Friday, December 19, 2014

A Tale of Two (Art) Installations

This is another post about the centennial of the First World War, so anyone looking for a happy pre-Christmas uplift should probably look elsewhere.

In this, the hundredth anniversary year of the beginning of the War to End All Wars, two major art installations were commissioned and executed here in London.  Both went public on the 4th of August, the date in 1914 when the United Kingdom declared war on the German Empire.

The first, and better known if only because it recently concluded, was the installation at the Tower of London of 888,246 ceramic red poppies -- one for each British Empire fatality during the war --  entitled "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red".

In designing a torrent of red which swept outward from the Tower into the ancient moat surrounding its walls, artist Paul Cummin clearly understood the visual impact which would lead over 4 million visitors to view his work. Cummin is also arguably privy to a little secret about the poppy which Canadian medical officer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, author of In Flanders Fields, also knew -- poppies grow where the earth is overturned, as with the digging of graves. For those in the know, this bit of horticultural insight transformed each brightly shining ceramic flower into a corpse, rotting unquietly beneath a hastily erected cross. For this reason alone, Cummin is my nominee for Artist Who Really Gets World War One.

There is, however, the other installation to consider -- "spectra" by Japan's Ryoji Ikeda. Before I describe this pillar of light which caught London by surprise on the night of August 4, I should point out the close linguistic relationship between "spectra" as plural of "spectrum", and a separate singular form from the same Latin root: "specter", or ghost. Although most onlookers missed this point, there were indeed specters haunting London during the seven nights the 49 powerful spotlights shot their illumination some 15 kilometers into the heavens.

I first noticed "spectra" through a window in my sitting room, shortly after it was turned on.  Although I had not heard about it in advance, a quick check of the calendar confirmed my hunch that it was some sort of memorial to the opening of hostilities in 1914; indeed, the similarities to the 9/11 memorial Tribute in Light were fairly obvious, if lovely and seemingly appropriate.

Then I saw the angels.

A close examination of this photo, taken August 4 from my balcony, reveals white spots outlined by the glare of the installation's spotlights.  At the time, I could see them circling within the glare of the high-powered beams, and seriously wondered what I was looking at.  It soon became clear that my "angels" were in fact large white birds -- seagulls -- but what attracted them to the light?

A story from across the Channel provided a clue: even as lights were turned off all over Britain on the night of 4th August to commemorate British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey's prophetic "The lamps are going out all over Europe", the dazzling beams from "spectra" drew insects by the thousands into the warm updraft of the spotlights.

That's right.  Ikeda's war-memorial installation, with its spectral play-on-words title, drew thousands of insects.  Moths. As in, to a flame. To be eaten by seagulls. Of angelic aspect.

How many layers of irony are possible in one art installation?

I had thought about ending the piece right there, but then the U.S. Congress stepped in as only it can, with tragicomic relief.  Or, to quote the inimitable Ron Paul,
 I remember in 1998 arguing strongly against the Iraq Liberation Act because, as I said at the time, I knew it would lead to war. I did not oppose the Act because I was an admirer of Saddam Hussein – just as now I am not an admirer of Putin or any foreign political leader – but rather because I knew then that another war against Iraq would not solve the problems and would probably make things worse. We all know what happened next.
So, with the happy thought that 2015 might see a renewal of full-blown Cold War, or even, through daft bear-baiting by clueless politicians, incite a shooting war with the world's other major nuclear power, and all of this in the centennial year of LCol McCrae's immortal ode to spadework, I leave you all with my warmest wishes for a Merry Christmas, a splendid, safe, healthy, happy and prosperous 2015, and oh, yes -- a satirical newspaper headline, and a question:

...have we, in the 95 years since the Treaty of Versailles, learned nothing?

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