Two days after the New York Times published its Sunday cover, which featured a tribute to COVID-19 victims—the names and brief biographies of 1,000 of the 100,000 victims that had died by the date of publication—Leo and Oiver Egger plastered 100 front-page copies onto Duke’s East Campus Free Expression tunnel.
Leo, a rising sophomore at Yale, and Oliver, a rising sophomore at Wesleyan, have existed in a slow-moving limbo that most university students have found themselves floating through, now that COVID-19 has clipped their school year short. The pair now spend their days volunteering at local food pantries, avidly following the news, and trying to grapple with the magnitude of lives lost.
As graduates of Durham School of The Arts, they grew up involved in the local arts scene. Leo founded and Oliver acted for The Eno River Players, a Durham non-profit theater organization that performs classical works. Naturally, the Egger brothers have turned to art to grapple with the full number of lives lost. In making their mural, they’ve helped Durham do the same.
Last week, we sat down with Leo and Oliver Egger—albeit virtually, over Zoom—to discuss the Times’ cover, mural-making, and art’s importance amidst the Coronavirus.
INDY WEEK: What struck you about Sunday’s New York Times cover? What was it like to first view it?
LEO EGGER: Well, I was really struck by it. It’s an art piece. I thought it was incredibly evocative as an art piece. It’s really intense, well-done journalism. One of the things that we love so much about the cover and what we were trying to emulate in this mural was that it just says… it just says enough.
OLIVER EGGER: Yeah! The New York Times, by just saying the names rather than writing in big letters, “This Was Trump’s Fault” or “This Was Avoidable”, they just wrote “They Were Us,” and that says it all. You can find out for yourself what brought about this horrible loss but just having the names says a lot. And also, it’s so striking to not have any images on the cover of the Times.
LE: The power of that, I mean just the vast number of names…I remember looking at the Times and just being struck by it and that inspires me. And as you know, this is only one one-hundredth of what the reality is. So what would what would it look like to show all 100,000 names?
How did you decide to channel these emotions into a mural? Tell me about your creative process.
LE: Well, Sarah our good family friend came over in the backyard shortly after the cover was released, and we were talking about it. She had raised the question about what it would look like—
OE: —to visualize it.
LE: And so then we said, well—
BOTH: Let’s fucking do it.
OE: And that’s what I’m most proud of because it was a good idea but it also took a lot of boring work, like going to Kinkos and printing and doing everything. So, I’m glad that we full sent it, and we did it. I think the execution is what I’m proud of because we woke up in the morning, we’re like, “Okay, here’s the idea,” and then by the end of the day on Monday, it was done.
Have you created a mural before?
LE: No, no.
You do consider yourselves artists, right?
LE: I mean, to me that’s what it’s really. I mean—I like to think about it as a kind of socially distanced theater. My main interests are theater, making and directing theater and especially Shakespeare.
Are you both involved in theater?
LE: I do some acting, but I mostly do writing stuff so I’ve done some writing like for the theater.
OE: And I acted in his shows.
LE: I’ve always thought was my way to contribute to the community of Durham, at least when I was in high school. So much through this pandemic, I thought, like, “Ugh, man, I wish we had an avenue in which we can bring people together and share something meaningful” because it’s so easy to have an the endless stream of news of deaths of numbers that just wash over you because it’s endless…But that’s what the power of art is—to just say, “Oh! No, no, stop for a moment and look at it from a different way!” Why I called it theater is because I think it actually requires people to go to a public place, and see a thing, and that’s theater.
OE: And, and also it’s interactive because it’s involves both people who are seeking it out on purpose and also people who are pass by there unintentionally, just, like, going on your run and being, like, “Whoa!” and being confronted by this kind of intense thing.
My favorite moment so far was when we were on site fixing up the mural, and there were these two women having a normal conversation—they were Duke administrators or something—just talking about life and school and trying to get back to school. Then, all of a sudden, they looked at the mural and they were like “Woah” for a good 10 seconds of silence, walking side by side, and then one of the woman was like, “… um, anyway…” and they continued on with their conversation.
What about you, Oliver—what do you see as art’s place in the pandemic?
OE: We’re all getting hit with so much realism, I would say, you know, we’re dealing with reality constantly. This is real life. We’re in an unprecedented moment. Art and artists— they’re trying to both connect you to real suffering in real situations, and also trying to allow you to step back, to see these real situations in a new way.
Did you intentionally chose to keep it nonpartisan?
LE: That’s what I think is the goal. While this crisis is happening, we are trying to demonstrate through this mural something clear and simple and uncontroversial. I know that some people might ask all the questions that we want to be raised. I think it speaks for itself.
OE: We were gonna write above it, instead of “100,000 LIVES…” we were gonna write, “Memorial Day 2020,” but, then we thought people may think we are taking this holiday for veterans and making it about a different issue. Should we mix these issues? That’s not our goal. We could spray paint above the top, “Fuck Trump” but we don’t want to politicize things that is nonpartisan. We just need to show it as it is—
LE: —and that holds a message!
OE: That holds a message.
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