I’ve recently started volunteering with the very special #TowerPoppies project at the Tower of London. The impact this work has had, is having and will continue to have, on the public is undeniable (some recent news articles here and here). It is equally moving in person and viewed remotely, and is a truly modern work which engages the public, who are encouraged to use social media to share the experience of viewing.
Though not in a museum, the public art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is a curated work. It is dynamic: it evolves over time, viewed by the public. It is engaging: eminently photogenic, the public are encouraged to photograph, video, and share the experience of viewing. It even has its own hashtag: #TowerPoppies. Volunteers are encouraged to take photographs during their time in the moat and share them online, possibly even inspiring others to give up an afternoon or morning to help out (volunteering link below).
The work is by the ceramic artist Paul Cummins, whose speciality is gorgeous ceramic flowers (gallery here). The setting has been done by stage designer Tom Piper. Their vision was to create 888,246 hand-crafted ceramic poppies–one for every British fatality in the First World War–in order to plant them in the moat of the Tower of London. The poppies are cut from thin clay sheets with equipment that resembles biscuit cutters into the shape of the clubs symbol from a deck of cards. A small team in Derby then put two sheets of the cut out design together, and hand shape them. They have a hole punched in the middle ready for the stalk, then they’re fired, painted, and shipped out. Once at the Tower, they are assembled and planted by volunteers. (You can watch a short film about the process)
The project is remarkable, both visually and philosophically. Each poppy is individual, like the person it represents. Viewed up close, the differences between the poppies are easy to see, but from a distance, the collective wave is a powerful message of solidarity and power. The poppies are on stalks of three lengths, and are planted in sections to create a sense of a wave, or tide, of blood pouring forth from the Tower window. The Tower itself played a role in recruitment during the First World War, and was the home of the 10th (‘Stockbrokers’) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), and so it is an interesting use of the landscape and plays on the idea of context.
The installation has managed to put the individual back into history, not by giving them a name or even by telling their story, but by forcing the viewer to recognise that the phenomenon they are witnessing is made up of individuals. Communicating a complex past event like the First World War is an incredibly difficult task–at once political, emotional, multifaceted and personal. Looking at WWI from a phenomenological approach might help, as has been done with other complex past events like the Crusades, for example. The Blood Swept Lands project draws on concepts of identity, the individual, nationhood, the collective and loss. This work is dynamic, and tells a changing story. People visiting see a different version of the work every day as it progresses, and can view this online or in print newspapers. Eventually the entire moat will be filled with poppies, but seeing it grow has allowed the creativity of the public to capture the process. Any simple search on Twitter or Instagram will bring up thousands of images, each one different. The project is simple, elegant, and powerful. It is impossible to ignore.
For more information on the project, apply to volunteer (do it–it’s amazing), or to buy or dedicate a poppy, visit: http://poppies.hrp.org.uk
Next week: recognising, and displaying, object multi-functionality and multi-temporality. Oooer.