Coming World, Remember Me – A Powerful Visual
It was a hot afternoon in the small town of Ypres, Belgium. My husband and I had spent the whole day running around the surrounding countryside and visiting World War I battle sites. The First World War devastated Ypres and nearby Flanders Fields. It smashed the town itself to pieces, ripped the ground up for miles, and packed the soil with hundreds of thousands of dead. One hundred years later, the scars still remain.
We walked through a good many graveyards filled with seas of white stones. About one in five actually had names on them. The rest carried the tragic words, “known unto God.” We stood inside the Menin Gate, a huge memorial covered with over 60,000 names of missing soldiers from Flanders Fields. We hiked through fields and woods that still bore remnants of the trenches and shell craters. Some bunkers were still there, including the bunkers where a broken-hearted Canadian doctor penned one of the most famous poems in military history, “In Flanders Fields.” His words captured the horrors of war so well that a century later, the poppy is still associated with this terrible conflict and all the lives it stole from us. Indeed, it had been a heart-wrenching, albeit powerful, day.
So, as the afternoon heat set in, we wondered into a quaint pub in the middle of town. We found a table in the shade and ordered a snack plate along with some wonderful Belgian brews. A very nice older couple sat at the table next to us. They quickly recognized us as Americans, and they asked what brought us to this quiet little corner of Belgium. I told them that I was a military history enthusiast, and that I wanted to see all the Flanders Fields sites. The lady said to me, “well you’ve seen the art exhibit then, right?”
What art exhibit? I hadn’t heard of any exhibit around these parts. Besides, I will admit that art exhibits aren’t on the top of my list of things to do while traveling. I have a deep respect for painting, art, and sculpture, I just never really excelled at it. It’s harder for me to connect with it than it is for some people. However, I could tell from the photos on the nice lady’s phone that this art exhibit went beyond the norm. It was something that most anybody could connect with, even someone like me. So, first thing the next morning, my husband and I hit the backroads of Ypres, and made our way to an art exhibit called “Coming World, Remember Me.”
Not even the nice lady’s pictures prepared us for what we saw. After a brief hike along a wooded trail, we came upon a vast open land covered… COVERED… with tiny statues. They stretched on and on and on, all the way to the distant tree line. Looming over the endless statues was a large egg, with still more statues, piles of them, spilling out of it. It mesmerized, devastated, and overwhelmed us at the same time. Because what we looked at wasn’t just an art exhibit. It visually represented something that, up until that point, had been very hard for me to grasp.
“Coming World, Remember Me,” or CWXRM for short, is a collaborative art project that involved thousands of people and multiple workshops from all across the world, and it took nine years to complete. Together, these artists carefully sculpted 600,000 (yes, you read that number right) identical statues. They’re each small enough to hold in your hands, and they resemble a human figure that sits with his head and back bent in pain (see photo below). Each statue has a pronounced backbone which easily marks it as human. According to the exhibit’s curator, this distinguished spine also symbolizes the life force inside all of us and our deep potentials for love and creativity. Each one of these 600,000 statues also represent a real person lost in Belgium during the First World War. Each of these statues has a name, a personal dog tag, and an artist attached to it. They each have a story, a background… a history.
These 600,000 statues now rest at Palingbeek Provincial Park just outside Ypres. Today it is a beautiful grassy field with tall, lush trees all around it. A hundred years ago, it was the dreaded Ypres Salient, one of the most fought over pieces of ground in the entire conflict, and the place where many of these 600,000 soldiers lost their lives. Seen from overhead, the mass group of statues converge to form the shape of Pangea, the supercontinent that broke apart to form our modern-day continents. As for the egg with more statues coming out of it, this represents rebirth – the coming of a new world and a new mankind.
While stumbling around this exhibit in awe, I somehow had the presence of mind to get my camera out and start it rolling…
So, what exactly was it that I went out into the woods to see? I’m not sure it was the statues or the egg, although believe me those are very moving and impressive. I’m not even sure it was the historic piece of No Man’s Land that the entire thing sat on. No, what I went to see was numbers. I have studied military history for a long time, and after each description of each battle, all the historians give you a number. The Somme took almost 20,000 British lives in its very first day. The Battle of Gettysburg came with a price tag of 50,000 casualties, with at least 10,000 of these being immediate battlefield deaths. The Battle of the Bulge, one of World War II’s bloodiest battles, claimed almost 200,000 casualties, and it’s still too hard to calculate how many of these were battlefield deaths. For Belgium in the First World War, after four years of horrific fighting over the fields and woods of Flanders, that number is 600,000 deaths.
To me, numbers have always been hard to grasp. When I was in school, I struggled with math the most. I think it’s because I’m a very emotional person, and numbers deal more with logic. They show the hard truth without going into the why of it. They leave no room for rule breaking, and you can’t argue with a number. Without any of that, it’s hard to picture what the number “600,000” really means.
What CWXRM has done is taken a cold number and breathed some very real life into it. They made it personal. These artists took each one of those many digits and gave them a real name. They also gave me more numbers to think about. Because behind each one of those statues is a family and loved ones who cried. Lives destroyed and hopes shattered. When you think of the ripple effects, 600,000 quite easily balloons into the millions. Maybe even the billions. And that is just for one small part of the vast Western Front of World War I. Suddenly, as you stand there, you are completely overwhelmed by the total devastation and destruction that is war.
But then, on the brink of emotional collapse, you see the egg, and the pile of baby statues emerging from it. Just like the others swiped too soon, these statues represent the real human inside all of us who are still here. They remind us we each have something to offer. There are people represented by these statues who will make us laugh, paint us pictures, cure our ailments, invent wonderous things, or dare I say, write us amazing stories.
“Coming World, Remember Me” has taken that vast concept and put it out there for all to see on a tiny piece of land in Belgium. You can hold the number 600,000 in your hands. You can stand among it, and you can feel the pain of what war has taken from us. You can make the number something real. Then, you can have hope in the new world that beckons.
CWXRM Exhibit – Ypres, Belgium
CWXRM Information Book – K. Vanmechelen
NOTE: CWXRM is a temporary exhibit that will be on display until November 11, 2018 (the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day). Once the exhibit is closed, the statues will be distributed among the artists and various museums around Belgium. Some less fragile parts of the exhibit will remain in the park as a permanent display.
Also a small correction, in the video I say the exhibit is called “Remember Me.” I was in awe and forgot to say “Coming World” at the beginning! 🙂
Want to visit CWXRM? Plan your trip by visiting their website, listed under “sources”
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from Belgium, click here.