In Miami Corona Project, artist Xavier Cortada creates daily journal of city’s plague year
Xavier Cortada’s daily journal entries are titled, “Miami Pronouncement,” and they record the number of deaths that day – grim snapshots of an unfolding history. This one is “Miami Pronouncement (July 31, 2020): 96 Dead.” (Photo courtesy of Xavier Cortada)
In a video posted on his Miami Corona Project, artist and University of Miami professor Xavier Cortada draws one corpse after another on lined paper. They are lumpy stick figures, achingly childlike and blunt. Their heads and feet are doodled knobs.
As he draws, you hear the whispery sounds of his pencil brushing back and forth on the paper. The sounds could be fading gasps for air. Cortada is making a journal entry for July 30, 2020. There were 60 Coronavirus-related deaths reported in Miami-Dade County that day.
Although the short video may be hard if not tedious to watch, it is an insistent, even meditative, testament to the devastating crisis we are experiencing.
“We have yet to see 100 people die in a day, but that is coming,” Cortada said in a recent interview. “When I created this project, I wanted to mark this moment in history. I wanted to document what was happening in Miami and create a place, just like I did with my other social practice projects, where the community could come together to mourn, to learn, and to express themselves.”
For years, Cortada has created socially engaged, collaborative art. Miami Corona Project is very much consistent with his activist, community-based practice.
Cortada attended International AIDS conferences in Switzerland and South Africa in 1998 and 2000, respectively, to create collaborative murals with conference participants. More recently, Cortada has created numerous community art projects to promote awareness of Miami’s vulnerability to rising seas and climate change.
“I understand how people can be in denial about sea-level rise,” he said. “They can also be in denial about this particular virus and the pandemic in general.”
Cortada aims to show connections between climate change and the pandemic. “Our climate emergency exacerbates the pandemic,” he said.
Rising temperatures make it more likely that other diseases can come to Miami, he added, “whether it’s through mosquitoes or animal transmissions.”
For the Miami Corona Project, available at Cortadaprojects.org/projects/corona, Cortada has been creating a daily journal of Miami’s plague year in 2020. The project may well extend into 2021.
“I’m committed to doing this every single day until there’s a vaccine,” he said, “or until there’s some natural organic way that tells me it’s OK to stop.”
Since beginning the project on March 13, he has invited the community to join with him by searching the site for information and solace. It is presented in conjunction with the University of Miami’s COVID-19 Rapid Response effort.
Cortada’s online platform is composed of three main sections.
His daily journal entries in the section titled, “Miami Pronouncement,” record the number of deaths that day – grim snapshots of an unfolding history. These entries began on March 27, when the first death in Miami-Dade County was reported. Israel Carrera, 40, died of COVID-19 on March 26.
“I did not want us to forget them,” he said of those who have died. “I did not want their loss to be in vain.”
A “Conversations” section presents his talks with local leaders about the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and asks for messages of hope. They discuss how some are dealing or not dealing with the global catastrophe as it hits home.
The interactive section titled “Share Your Voice” is exactly what it says, a place where community members can write about their experiences in dealing with loneliness, grief, anger, frustration and unemployment brought on by the virus. One comment simply pummels the site with words including “isolation, alone, stressed, rage, reset.”
Other snippets, or voices, from the section:
“Coronavirus has impacted my daily … life and has made me fear for my life every time I walk out the door.”
“It’s helped me focus on what matters most. Family, friends, food, nature. I don’t plan to go back to the old normal. I realize I am blessed to have everything I need. My heart breaks for the many who do not.”
“Coronavirus, moreso than anything, has been mentally exhausting. I feel as though it’s illuminated parts of our culture that have been toxic but somehow hidden – up until this pandemic, they’ve slipped between the cracks as people haven’t wanted to acknowledge them. However, now it’s as though we’ve put a magnifying glass to them and we are forced to stare at the ugliness that we as humans put other humans through.”
On the main page of the project website is an unflinching image, a piece of digital art identified as: “Miami Pronouncements (March 26-June 15, 2020): 826 Deaths in Miami-Dade,” by Xavier Cortada, 2020. Against a background representing pages of journal entries documenting multiple days of death, there’s an athletic, muscular man taking a knee. In these days of Black Lives Matter protests, that’s a pose redolent of defiance and sacrifice.
What could be seen as suffocating swirls of arms belonging to an octopus coiled on the man’s back are actually embellished wings, Cortada explained. They imply that the man is a cautionary figure, an angel of death. The man wears a mask recalling those worn in Venice during the plague. As if bearing a gift, this eerie “angel” holds out with one hand a dazzling hot pink sphere, the artist’s stylized symbol for the virus itself.
We know from countless images in the media that this sphere signifies the novel coronavirus. But if we weren’t so awash in that grim collective awareness, Cortada’s symbol would not necessarily reek of fatal peril. It could look almost frilly and cute.
In this context, call it forbidden fruit. That pink sphere is oddly seductive but ominous, offered by a compromised, masked figure. In one fell swoop, in this image, Cortada evokes the very human, natural temptation to gather and touch, a universal longing in our desperate time – but one strictly forbidden by public health experts.
“I’m painting an angel of death telling you that I’ve got this in my hand and it could come to you, too,” he said. He wants more people to understand that the pandemic is “not just about [somebody else’s] suffering, it’s about a communal suffering.”
For more information about Miami Corona Project, go to Cortadaprojects.org/projects/corona.