Friday, 14 March 2014

100th Anniversary Public Art Memorial Draft Proposal.

100th Anniversary Public Art Memorial Draft Proposal.

'The Iron Harvest'

The following idea has had a long gestation and is a natural coalescence of a number of themes and ideas which have come together over a number of years. Together, they for a concept which could be used to create a piece of public art which seeks to explore, directly represent and contextualise the human cost of the first world war.

During a visit to the battlefield of Flanders in Belgium, I was struck by the piles of iron which build up each autumn at the sides of the roads. Belgians living nearby the World War One battlefields are highly familiar with them and call this time of year 'the iron harvest'. As the farmers plough their fields, even now, all these decades on, the ploughs still turn up tons of detritus, ranging from barbed wire, corrugated iron and bars, through to parts of guns and unexploded shells and bombs – some containing poison gas. The locals are now somewhat inured to this grim reminder of what happened a century ago, and with typical Belgian practicality, they carefully stack the iron in places where it can be collected for safe disposal. Indeed, the Belgian army suns an annual service in which trucks patrol the fields grown over the old battlefields and trenches in order to deal with the old munitions.

As an artist specialising in the use of cast iron, this struck an immediate chord with me. It seemed incredible that after all these years, this volume of material was still being turned up (and presumably, will continue to come to light for generations to come) – a grim annual harvest indeed and one which still kills: In Ypres, over 260 people have been killed by old munitions in the last 100 years.

Researching the phenomena further, I was amazed to read that so much iron had been put into the ground in the form of military materials that it was literally poisoning the soil and make it difficult to grow certain types of crops. That seemed incredible as iron and iron oxide (rust) is not renowned as a toxic material, and it again reinforced the  scale and sheer volume of material we were talking about to have achieved this. The statistics made astounding reading:

'During World War I an estimated one tonne of explosives was fired for every square metre of territory on the Western front.' - "Legacies of the Great War"  BBC News, 3 November 1998,

In the Ypres Salient [alone], an estimated 300 million projectiles that the British and the Germans forces fired at each other during World War I were duds, and most of them have not been recovered. - Daily Mail. 10 November 2013.

In 2013, 160 tonnes of munitions, from bullets to 15 inch naval gun shells, were unearthed from the area around Ypres.

These figures were mind boggling. 160 tonnes of just munitions (to say nothing of the presumably many times more amounts of metal which made up the 'ordinary' detritus of war.)

It was whilst pondering the scale of all of this that I also considered another point. It was not only the machinery of war which had been buried in the soil of Belgium and France. It was also in a very literal sense the flesh and blood of millions of British soldiers. In just the same way that the plough shares turn up shells, so to dedicated archaeologists continue to find the bodies of long forgotten human victims.

And it was at this point that I realised there was a very literal link between the metaphor of the Iron harvest and the fate of those killed in the trenches. Blood contains iron. Indeed, a human body is said to contain enough iron in the haemoglobin to make a 7cm nail – about 3 to four grammes.

It is estimated that just under 900,000 British troops died as a result of the war – the majority in the trenches and a further 1,663,000 were wounded. According to wikipedia:

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 6 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about 4 million. At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead.

To concentrate on the British casualties alone, were these figurative nails to be stood on end, 1cm apart and arranged in a square, you would end up with an area 9.5 metre by 9.5 metres– a truly vast area even at that scale.

The Proposal:
I should like to make a cast iron sculpture which fuses the above background themes together. Using my contacts in Belgium and at The Ypres museum, I would like to source a quantity of iron collected from the Iron Harvest (note, this will be inert munitions, scrap iron from barbed wire etc) which will be converted into castable iron. Using patterns created by me and sand moulds, a piece of sculpture will then be cast using the metal.

The piece will resemble a bed of nails, but cast in a series of squares. Each individual 'nail' within the square will be 7cm high, each representing the life of a singe individual. The piece will form a visual metaphor which works of a number of levels;

  • as an image symbolic of troops drawn up in military order and also of the serried ranks of graves in the commonwealth graves
  • by resembling a bed of nails, as a symbol of the suffering caused
  • by being cast from metal from the iron harvest, of the legacy of war and how the experience of the First World War still reaches out to us all, even as we have reached the centenary of its beginning
  • by being cast in metal from the iron harvest, as a symbol of the blood of the casualties which remains in situ in the ground in the battlefields of France, Belgium Galipoli etc.
  • as each nail represents an individual, the piece will contextualise the scale of sacrifice and the way in which that scale becomes so overwhelming that it almost numbs the viewer to that fact that each element was an individual, living, breathing person.
  • the piece itself works as a visual metaphor; by resembling a field of wheat; not only has the battlefield now reverted to arable farming, but the object also symbolises the 'harvest' of human life

The use of iron as the medium for the piece also works on other levels: The First World War is generally regarded as the first fully industrialised war. Iron and steel were the primary metals involved, The Edwardian period preceding the widespread use of aluminium. Iron was the metal used to manufacture the gun barrels, the bayonets, the barbed wire, the tanks, the battleships, the submarines, the helmets and the vast majority of the mechanisms of war.

This project is inherently adaptable and flexible. All of the criteria listed about are just as relevent to any group of individuals – whether used to represent a nation, an army – or even a specific region, town or regiment. By casting the 'nail' element in 10 x 10 blocks (each representing 100 individuals), the piece can be scaled as appropriate.
For example, The Wiltshire regiment lost 5,200 men during the war. If each individual 7cm nail element was placed upright and spaced 2cm apart and cast in blocks of 100, This would equate to an overall piece approx 1metre 44cms square.

Local references/possibilities (Wiltshire / Swindon)
ABICA has already established a relationship with STEAM and will be undertaking a project this May to produce a series of sculptural works in cast iron inspired by exhibits from the museum, as well as hopefully including input from workers from GWR which had its own foundry. GWR in particular has close links to the first world war, not only in terms of the importance of the construction of rolling stock for the war effort, but also for the large number of workers who volunteered for service and did not return. I include some links in the 'further reading' section for further background of aspects which could easily be linked to a project with specific reference to Swindon.

My qualification for this project and personal interest in the subject matter:
I am a founding member of the British Association of Iron Casting Artists (ABICA) and have been producing sculptural pieces in cast iron since 2004. I have exhibited work in Swindon, Bath, Oxford and Bloomington in the United States.
Both Great-grandfathers on my maternal side served in the first world war, and both suffered gas injuries whilst serving near Ypres. In addition to the interest and passion I feel for the subject matter, I feel like I have a personal link to this period of history.
I am also an amateur military historian, and worked for a period of time as a military aviation film archivist for documentary film-makers, Wingspan TV in Bristol.
I have a direct contact with the artist in residence at the Ypres museum and other contacts across Belgium to help me source scrap iron.
Through ABICA, I have access to iron foundry equipment and the assistance necessary to realise this project, should suitable funding become available.

Further reading: – a general overview of the Iron harvest. - an example of some of my finished works – comprehensive information about WW1 casualties - webpage of the Association of British Iron Casting Artists – Information on the GWR Casualties Project - Photos from the GWR Casualty Project