As the centenary of the Armistice approaches, here are three very different commemorations - the one you've heard a lot about, the one you're about to hear a lot about, and the skippable one.
Beyond the Deepening Shadow(4th-11th November, 5pm–9pm)
Tower of London
Four years ago poppies filled the Tower's moat, but this year it's candles. Ten thousand are scattered around the grassy dip surrounding the battlements, and every evening this week the Yeomen Warders process out after sunset to light the first flame. As the evening progresses the entire moat lights up, accompanied by a haunting choral soundscape, until eventually the candles fade away. Those who paid a fiver in advance can walk around the moat on a walkway amid the flames, and everyone else is allowed to wander around the pathways on the rim, assuming they can get through to take a peek. It's a fabulous idea, and creatively very well thought through.
To avoid the crowds I turned up later in the evening, by which time some of the lights were already blinking out. I expected the way in to be obvious, but it wasn't, and no prominent signage was evident in or outside Tower Hill station. Instead a maze of barriers and one-way systems has been set up, entirely unexplained, and even though I've now walked round it I still couldn't convincingly explain where you're supposed to enter the system. The volunteer at one of the exit gates mumbled something and pointed towards Tower Bridge, the tortuous chicanes on Tower Hill looked somewhat more official, but hard to reach... and I eventually wandered into the melee down a set of unguarded back stairs.
The crowd was more Havering & the Home Counties than you'd normally see in central London, perhaps tipped off by their midmarket tabloid of choice. They lined one side of the narrow path, looking down into the moat with cameras poised, then shuffling on to the next gap to record the installation from a different angle. It was astonishing how few people were simply experiencing the lights and sound, and how many were filming it for shared consumption, either in stills or as an extended video. Even the retired crowd had their phones out. Their loss. The music was the truly bewitching part, drifting in and out of harmony, while I suspect the flames looked more impressive on the ground rather than as separate pinpoints from above. I shall long remember the scene, but never quite felt part of it, and only realised afterwards that it had not inspired me to reflect or remember. [website]
Shrouds of the Somme(8th-18th November, 10am–7pm)
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, South Lawn
Over one million soldiers were killed at the Battle of The Somme in 1916, of whom 72,396 British and Commonwealth servicemen have no known grave. Shrouds of the Somme is a unique installation designed to bring the magnitude of that number into sharp focus, and is the brainchild of Somerset artist Rob Heard. He's spent the last four years wrapping tiny plastic figures in cloth, his first target number the 19,240 body count from the first day of the battle. These were displayed in Exeter in 2016, and Rob's since upped production to create the full complement of 72,396 for 2018. That is an amazing personal commitment, and the outcome is every bit as striking as you'd expect.
A large area of lawn to the south of the Orbit has been fenced off, and a team of soldiers from 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment has been laying out the models since the start of the week. Each row of 200 shrouds has to have precisely the right spacing, so this requires painstaking care, including the use of theodolites and guide wires. The top end of the lawn is already complete, though not yet perfect, hence a volunteer occasionally tiptoes out into the fray to ensure everything's optimally aligned. Meanwhile bags and bags of additional shrouds are scattered further down the lawn, ready to become part of the commemorative array, and beyond that scaffolders are constructing what looks to be a platform for an elevated view.
Shrouds of the Somme opens to the public tomorrow morning, and access will be free, although you will have to walk through a security tent and bag check first. It's hard to know what the public's reaction will be, but the people of Exeter were quite overwhelmed by their display, and the pink signs are already up at Stratford station in readiness for potential crowds. It already looks impressive, and that's from outside the barriers. Like the Tower of London's ceramic poppies it succeeds by creating a graphic representation of loss, bringing home the magnitude of war... although you'd need over 200 such lawns to match WW1's full casualty list. [website]
Remembrance Art Trail(8th-18th November)
Another location, another artist. This time it's Mark Humphrey, who first exhibited commemorative works at Canary Wharf two years ago, returning with a partially-fresh selection. Eleven artworks have been scattered all around the estate, so disparately that you'll need a map to find them all. A paper copy of the map is easily collected from one of the ubiquitous stewards, but even then you'll have to look carefully to see which level the artwork's on. There were at least three I didn't find, uncertain precisely what I was supposed to be looking for, even though I think I was in the right place. Still, at least this one was obvious.
This giant Airfix-kit soldier is located at one end of the roof gardens above Crossrail Place. It made me think of dismemberment, and the mass-availability of cannon fodder, although the apparent intention was to "demonstrate human sacrifice, comradeship and remembrance". I also appreciated the simplicity of Fallen Soldier in Cabot Square, where a series of poppy-filled tubes gently topple around the edge of the fountain, and the diverse ring of helmets on poles positioned outside Clifford Chance. Less so the soldier in the perspex pyramid facing the main entrance to Canary Wharf tube station, which occasionally blows poppies around like it's the end of the Crystal Maze, which draws the crowds.
Embedding meaningful art across the Canary Wharf estate is a fine idea, maximising the number of workers who'll see it and get their conscience jogged, and providing the Royal British Legion with a very visible presence. But I'm less convinced it works well as an Art Trail, indeed as I traipsed across yet another shopping mall it felt like some kind of Remembrance Orienteering, and there are better ways to be thoughtful. [website]