It is the fourth of May as I am finally (re)writing this essay, two and a half years after the conclusion of one of the most impactful memorials I have ever visited: Coming World Remember Me (CWRM for short).[i] The period from 2014 to 2018, the centenary of the First World War, was “a moment of heightened anxiety about the future of First World War Memory” (Pennell 83). In this period, several countries, regions, and cities organised initiatives to commemorate the war and its victims. West-Flanders, for example, exhibited a temporary memorial in Ypres from the 30th of March 2018 until the 11th of November 2018. Ypres’ No Man’s Land[ii] was selected as the ideal location for the memorial, since it was “een van de zwaarst bevochten plekken van de Eerste Wereldoorlog” (an area where heavy combat occurred) (Moeyaert et al. 10).
CWRM – with Koen Vanmechelen as the artist, and Jan Moeyaert as the curator – consisted of several individual memorials, among which New Generation (600.000 little clay statues spread out over No Man’s Land in the shape of Pangea), Remember Me (a glass tank filled with 600.000 dog tags), Coming World (a large egg at the centre of the Pangea shape, filled with smaller statues), and the “poëzieparcours” (Expo: 600.000 Beeldjes). The intention of the entire art installation was not just to commemorate and to raise awareness for what happened and the number of lives that were lost, but also to allow people to process and remember forgotten memories and events (Expo: 600.000 Beeldjes); to insert these memories back into cultural memory, as it were. A way to ensure public involvement is by placing memorials in public spaces, or, in this case, by having citizens from all over Belgium (and abroad) participate in its creation process. At the end of the exhibition, the organisation allowed people to take pieces of the memorial home with them: “We wilden duizenden (en nog eens duizenden en duizenden …) mensen verbinden in het maken van een groots kunstproject en samen met hen reflecteren over het belang van vrede” (Moeyaert et al. 10).
Before the French Revolution, memorials and monuments were erected to commemorate monarchs or officials, and war monuments were created to “valorize the suffering in such a way as to justify it, even redeem it historically” (Young). Since then, memorial practice has shifted its attention to “the people” (Koselleck 368), causing a rise in memorials “dedicated to soldiers killed in action” (367). According to Reinhart Koselleck, almost all WWI memorials try to “compensate for helplessness by pathos,” thousands of people lost their lives over small pieces of land, which left a responsibility to justify what happened that is “hard to create with traditional metaphors and concepts” (368).
Just like with any memorial, two questions took centre stage in the production process of CWRM: “[w]at willen we vertellen?” and “[h]oe vertalen we dat naar een beeld?” (what do we want to say, and how do we translate this into art) (Moeyaert et al. 26). According to Michael Imort, a “key question at the heart of the process of public memorialization is how we as citizens ‘learn’ what to forget and what to remember about our collective past” (233). He goes on to say that memorials generally function “to remind,” whereas monuments seek “to warn” (236). It could thus be said that the CWRM organization intended for it to be both a memorial and a monument.
In Ypres, the organisation created a path that visitors could follow, which would take them past Remember Me, New Generation, Coming World, and ended on a lookout bridge, where visitors could see the full scope of the land-art-installation. The lookout showed how the memorials fit into the landscape and its history (Moeyaert et al. 103). In addition, visitors could extend the route by walking past a “poëzieparcours” dubbed the “Ode aan de War Poets” (Pamphlet). On this path visitors could read and listen to ten poems by Willie Verhegghe, which were presented alongside the poems they were inspired by, among which a poem by Wilfred Owen.
To reach the public, the organisation decided that they wanted to include the community in the creative process, by allowing them to help create the 600.000 New Generation statues in galleries all over Belgium. Including young people in the creation of CWRM was an important part of this, since they “bear the responsibility of carrying memory forward” (Pennell 84), as every new generation is responsible for bearing and nurturing the universal strive for peace (Moeyaert et al. 24). The little clay statues were made to commemorate all 600.000 people who died on Belgian soil during the war (Moeyaert et al. 10). They take the shape of a person crouched down, embracing itself, in a somewhat reflective and protective manner (24). To me, the posture appears vulnerable, like they are bracing themselves for an impact of some kind; however, on the other hand, the emphasis on the spine makes the figure appear unyielding, which indicates strength as well.
The fact that the statues were handmade “pays homage to the individuality of the victims so remembered” and “creates a counterpoint to the industrial methods and scale of the killing” (Imort 235), rather than “treating them as a collective entity” (235). In doing so, it reminds me of Gunter Demnig’s Stumbling Blocks, another form of memorial that has spread all over Europe. They are small cubes of 10 by 10 centimetres, made of brass, each inscribed with the name of a Second World War victim, together with the date of birth, date of passing and persecution, located where the victims lived prior to persecution. The name of the initiative finds its origin in their placement, as they are placed in the street/side-walk, and slightly unlevelled so passer-bys can actually stumble over them (Imort 234). Much like these Stumbling Blocks, the CWRM land-art-installation individualises the victims that are commemorated: “Deelnemers plaatsten dus letterlijk hun vingerafdruk in de klei en maakten zo elk beeldje helemaal uniek” (Moeyaert et al. 24). It represents how the victims were individuals, in a respectful manner, and also shows that there is strength in numbers, as they are one of many (Moeyaert et al. 24).
The way in which the little statues were created is not the only area in which the artist attempted to make the memorial inclusive: the clay that was used “to make the figures contains a mixture of Belgian and German soil” (Meerman). Combining the soil of Belgium and Germany in the production of these statues, shows the artist’s and organization’s need to connect previously opposed nations rather than divide them, which is in contrast with political situations in Europe a century after the war, as certain nations have just left or are debating to leave the European Union. This connection was important to the organisation as they wanted to commemorate all victims, regardless of the side they fought for, as human lives were lost on all sides. The colour of the statues painted the “muddy field in shades of red and copper, much like the blood of those who died” there in WWI (Whittaker); in doing so, Cadet Sergeant Jamie Whittaker argues, the “sculptures show a physical representation of how many lives were lost.”
Initially, they wanted to leave the New Generation statues in No Man’s Land, until they crumbled and disappeared into the landscape where so many people died, but this was not possible because they were only able to temporarily get access to the provincial domain (Moeyaert et al. 104). This then is in accordance with James E. Young perception, as he states that “neither the monument nor its meaning is really everlasting,” as its significance is tied to a specific time and place. As their initial plan proved impossible, they decided to distribute the little statues at the end of the exhibition. The New Generation was torn apart and spread out, creating a wider awareness of sorts, as they now function as individual rather than public a memorial in people’s homes. They have thus become a form of “decentralized memorialization” (Imort 24).[iii] Perhaps this explains my wish to write about CWRM three years after its dismantling. In my opinion, despite the fact that the memorial has been taken apart, it and its cause deserve to be remembered.
While the clay statues respectfully individualised the victims so remembered, the same cannot be said for the collection process of the statues at the end of the exhibition. Those who helped create the memorial had first pick, after that anyone could come to collect a statue. Those left behind would be sent to museums, “both in Belgium and abroad” (Meerman). However, many people showed interest and took several statues with them, sometimes even a shopping bag full to hand out to friends and family (as the organisation asked for them not to be used for profit/trading purposes). Again, I am reminded of the Stumbling Blocks, particularly of Charlotte Knobloch’s concerns. As the Chair of the Jewish Community of Munich, she stated that“Stumbling Blocks as markers of Jewish suffering should not be laid at ground level to be ‘trampled upon’ either carelessly or purposely” (Imort 238). Indeed, some of the New Generation statues got crushed as collectors stepped on them in search of the ‘prettiest’ one. Others succumbed to mother nature’s forces or were swallowed by plants, thus becoming invisible to the human eye and getting crushed by their feet. The organizers aimed for the statues to be collected in a “respectful manner” (Meerman), but alas, this is hard to control.
The new world, or Coming World, was represented by a large, cracked-open egg. The intention was for it to represent and predict the birth of a newer form of mankind, in which the egg signifies a mass and the people (little statues inside, which are a third of the size of the New Generation statues) signify energy (Expo: 600.000 Beeldjes). The egg was located in the centre of the Pangea shape of the New Generation statues.
The shape in which New Generation was arranged was another way in which the organisers positioned their need for connection and peace over division and hate: “Pangea, de wereld zoals die 225 miljoen jaar geleden uit slechts een continent bestond” (the world in one continent 225 milion years ago)(Moeyaert et al. 103). In doing so, they take the little statues and the viewer back to a time before people existed, when the earth was undivided. Pangea flowing out of the cracked egg seems to connect recent history with deep time[iv] geological history. It is apparent that the organisers and creators of the CWRM memorial carefully considered every single part of the construction (though I wonder whether visitors actually recognised the shape of Pangea). Together, the installation symbolised the rebirth of a hopeful desire of a new, more peaceful, world (Expo: 600.000 Beeldjes).
Every small statue of the New Generation was reinforced by a dog tag placed in a glass tank, dubbed the Remember Me part of the memorial. This means that the glass tank contains 600.000 identification tags, inscribed with the names of these war victims. They decided to include all the names of the victims, which were collected from “De Namenlijst” (Moeyaert et al. 48). The glass holds the inscription: “The future depends on forgotten memories.” While this may seem like a simple way to commemorate the victims, the size of the tank, filled with these identification tags, hits visitors with the scale of the human suffering connected to the WWI: “It’s one thing seeing [it] written in a book, but it’s another thing seeing … headstones” (pupil qtd. by Pennell 87). According to Moeyaert et al., Koen Vanmechelen’s glass artwork, in addition to displaying the number of war victims, is also a way to illustrate the “veelheid aan nationaliteiten en generaties die in de herdenking verenigd zijn” (13).
The In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres constructed De Namenlijst and holds a digital copy in their collection. This was a necessary process as victims are usually only included in databases if they were part of a particular club, village or nation: “[e]lk dodenregister zou zich daardoor beperken tot een lijst van ‘eigen’ namen” (Moeyaert et al. 13). Unfortunately, De Namenlijst is incomplete as well, as it only holds the names of those that were identified after having been found in No Man’s Land. In addition, while the dog tags are a beautiful way to commemorate individual war victims, visitors cannot read all of the tags. Unlike memorials in which names are listed one after another on a wall (like, for example, with the WWI memorial in the centre of Ypres), the tags are collected and pushed together in a glass tank. It could, however, be argued that, with the memorial in Ypres, visitors are unlikely to read all the names included on the lists anyway, due to the scale of it. In addition, as argued by Imort in relation to the Stumbling Blocks, “the ‘absent presence’ … only serves to exemplify the unfathomable magnitude of the Holocaust” (236), which, in this case, can be understood in relation to WWI. In doing so, it seems to answer Young’s question of: “How does one remember an absence?”
With the CWRM memorial, the organisation intended for the art installation to commemorate the First World War and its victims of all nationalities, to raise awareness for (the scale) of what happened, and to warn future generations of the dangers of war, and what is lost in the process. Moeyaert and Vanmechelen set out to achieve this by allowing and encouraging people to help out with the production process (both inside and outside of Belgium) and by showing visitors the sheer size of human lives lost during the war by individualising the victims. In addition, they did not discriminate when it came to the victims’ nationalities. Instead, they focussed on the importance of connection between nations, over division.
My own participation in CWRM was purely accidental. I was not is a good mental space that month, and so I randomly decided to spend some time with my parents on the 16th of November 2018, who dragged me along with their plans. I did not know where we were going or what we were doing, all I knew is that we were on our way to Belgium. Once we arrived in Ypres near No Man’s Land, I realised something big was happening, as the parking lot was jam-packed. We walked towards the site, following the instructions of the route, and first came across the Remember Me part of the memorial. That is when I realised what we were doing that day. The impact hit me all at once as I stood there crying in front of a glass tank filled with 600.000 identification tags. We spent the rest of the day in and around Ypres, visiting various sights, but none of them impacted me the way CWRM did. And all of this would never have happened were it not for my mom, who read about the memorial somewhere and decided that she wanted to support the initiative. We took five statues home with us, two of which were sent to family in Australia, reaching an even wider audience. I have often wondered where they went, who has them, what they mean to these people, but I can only speak for myself. My little clay statue is one of my most prized possessions, firmly positioned on my bookcase and achieving its purpose every single day.
By Alyssa Vreeken
Expo: 600.000 Beeldjes, 600.000 Namen. CWXRM: Coming World Remember Me, 2018.
Imort, Michael “Stumbling Blocks: A Decentralized Memorial to Holocaust Victims.” Memorialization in Germany Since, edited by B. Niven and C. Paver, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 233-242.
Koselleck, Reinhart. “War Memorials: Identity Formations of the Survivors.” The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, translated by Samuel Presner et al, Stanford University Press, 2002, pp. 365-370.
Meerman, Ester. “Remembering World War I In Ypres With 600,000 Clay Sculptures.” The Culture Trip, 27 Mar. 2018, https://theculturetrip.com/europe/belgium/articles/remembering-world-war-i-in-ypres-with-600000-clay-sculptures/.
Moeyaert, Lieselotte et al. Coming World Remember Me: The Making Of. Stichting Ijsberg VZW, 2018.
Pennell, Catriona. “Taught to Remember? British Youth and First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours.” Cultural Trends, vol. 27, no. 2, 2018, pp. 83-98. Taylor & Francis Group, DOI:10.1080/09548963.2018.1453449.
Whittaker, Jamie. “Defence Stories: Paying Tribute.” Government of Canada: The Maple Leaf, 28 June 2018, https://ml-fd.caf-fac.ca/en/2018/06/14900.
Young, James E. “Memory and Counter-Memory.” Harvard Design Magazine, no. 9, 1999, http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/9/memory-and-counter-memory.
[i] Koen Vanmechelen (artist). Jan Moeyaert: the curator, “intendant van VZW Kunst” (Moeyaert et al. 26). He started the project in 2009. VZW Kunst was the organisation that helped make it happen, in assignment of the province of West-Flanders. The production process took four year.
[ii] A term commonly used to describe the area between the trench lines during WWI.
[iii] Though when considered in a more negative light, one could argue that the statues now function as some sort of trophy or death tourism souvenir. Especially when imagining the trampling of the statues during the collection process as an act of (unintended) destruction that in very eerie ways echoes the destruction of war. Nevertheless, the one I own has achieved the potential the creators envisioned, as it serves as a reminder and is displayed next to my bookcase, which holds poetry by (among others) Wilfred Owen and Vera Britain.
[iv] “The multimillion year time frame within which scientists believe the earth has existed, and which is supported by the observation of natural, mostly geological, phenomena” (Oxford Dictionary).