Posted by: michaeldaybath | November 11, 2014

The Tower Poppies

“Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” the Tower of London, August to 11 November 2014, by Paul Cummins (ceramic artist) and Tom Piper (setting)

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (August 2014)

“Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” at the Tower of London, August 2014

The First World War centenary art installation “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” at the Tower of London – a collaboration between the ceramic artist Paul Cummins, the theatre designer Tom Piper, and Historic Royal Palaces – is now approaching its climax [1]. Since August, thousands of ceramic poppies (designed by Cummins) have been “planted” in the moat of the Tower, gradually building up to a total of 888,246 on the 11th November, broadly representing the number of British and Colonial casualties during the First World War. The installation started small, with poppies appearing to flow from one of the bastion windows, then gradually going on to fill the entire moat. The poppies certainly are an impressive sight, perhaps seen best in aerial photographs.

I was lucky enough to have been able to visit the installation several times during the months that it was in development. At first, I was left partly wondering what the fuss was about. The “sea” of poppies was beautiful (as were the individual ceramic flowers) but the link with war remembrance seemed a little obvious, perhaps even banal. However, as the installation evolved and as public interest grew, I found that my own attitudes were beginning to change. Part of the genius of the concept is that the artwork had several facets. Firstly, there were the individual poppies, each unique works of art in their own right (and also available for purchase, helping to raise around £15 million for forces charities). Secondly, there was the evolving nature of the installation itself, with its visceral reminder of how almost 900,000 individual lives might be visualised. Thirdly, there was the opportunity for the public to get involved, e.g. through volunteering to “plant” poppies or to nominate the names of casualties to be read out at an nightly act of remembrance. I was at the Tower one evening when the names of two Dorsetshire Regiment officers – names familiar to me from war memorials at Winterborne Whitechurch and Langton Matravers – just happened to be read out. Finally, there were the historical associations of the Tower itself, e.g. as the regimental headquarters of the Royal Fusiliers, as well as the brooding presence of nearby Tower Hill. The time-limited nature of the installation also meant that it quickly became an “event,” something that people seemed keen to experience themselves before the poppies were dispersed far and wide.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

“Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” at the Tower of London, October 2014

By late October, both the number of poppies and the crowds had grown immeasurably. I visited one lunchtime towards the end of October and it was already becoming  difficult to get close to the moat through the half-term holiday crowds. In fact, the installation became so popular, a media campaign began to lobby for the installation to remain in situ beyond Armistice Day. This soon gained the support of the Mayor of London and other senior political figures. A compromise was eventually reached as the deadline approached, with at least part of the display remaining intact until the end of November with sections of the memorial (the “Weeping Window” and “Wave”) earmarked for a national tour and eventual preservation at the Imperial War Museum.

However, the installation has not been without its critics. The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones honoured the installation with a withering blog, describing it as “a deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial,” claiming that a more meaningful one would be “gory, vile and terrible to see” [2]. He followed this up with a longer article that concluded that the war poet Wilfred Owen would not have wanted us “to remember him and his contemporaries with the bland sentimentality of this installation” [3]. In response, Piper commented that the work was perhaps more subtle than the critics had allowed [4]:

This is not an installation about war, or an illustration of its violence and barbarity, it is about loss and commemoration and has given individuals a unique way to tap back into their own family history and appreciate some of that human cost.

I now think that the apparent simplicity of the concept worked in its favour. One aspect is the tension between the poppy as a familiar symbol of remembrance, and the bewildering scale of the memorial as it eventually emerged. This meant that visitors could perhaps begin to sense the enormity of what happened a century ago and the impact that it still has on our world today (even then, the poppies only represent a relatively small percentage of the total number of war casualties). Another aspect is how the underlying concept of the installation fits quite well with the egalitarian spirit of this age. As Robert Fox has pointed out, the artwork includes “no symbol of authority, hierarchy or faith, … no statues or crosses, symbolic weapons or shields” [5]. “Blood Swept Seas and Lands of Red” seems to have become a war memorial for our own time.

References

[1] Tower of London Remembers:  http://poppies.hrp.org.uk/

[2] Jonathan Jones, “The Tower of London poppies are fake, trite and inward-looking – a Ukip-style memorial.” Jonathan Jones on art blog, The Guardian, 28 October 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/oct/28/tower-of-london-poppies-ukip-remembrance-day

[3] Jonathan Jones, “History and all its grisly facts are worth more than the illusion of memory.” The Guardian, 31 October 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/31/world-war-one-poppies-memorial-cameron

[41 Vanessa Thorpe, “Tower of London poppies: ‘This is not about war or barbarity … it’s about loss and commemoration.'” The Guardian, 1 November 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/01/tower-of-london-poppies-interview

[5] Robert Fox, “Commentary: A new reflection on war.” Evening Standard, 10 November 2014, p. 7.

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