The art installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, is to date the UK’s most viewed and probably most controversial commemorative act of the First World War centenary (though it could yet be surpassed: there are still nearly four more years to go!). The work consisted of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing one British or Colonial serviceman killed in the war, which were installed progressively in the Tower of London moat between July and November 2014. The installation has been well documented in the press. The debate over whether it is in appropriate way of commemorating and memorialising the First World War offers and insight into contemporary attitudes towards the conflict and much food for debate. We focused on two contrasting articles:
- The review from art critic Jonathan Jones in the Guardian who described the work as ‘fake, trite and inward-looking’
- Robert Hardman’s response in the Daily Mail which described it as ‘the artistic triumph of the year’.
It’s hardly surprising that the Mail and the Guardian should differ in their views (and it amused me that Hardman should claim the First World War as a chapter in the country’s history that ‘transcend(s) the petty squabbles of Left and Right’ while at the same time using his article to take pot shots at ‘Lefties’). The debate begs a number of questions. Is it ever possible for commemoration to transcend politics? Who does this installation represent, and who (by definition) does it exclude? Does it matter? And what alternative ways can we find of remembering and commemorating the First World War?