Friday, October 24, 2014

Wading Through Seas of Red

The juxtaposition of the words “art” and “installation” usually gives me a chill, and not in a good way.  In the past, I have seen too much public art and too many art installations that have been bland, pretentious or both.  

But from the moment I read about “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” the installation of 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London, I was convinced that Paul Crimmins has created something worthy of the World War I centenary. I also was convinced that I had to see it for myself. (The number of poppies corresponds to every British and Empire/Commonwealth soldier who died in The Great War.)

And this morning, Chuck and I did so. We attended as part of a huge crowd of other pilgrims, as the installation has indeed become a tremendously successful piece of public art. But as vast as the crowd was, it was overwhelmingly quiet and subdued, as befits a visit to what feels essentially like a cemetery. 

The inspiration of the artwork is even clearer when one is on-site. Poppies come flowing from the Tower in a gush of symbolic blood and fill the moat in an undulating ocean of red that surrounds the ancient structure. (Only an aerial photo could do the extent of it full justice.) I was struck in particular by the strong presence in the crowd of the very old and the very young. “Blood Swept Lands” is a work of art that speaks to all generations. Everyone who visits comes away keenly aware that each red flower in that sea represents a human life lost in a tragic conflict.  

On November 11, the date when The Great War ended in 1918, the final symbolic poppy will be planted in the installation. (All planting has been done by volunteers.) After that, “Blood Swept Lads and Seas of Red” will be dismantled, and the poppies will be sent to those who have paid 25 pounds apiece to own one, with the net proceeds benefiting service charities. I had planned to buy one when we got to London, but all 888,246 already have been sold. I don’t mind that; it means that this extraordinary artistic achievement has touched hundreds of thousands of others, too.

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