Counting Poppies

There’s an apocryphal saying of Josef Stalin’s that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. Its a pithy way of putting the difficulty of memorializing vast tragedies, when the number of dead and the enormity of the event makes it hard to even conceptualize the loss. I’ve gone on from time to time on this blog about abstraction in memorialization, leaning on James E. Young (read The Texture of Memory, if you haven’t) and Vincent Scully. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I was struck by what looks to be a beautiful and powerful installation planned for the Tower of London this year.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (a good summary at the BBC, but io9 seems to have the best photograph) will plant 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower, one for each British or imperial military fatality during the war. (It’s a little unclear exactly the basis for the count; some sites say the deaths run through to 1921). As a visual reflection of the enormity of loss, it looks pretty effective, joining a long tradition of enumerations of loss (like Vietnam Veterans Memorial) and, presumably before long, a long tradition of ambiguities about who’s in and who’s out in those reflections.

The beauty of mute enumerations is that they show, rather than tell. With Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the presence will demand interpretation, not provide it (though I’m sure there will be plenty of helpful contextualization on hand). But, by amping up the installation with a number of such precision, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red will also invite some awkward questions about who sacrificed. We can assume from the description that civilian casualties won’t be included, either from the home front (whether killed by enemy action or war-related accidents) or from voluntary agencies like the Red Cross in France. Nor will it necessarily include non-Commonwealth contributors to the British imperial war effort, like the Chinese Labour Corps (1,900 of whom died and are commemorated at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetary at Noyelles-sur-Mer). I desperately hope that the number does include the dead of the South African Native Labour Contingent, considering the circumstances under which they fought their war.

Probably the most pointed commentary on the boundaries of loss is sort-of a war memorial itself. Chris Burden’s The Other War Memorial (1991) features copper plates engraved with 3 million names, representing the approximate number of Vietnamese war dead during the Vietnam War (rather than an accurate list, Burden computer-mixed-and-matched personal names and surnames from Vietnamese telephone books – as I said, it’s only sort-of a memorial).

Burden’s Other War Memorial was only the latest in a series of war-related
installations involving enumeration. In 1979, he matched up 50,000 nickels and 50,000 matchsticks to represent the Soviet tank arsenal in The Reason for the Neutron Bomb. In 1987, he hung 625 miniature submarines from a gallery ceiling for All the Submarines of the United States of America. Neither artwork stated what they were about – mute enumerations show, rather than tell – but their enumerations were emotionally and argumentatively charged.

I’m impressed by the first looks I’ve seen of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, but I do wish they hadn’t done such a specific count, and just filled the moat instead. Then it could have articulated that loss often seems immeasurable, no matter the precise numbers.

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