As the pressing concerns of intern(ation)al politics once more dominate the media, the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War are now fading from memory. However, a short-lived but compelling installation in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London offered a fitting and moving end to this anniversary. Shrouds of the Somme, the work of the artist Rob Heard, represented the 72, 396 British and Commonwealth servicemen killed at the Battle of the Somme who have no known grave, and whose names can be seen engraved on the Thiepval Memorial in Northern France. Heard hand sewed tiny articulated figures – reminiscent of Action Man – into little white shrouds which were then placed on the grass in the Olympic Park, in front of Anish Kapoor’s helter-skelter Orbital sculpture.
The fact that the figures bound by Heard were articulated, meant that each one was individualised, and laid down on the grass with the head, legs and arms bent or straight, twisted or not, in whatever position the manipulation of the figure by sewing of the shroud had created. Many of the figures placed at the edge of the field had been given poppies or flowers by visitors and the effect of the rows and rows of tiny white bodies on green grass with dots of red recalled the lines of white crosses in the war cemeteries in Northern France and Belgium.
Those graves, however, mark the bodies of soldiers that had been found: Heard’s figures represent those men whose bodies were never recovered – and in just one battle in 1916 and from just one nation. As visitors walked around the grass, the names of ‘the missing’, their rank and age, were read out loud by a volunteer over a loudspeaker.
In addition to the 72, 396 figures laid out in rows, a second part of the installation included tiny wooden crosses commemorating the number of British and Commonwealth service men killed on each day of the war, accompanied by a shrouded figure. These too were adorned with poppies, little wreaths, and in some cases photos of relations that visitors had placed next to the particular day on which a relative had died. While there has debate in some circles about whether the Armistice should continue to be commemorated, now that we have reached 100 years on, the Shrouds of the Somme made present in a very poignant way the enormous tragedy of that conflict. It is hard to see how such loss cannot continue to be commemorated.
Lying on the autumn grass, the white shrouds of these figures had started to soak up the mud; around some, red and brown autumn leaves had gathered…it was as if the pure white shrouds, perhaps representative of the idealised notions of the war, and the innocence of its ‘doomed youth’, were beginning to change, the stains and the damp evoking in miniscule the horrors that the soldiers underwent in the trenches; the figures themselves were sinking into the earth, like the men they represent who lie unfound in the fields of France and Flanders. EL’E