For those who’ve lost family and friends to COVID-19, the grief of the past two years has grown into a heavy psychological burden. One community plans to burn it all down.
In Bedworth, England, 100 miles northwest of London, an elaborate temporary memorial to those lost to COVID-19 has been constructed in a public park. On Saturday, the soaring 65-foot-tall wooden structure will be set on fire intentionally.
Named Sanctuary, it’s a piece of ephemeral public art that aims to give people a place to reckon with the grief of the pandemic, and then to watch it turn to ash.
Designed by California-based artist David Best, Sanctuary is a pagoda-like temple structure made entirely out of wood. Best has specialized in artwork intended to provide space for grief and the release of setting it on fire. His so-called temples are regularly featured at the Burning Man festival, and visitors use them to commemorate the dead.
During its eight-day run, which started May 21, the COVID-19 memorial has been open to the public as a space for reflection, and visitors are invited to leave notes on the structure. Thousands have come to the site so far.
“There’s a constant pilgrimage of people,” says Helen Marriage, a cofounder of Artichoke, which launched the project. “All the surfaces are covered and people are now bringing objects and trinkets that hold memories of people they’ve lost. They’re tucked into every nook, cranny, and crevice of the design.”
Artichoke stages large-scale public art experiences throughout the U.K., including a previous fire-based artwork by Best in Northern Ireland. Marriage says the impetus for a burnable COVID-19 memorial was to create a kind of sacred place for people to go to process their emotions.
“It is really clear that people need a space where they can say unsayable things and where they can tell their stories that they’re holding close, whether that’s grief or pain or love,” Marriage says.
She says Bedworth, a town of about 30,000 people, was chosen as the site of this flaming memorial for its ordinariness, to underscore how widespread the impacts of the pandemic have been, as well as the widespread need for ways to cope with loss.
“It’s a working-class community where public art isn’t a big deal,” Marriage says. “That’s why we’re here.”
Like his other burnable memorials, Best’s design for Sanctuary features an intricate structure of ornately carved wood, and details made with CNC (computer numerical control) cutting that give the space the feeling of walking inside an enormous doily. Constructed by Best’s team of 12 builders, Sanctuary also had input from hundreds of community members in Bedford who helped design some of the panels that adorn the building.
The structure has room for more than a dozen visitors, and is open to the public.
At 9 p.m. on Saturday, the temple will be set alight in a choreographed burn. Several community members have been selected to carry torches to the structure and start the fire, which should last about 45 minutes. Marriage expects upward of 10,000 people to attend.
Based on her previous burnable temple collaboration with Best, Marriage says the experience is likely to be a combination of emotions. In Northern Ireland, “they watched in complete silence as it started to burn. Then, as the spire structure fell, there was an enormous roar,” she says. “I would imagine it would be the same here.”