Pick of the Week: In Remembrance

By Regina M. Connell.

It’s rare that we quote Stalin here, but when he said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic,” he got it exactly right. At some point, numbers just get too big to wrap your head and heart around.

So what do you do with a number like 37 million? It’s roughly the number of people in California today, and it’s also the number of people—military and civilian—who  died in World War I, that “war to end all wars.” 2014 is its centenary.

England (and the Commonwealth) lost 888,246 military personnel in the war. How on earth do you make that a real number and bring it home to people, to capture the individual and the collective, to connect the heart and the mind? Stats won’t do it. Infographics can’t do it.

Only art has a fighting (sorry) chance, and once again, it’s come through.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is a major art installation in London, and it tells the story, driving it home, brilliantly.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper, 888,246 ceramic handmade poppies progressively filled the Tower’s famous moat over the summer. A team of 50 people at Paul Cummins Ceramics in Derby have worked since January to produce each poppy, which represents a British military fatality during the war. (How do you MAKE 888, 246 poppies by hand? Go behind the scenes of the making here or watch this.)

And in the irony of wretched ironies, Cummins was himself wounded while creating this work, crushing his hand in an industrial roller, and losing his middle finger.

Installing the poppies. Image by Justin Tallus via Getty Images.

Installing the poppies, image by Justin Tallus via Getty Images

The public at large buy poppies for £25, which are then used in the installation. After the installation comes down, the poppies are sent to the people who ordered them as a permanent remembrance.

Tower poppies, ready for shipping

Tower poppies, ready for shipping. Olli Scarff via Getty Images

It’s been a huge success, to the extent that the fine folks at the Tower took to telling people to stay away because of overcrowding. To date, over 5 million people have seen the exhibit. And not surprisingly, the poppies sold out.

It’s a brilliant installation. The easy way out would have been to do another memorial, but this is so much more moving. It’s participatory. It incorporates the work of the hand. It’s an event that lasts months, changing and growing every day as the war did. And it is an experiential masterpiece: visitors to the Tower can wander among the poppies, and also pull back the camera to appreciate the larger toll of the war.  The sale is expected to raise £11.2 million for charities that serve British veterans.

A close up of the handmade poppies

A close up of the handmade poppies, Oli Scarff via Getty Images


A moat of red

A moat of red

The installation will be completed on Armistice Day (11/11 at 11 am London time), when the 888,246th ceramic flower will be planted into the lawn by a volunteer.

The installation was originally going to be taken down after Armistice Day, but it will be extended.

Mind and heart connected through art, and craft. Not just wonderful but absolutely essential.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red
The Tower of London
London, England


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