High above the City of London, a blaze of gold appears to burn in perpetuity. Erected during the 1670s, the Monument commemorates the Great Fire of 1666, when, over four disastrous days, two thirds of the capital were consumed by conflagration. Passing it recently, though, made me reflect on today’s national catastrophe. Because that bristling fireball, exploding out of a gilt-copper urn atop a colossal Doric column of Portland stone, resembles a spherical coronavirus studded with crown-like spikes.
When is the right moment to start discussing a possible memorial to the victims of Covid-19? And, if we did build one, what form should it take?
For some, perhaps, such talk will sound inappropriately premature. After all, the pandemic is still raging, and, amid fears of a second wave this winter, Britain’s death toll – which officially stands at more than 45,000 – continues to rise. “There will be time to reflect on how we want to commemorate the Covid crisis,” Gabriele Finaldi, the director of the National Gallery, told me recently, “but we’re not through it yet.”
The British sculptor Anish Kapoor shares this view. “While I respect the will to put something together for the victims of this pandemic,” he says, “I have a feeling we’re at the beginning of something, not the end. We need a good while to contemplate what the implications might be.”
Still, several prominent figures within the art world believe that there’s nothing wrong with initiating a conversation. According to Ekow Eshun, who chairs the commissioning group responsible for the Fourth Plinth outside Finaldi’s office in Trafalgar Square, “I don’t think it’s too soon to speculate about a memorial. You don’t have to wait for some formal full stop to say how we should think about the present. Besides, thinking about something isn’t an obligation to come up with an immediate answer.”
In any case, at least one memorial to the victims of Covid-19 exists already, albeit virtually. In May, with the blessing of the Prince of Wales, St Paul’s Cathedral unveiled Remember Me, an online book of remembrance commemorating those who have died in Britain during the pandemic. So far, more than 5,500 entries have been uploaded. And, even though, typically, the cathedral won’t consider a memorial until at least a decade after someone’s death, the Dean of St Paul’s, David Ison, hopes to give physical form to Remember Me, because, he says, there is already a “need” for individuals to grieve. “It would be extremely significant for people to know that the name of the person they loved could be displayed in St Paul’s,” he says.
Citing a memorial in the churchyard to the 30,000 Londoners killed during the Blitz, unveiled by the Queen Mother in 1999, Ison also argues that the cathedral functions as “a long-term memory bank for things that have happened during the life of the nation”.
Conscious of a responsibility to help “us, and future generations, remember as a society”, he has earmarked a possible site for the memorial on St Paul’s north side.
The idea calls to mind the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, conceived by the Victorian artist GF Watts, a short walk from St Paul’s, in Postman’s Park. This consists of ceramic plaques inside a wooden loggia, commemorating “everyday heroes” who lost their lives trying to save others. For instance, Thomas Simpson, we learn, “died of exhaustion”, on January 25 1885, “after saving many lives from the breaking ice at Highgate Ponds”.
Something similar, remembering the victims of coronavirus, could work well. Of course, it must not be too mawkish – a common failing of public memorials, according to Kapoor, who tells me that “most are way too sentimental”. But I think someone like artist and Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen – who, in 2007, created the superbly sensitive war memorial Queen and Country – could be trusted to strike the right tone.
Significantly, though, Ison hasn’t yet compiled a list of artists who could execute one, in part because, he says, “we don’t want to lose” the “very immediate” quality of the Remember Me website. “One of the unusual things about the proposal for this project,” he continues, “is that we want to do something which comes from the people, which isn’t traditionally how memorials have been erected in cathedrals. And getting in a great artist to do it is, in a sense, mediating it through someone else.”
Ison is not alone in this: several people I spoke to about a possible Covid memorial argued that the idea of a single monument by one artist – a kind of latter-day Cenotaph, if you like, for those killed by Covid-19 rather than war – wouldn’t feel right. In part, this is because its purpose isn’t yet clear: who – or what – would it commemorate? The pandemic’s victims? A spirit of national fortitude, à la the Blitz? The NHS? All of the above?
Besides, the crisis has affected us all in profoundly diverse ways. So, marking it with a monument in one place would feel, as the Art Fund’s director, Jenny Waldman, puts it, “strange”.
Far better, she suggests, to consider a series of participatory pieces and events, in the mould of the hundred or so artworks that, prior to joining the Art Fund, she commissioned for 14-18 NOW, a cultural programme marking the centenary of the First World War. These included a national tour of the ceramic poppies originally installed at the Tower of London to mark the outbreak of the Great War, and Danny Boyle’s Pages of the Sea project, commemorating the Armistice, for which tens of thousands of volunteers gathered on beaches to create portraits of soldiers and nurses in the sand that were subsequently washed away by the tide.
“Some of the most successful recent commemorations are artworks that involve people,” explains Waldman. “So something that involves all of us would, I think, be appropriate.”
It is very early days, though. After all, nobody will need reminding about coronavirus for some time to come. “There’s no urgency,” she says. “It’s important, but not urgent.”
Besides, monuments will no doubt emerge anyway, without centralised encouragement, in the manner of our mushrooming war memorials – 4,653 of which are listed by Historic England. “They are so powerful because they speak of ordinary people,” says its chief executive, Duncan Wilson. For a Covid memorial, Wilson would favour a “beautifully simple design” with few words, like Lutyens’s Cenotaph on Whitehall, rather than something representational, because “figurative sculpture can be difficult in the 21st century” (as the ongoing campaigns to topple statues attest).
According to Wilson, there is “no single commissioning body for public sculpture”. In the end, then, we must rely on the boldness and brilliance of individual ideas to force through memorials commemorating the current crisis. The bureaucrats and funders can blather as much as they like, but, as Waldman says, “It’s only when an artist comes up with an original idea that something special can happen.” Artists of Britain: your country needs you.
Remember Me: rememberme2020.uk
‘Anish Kapoor at Houghton Hall’ is on until Nov 1: houghtonhall.com