta’s right. The scope of the tragedy is so great because of its interconnectedness to so much beyond New York. There isn’t enough ground in the city to do a memorial justice; there isn’t enough ground on Earth.

But there is above us — in the night sky.

I propose that every single person who we have lost to the pandemic from New York, and everywhere else, be memorialized by having a star named after them. The memorial, then, would consist of this new, vast constellation of stars above us.

The newly established U.S. Space Force can immediately de-prioritize their mission to militarize space and instead shift their mandate to mapping out this new, vast constellation dedicated to preserving the memory of those we have lost.

Art: Courtesy of Paul Chan

An app that functions as a map and interactive ‘telescope’ for viewing the memorial based on the astrometric coordinates of each newly named star (right ascension, declination, distance from Earth, and so on) should be made freely available. When my neighbor wants to show his grandkids where their uncle is, he can step outside, point up, and show them.

What is the sky for, if not to remind us of how little time there is left for anyone, and all that has been lost, how close it all was from disappearing, and what it takes to go on?”

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Paul Chan Wants Us to Look Up at the Night Sky