Dunja Tanović explores where the installation is going now – commercialisation or remembrance?
For better or for worse, the Poppies at the Tower of London, or the “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” as they are less commonly known, have captivated the hearts and minds of the nation since August. While Boris Johnson called them “unique and poignant”, Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones criticised them for being “trite, fake, and inward-looking”. Unfortunately however, the arguments regarding this national memorial have not stopped at the purely aesthetic; the key argument that remains now, as they have now all been dismantled, is what will happen to the 888,246 ceramic flowers that have adorned the Tower up until last week.
It has now become clear – despite pleas from the Prime Minister and the Royal British Legion, a charity that is to benefit from the poppies’ sale – the installation will not and cannot remain a permanent commemorative display. Creator Paul Cummins has been adamant from the start that the poppies are a symbol of the “transience” of humanity, a factor that would be lost if they were to become a long-lasting feature. That the poppies will crack and break in cold winter weather is only a technicality, a secondary reason for their rushed dismantlement.
While the idea of over 800,000 broken poppies is an upsetting prospect, some have called it a more fitting reminder. In an interview with The Independent, actress Sheila Hancock argued that the poppies should be shattered and crushed to remind people that they are not just a “beautiful” work of art, but also a representation of the tragic loss of so many lives.
Even Jonathan Jones may have been appeased were this to happen: when forced to defend his unorthodox – though not unpopular – stance, he claimed that there was nothing to remind the people of the horrors of war in “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”. Cummins wanted to make an artwork that was easily accessible for all but it’s hard to imagine parents taking their child to see a moat of skulls and bones. So, an eventual field of broken poppies seemed like it could have been a safe middle ground.
Nevertheless, from the conception of this piece, the plan was always to sell off the majority of the poppies at £25 apiece and donate the net proceeds, plus an additional 10%, to six service charities. The Mayor and David Cameron, among others, have ensured through some wrangling that The Wave and the Weeping Willow sections of the poppy display remained at the Tower until last Friday, now they shall spend the next four years travelling across the country, ending their tour as a permanent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.
The future of the poppies that have been sold to the public is less than certain. The morality of selling an object that is supposed to represent a lost human life is dubious at best, but some argue that it’s for a good cause and therefore should be allowed. After all, millions will be made for charities that will help families who are suffering from the same issues that the victims of the First World War struggled through. But what happens after that? People will keep them on their mantelpiece as a reminder of the war or maybe even put them in a box to keep safe for the next twenty years. There are those, however, who will attempt to do the less admirable thing, and sell these artefacts for personal profit.
eBay has already had to shut down sales on the poppies after one seller, known only as “2250leanne”, attempted to sell two poppies for over double their original price. The Internet marketplace stated that their platform is not an “appropriate venue” for the resale of such items and any further attempts at selling them would be removed before any transactions could occur. Even Nigel Farage has expressed surprise at not being able to purchase poppies online after they sold out from the official provider. After all, no commercial contract is imposed in an effort to stop people privately trading the ceramic flowers.
It appears that once the flowers reach the public in January there will be very little that can be done to ensure their future. Whether they end up staying with a family for 100 years, breaking after someone drops them, or are privately traded between individuals for personal profit is beyond the regard of the general public. While their symbolism reminds the world of tragedy on an enormous scale, it almost seems probable that tomorrow they will end up as a novelty on The Antiques Roadshow.
The proceeds from the poppy sales will be shared between the Confederation of Service Charities (COBSEO), Combat Stress, Coming Home, Help for Heroes, Royal British Legion and SSAFA (formerly the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association).
Featured image credit: JeyHan