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11 Nov 2014

Power of the Poppy

Posted on November 11, 2014 by

This summer, a picture started trending on Twitter. Nothing new there, I know.

However, I don’t think anyone imagined that the image of poppies at the Tower of London looking like blood pouring out of a window at the Tower and creating a sea of red) would have the global impact and influence it has.

Launched on 5th August, the art installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, marks one hundred years since the start of the First World War and the first day of Britain’s involvement in it.

888,246 ceramic poppies have progressively filled the Tower’s famous moat over the summer, each poppy representing a British military fatality during the war.

The scale of the installation is intended to reflect the magnitude of such an important centenary, creating a powerful visual commemoration.

And the astonishingly powerful installation has truly captured the hearts and minds of people who’ve seen it.

The stunning memorial has achieved a cut-through unlike anything I’ve seen in this centenary, generating conversation and emotion among all generations, from my own six-year-old child to the old lady behind me in the bus queue yesterday.

Up to four million people are expected to have visited in those three months and the size of the crowds has caused the closure of nearby train stations and led to the installation being illuminated until midnight in efforts to spread visitor numbers.

It has grown rapidly in popularity, to such an extent that it is now a global visitor attraction.

Over 36,000 images of ‘Tower of London poppies’ have been tweeted in the last 30 days, with ‘Poppies’ generating over 147,570 tweets in the last month.

Meanwhile, donations during the Royal British Legion’s London Poppy Day soared by 25 per cent on last year, with £1.25 million raised in just 12 hours.

The poppies were also available to buy, selling out last month and, at £25 each, raising over £15m for six service charities.

The art installation’s influence has been so deep it’s even generated a huge public campaign to keep the display in place beyond the planned end date of 12th November, overriding the original desire and concept of the artists, Tom Piper and Tom Cummins, who say “the transience of the installation is key to the artistic concept”.

For me this is public art at its most powerful and moving, and it has influenced public understanding of the war by giving people a simple visual point of reference.

It’s not been without its critics though. In his Guardian columnat the weekend Jonathan Jones criticised the installation as “a deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial”.

Yes, it is perhaps a “prettified” depiction of war and doesn’t reflect the true horror of what our soldiers saw and experienced in the trenches, but what it has done is make something that happened 100 years ago relevant to me, and given people a starting point from which to start to comprehend the enormity of the physical and emotional sacrifice that a generation of people made a century ago.

Yes, the number and range of people from all over the world looking down into the Tower’s red moat may have more in common with a crowd gathered for a royal wedding than an art event. But, for me, this has created a way to reach “everyman” and engage the general public to remind them of why we should never forget.

Influence at its most poignant and positive.

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