Thursday, September 04, 2014

British Isles trip, part 6: Ceramic poppies

Link to photo dump.

The photos here are of the most beautiful thing I saw on this trip. It's a large-scale art installation at the Tower of London, titled "Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red," by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. It commemorates the start of World War I a century ago. When finished, it will consist of 888,246 ceramic poppies in the space that used to be the moat around the Tower of London--one for every British military fatality during the war. The Tower of London is a fitting space for this installation, as it was a staging and training facility for the troops of that era.

The "flow" of poppies originates from a window near the northwest corner of the wall:

To the left as you face it (east), it continues down the length of the north wall...

...and around the next corner (note the location of the blue tarp for orientation).

To the right, the poppies flow around the northwest corner, and southward along the west wall.

Finally they spill over the south wall.

Even in its unfinished state, the installation is simply breathtaking. It is incredibly beautiful, yet terribly sad. It is simultaneously symbolic and horrifically literal. Nearly a million deaths just among the British troops--never mind all the other nations' losses, and all the civilian deaths, and all the wounded, and all the ones rendered homeless, displaced, impoverished, and psychologically devastated. And for what? For one of the stupidest, most pointless wars in history, the only important lasting effect of which was to set the stage for the even more ghastly World War II. You still hear it called the "great" war. I think the word in that phrase should always be rendered with quotation marks.

We humans aren't wired well to really grasp large numbers, like those in the hundreds of thousands or millions. That is, I think, part of what makes this installation so effective. The viewer--or, at least, this viewer--is overwhelmed by what that number means when translated into enumerably separate objects. Your focus can shift from the vast "sea of red"

down to a small, more comprehensible section,

and then even down to a single flower, and wonder who it might represent. Who died, and where, and how, and why, and who was left behind to mourn the loss?

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

--John McCrae, May, 1915 

Addendum, October 3, 2014 

The installation is nearing completion, and you can see updated photos of it here.

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