Design company proposes light tribute on Hart Island

A rendering of what the proposed light tribute would look like
Photo courtesy Axis Mundi Design

As unclaimed bodies are being buried on Hart Island again due to COVID-19, one design company wants to illuminate the island to raise awareness about the city’s mass cemetery.

John Beckmann, owner of Axis Mundi Design LLC, in Manhattan, told the Bronx Times that in the next two months he will submit plans to the Parks Department about a tribute memorial light installation on the island. It would be called Numinous and consist of 12 powerful light beacons arrayed in a 250-yard grid across Hart Island. The goal of the project is to create a space that would honor the interned, both the known and unknown.

He stressed this would not be permanent and only lit up a few days a year.

“Hart Island has always exerted a visceral gravitational pull for me,” Beckmann said. “It is literally an ‘Isle of the Dead. My intentions are to have a positive impact.”

Beckmann stressed the memorial would leave the landscape undisturbed and have no environmental impact of the installation. The Italian lighting company SpaceCannon is preparing a technical report for him and will provide their own electric generators as well.

An aerial rendering of what the proposed light tribute would look likephoto courtesy Axis Mundi Design

The 131-acre island has a storied past in the city’s history. During the AIDS crisis, Hart Island served as mass burial site for AIDs victims, whose bodies went unclaimed.

During the Civil War, it served as an internment camp, then as a psychiatric institution and a Nike Missile launch site, according to the mayor’s office.

On April 9, the city announced unclaimed COVID-19 bodies will be interred at Hart Island.

In December 2019 Mayor de Blasio signed legislation to transfer the potter’s field out of the jurisdiction of the NYC Department of Corrections and into the hands of the NYC Parks Department.

“It’s an incredibly tragic story,” he said. “I always thought it would be really interesting to put something on the island.”

He originally introduced his proposal in January but hopes now it gains more traction because it is being used again.

According to Beckmann, many people outside of New York and even those in the city have no idea this place even exists.

“I think it’s more appropriate now because of the coronavirus,” he said. “The whole history of it going back to the Civil War is fascinating. It’s just not something that a lot of people are aware of.”

A spokeswoman for City Hall said the city will review any formal proposals and will take environmental concerns into account while doing so.

Also, Melinda Hunt, founder of the advocacy group the Hart Island Project said the board has not discussed this artwork and declined to comment.

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