Last month, I had the honor of participating in the installation of the poppies at the Tower of London, officially called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. I found the experience just as moving as the artwork itself. So I was surprised and intrigued when I also participated, unwittingly, in Guardian Art & Design Critic Jonathan Jones’ pan of the installation (I was the subject of the article’s accompanying photo and caption).
I recommend reading his column, even though I disagree with him. The questions he raises are good ones and helped me to understand my appreciation for Blood Swept Lands even better. His critique is twofold. First, he sees the installation, 888,246 ceramic poppies that represent British and colonial fatalities in World War I, as nationalistic, edifying the concept of the nation-state that started the war, and insulting the fallen of the other nations that also lost so many. Second, he sees in it a glorification of war: A glossy pop veneer over the 20th century’s gateway to hell.
My experience was totally different. When I visited the Tower, I did so with other Americans in a group of 35 from the Embassy. I was shown a map of the world in the Tower’s ad-hoc volunteer training center. It was peppered with red dots spanning every continent, each representing the place where a volunteer was from. Our party was in the company of not only many other Americans, but also French, Belgians, Dutch, Germans and people from all the nations who suffered and sacrificed in the Great War.
To me, Blood Swept Lands is a glorification not of war, but of life despite war – a tribute to people, and a reminder of war’s horrifying and colossal consequences. Like people, each poppy is unique, an individual shrine to the still-living memories of the lost, and therefore a rebuke to the slaughter that could not erase them. And that’s what I think makes the installation successful on many levels. It has been a community undertaking. It is, by design, a work by people for people.
Blood Swept Lands began as the idea of one man, ceramic artist Paul Cummins, who collaborated with stage designer Tom Piper on creating the dramatic spectacle. From that initiative, the project grew to become one of the most inclusive pieces of art the UK has probably ever seen. Its implementation has involved, for example, teams of volunteers working 23 hours a day at a unit in Derby to produce each poppy by hand. And here’s the great thing – every single person there has a direct link to a member of the armed forces or people they know who have died on the battlefield.
Cummins and Piper had no idea it would be this popular. One unanticipated result was that vehicle and pedestrian traffic began to back up along the street above the Tower as people peered down when they passed by. The organizers had to improvise. First they put up a light screen, but otherwise-law-abiding commuters and tourists peeled it back to get a look. So then they erected 10-ft high walls of solid wood so casual passers-by could NOT see it. Instead, they had to purposely queue up, wait, meander, contemplate, and participate. The tide of people winding around the Tower became as powerful as the flow of flowers in its dry moat.
Given the numbers of people helping to plant the poppies and the diversity of where they’ve come from – not to mention the millions who have flocked to the site – Blood Swept Lands stands as the ultimate example of inclusive and inspiring community art. What a wonderful way to pay tribute to our fallen ancestors.