THE NATIONAL BUILDING MUSEUM IS TEMPORARILY CLOSED.

Documenting Crossroads: Survival and Remembrance Under the Pandemic

3: Depicting the Power of the Virus

President Trump called it the “Invisible Enemy,” among other epithets, to deflect responsibility for mismanaging the pandemic. True, the Covid-19 virus itself can’t be seen with the naked eye, but it exists, moving in the air, a spherical weave of proteins and RNA packed in a membrane with knobby protrusions.

It was a novel virus, but scientists swiftly mapped its genotype and phenotype. Ever since, pictures of the spiky ball have infused our visual culture, with different degrees of material accuracy. YouTube videos show how to draw a “Coronavirus Monster,” a terrible insect with suction cups that latch on to you.

It’s true that so much goes unseen. So many dead, and so many dying in isolation. Everyday suffering and anxiety. Yet the visual impacts of Covid-19 are everywhere and can be observed in the everyday life of the city. This has been Camilo José Vergara’s mission: To detect the presence of the virus at a number of vital streetscapes in and around New York City, places he calls the “Crossroads.”

As in his past projects, Vergara is drawn to street art and graffiti as indications of public sentiment. Restaurants and businesses sponsor vivacious drawings on storefront grates that glamorize PPE and physical distancing. A number of the tags proliferate across the city; and poetic images appear, shamanic talismans like the Angel of Death.

Vergara is most drawn to the more-informal graffiti scribblings of the street; modest inscriptions that emit a pulse of broader preoccupations. Is that rabbit wearing a mask? A hovering Martian, with big ears, wears one. Is that a smiling flower? Bart Simpson’s hairline? A lilting crown? Or have Covid-19’s spiky protrusions impressed their form into the collective consciousness and now lurk around every corner, sometimes shedding droplets as it spreads?

In depicting the virus, the gremlins and goblins of the coronavirus take their place on the street with consciousness-raising public art; with quick signs of social solidarity; and with political commentary. Together, they represent an urban subconscious that speaks to the seething pervasiveness of Covid-19 and its social context. We don’t always know what these icons are, or what they mean. We project onto them our own fears and obsessions.

Elihu Rubin
November 23, 2020

This exhibition has four parts, each with its own dedicated page and image gallery. All pages link to every other exhibition page. The final section also includes “Overheard and Observed,” in which Vergara documents a portion of what he has experienced over the past several months.