Over the course of three and a half months, 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each British or Colonial military fatality of World War I, were placed in and around the moat at the Tower of London. They are now removing the installation. And while dismantling one of the most powerful war memorials in recent memory is sad, it is also appropriate.
In one respect, the memorial entitled Blood Swept the Lands and Seas of Red is like others of our era: it is literal. Just as the Vietnam memorial in Washington and the 9/11 memorial in New York have the names of all the dead inscribed in stone, so too does artist Paul Cummins’ installation have one poppy for each of the fallen soldiers. Indeed, from the details provided in this video about the making of the poppies, it seems the artisans who worked in shifts, 23 hours a day, took their responsibility seriously. Cummins says that while many who helped with the project are fellow artists, they also share a connection to those who fought or died during the Great War. Cummins also argues for traditional practice by having each flower produced by hand, “with as little machinery as possible.”
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This installation is also literal in that it does look like a sea of blood, which is just what the artist was going for. Cummins says that he was inspired by one man from Derbyshire, who described the ravages and results of the fighting as “blood swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread.” There is no doubt that Cummins successfully recreated that sea of spilled blood. But he also managed to transform what is a difficult number to conceptualize into a dramatic, tragic reality.
One hundred years away from the events of 1914, it is difficult to grasp the destruction that the war wrought. All wars mean vast destruction, after all; destruction of life, destruction of the physical and the spiritual. The difference for Westerners, in this case, is that there were so many lives cut down because of the war that an entire generation was lost, as Robert Wohl argues.
Finally, removing the flowers seems counter-intuitive for a war memorial. We are used to thinking of memorials as solid, immovable, permanent representations of dead persons and past events. In this instance, however, part of the point was to represent the impermanence of the lives that were lost defending the West and our way of life.
With nearly 5 million people having visited the memorial, there was a campaign to keep the poppies, but the artist couldn’t agree. Cummins explained that he didn’t want the installation to be permanent since part of his meaning was to symbolize that human beings are “transient”.