Remembrance as Installation Art

Recently, the commemoration of two important historical events– the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall–received wide media attention. In addition to defining, in different ways, the 20th Century experience in the West, the events now share another another commonality: in 2014, they were remembered through monumental works of installation art powered by transience and audience participation.

Blood_Swept Lands_and_Seas_of_Red
Image by Sandra Hall

One of the deadliest conflicts in history, the Great War was a testbed for sophisticated, mass-produced weapons of destruction, resulting in more than 35 million casualties– 888,246 of them soldiers of the British Commonwealth. To honor them one hundred years later, red ceramic poppies –one per soul– were arranged as a sea of blood flowing from the Tower of London’s “Weeping Window” onto the landmark’s famous dry moat.

A collaboration between architect-turned-ceramic artist Paul Commins and set designer Tom Piper, “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” was seen by 5 million visitors in less than 3 months. The sale of the poppies for $40 each generated millions for charity and allowed the installation to live on in thousands of households across the globe.

In a similar vein, “Lichtgrenze” (“Border of Light”), temporarily divided Berlin with 8,000 luminous balloons. The piece by digital artist Christopher Bauder reimagined a 10-mile stretch of the Berlin Wall, tracing its course along parks, streets and the banks of the Spree 25 years after the destruction of the wall reunited the city and symbolized the collapse of Socialism as a political model.

Each balloon had an individual patron who attached a personal message to the glowing globe before releasing them into the autumn sky at a choreographed finale. The celebration, like the fall of the wall itself, brought millions of Berliners to the streets, rekindling a collective feeling of unity and hope.

Image by Marco Rahn

Despite the technical differences –biodegradable aluminum spheres filled with helium and LEDs versus ceramic flowers handmade using World War I era techniques– both works are very much a product of our time.

Photogenic and similar in scale and scope, they are temporary claims on the city with time-limited appeal and an emotional resonance. As engaging physical interpretations of brutal historical data, they bring the community together to interact, reflect and remember—something a plaque or a few bronze figures on horseback simply can’t do.