First World War art project looks back, and ahead


Flemish visual artist Koen Vanmechelen is working on a new art installation, with the help of thousands of local and international participants

600,000 sculptures represent lives lost

Many of the numerous initiatives that have recently popped up across Flanders to commemorate the First World War centenary have focused on remembrance. But, for some artists, the future is just as important, since facing the past also means passing it on to future generations.

The participatory art project ComingWorldRememberMe (CWRM) by curator Jan Moeyaert and Koen Vanmechelen, one of Flanders’ best-known conceptual artists, embraces this double focus. “Remembering, helping, reflecting and connecting: Those are our four main goals,” says Vanmechelen.

Local and international participants, in particular children and young people, are creating 600,000 clay sculptures over the next four years. Each “New Generation” figure is meant to represent one of the lives lost in Belgium in the First World War. In 2018, all these sculptures will be brought together in a land art installation at the Palingbeek provincial domain in Zonnebeke, West Flanders. Some of the domain was part of Ypres Salient, a heavily fought-over area during the war.

Moulding a hunched figure out of clay in one of the project’s workshops costs €10, half of which goes to West Flanders’ North-South solidarity action and Vanmechelen’s The Cosmogolem Foundation, which assists children living in conflict areas. “We not only want to create a respectful artistic memory for the victims of the Great War,” says Vanmechelen, “we also want to help children who are currently trapped in war situations.”

Never-ending battle

The name of the person who made the little sculpture will be attached to it on a dog tag, the metal identification tag still worn by soldiers today. This tag also carries the name of a First World War victim, from a list compiled by the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres. “This way, different generations and nationalities will be united in the commemoration,” Vanmechelen explains.

Remembering the reality behind the stories of the Great War is vital

- Koen Vanmechelen

In addition to making the sculptures and dog tags, the workshops also offer participants background information and a moment of reflection.

CWRM fits in with Vanmechelen’s artistic preoccupation with the successive cycles of life and death and the relationship between the individual and the collective. “War is a dramatic derailment of the never-ending battle of, within and between every living thing,” the artist says. “Every living thing comes into being unasked and is doomed to grow old and decay.”

For Vanmechelen, facing the past remains crucial for today’s youth. “In our extremely individualistic times, it is a huge challenge to save the small stories from oblivion,” he says. “Remembering the reality behind the stories of the Great War is vital for the future and for our survival.”

Schools and other organisations can join a workshop at one of four permanent spaces: vzw Kunst in Schore, visitor centre De Kazematten in Ypres, former ammunition depot Bommenvrij in Nieuwpoort (all in West Flanders) and Vanmechelen’s studio in Hasselt. CWRM organisers also hope to inspire long-term partnerships with schools, cities and companies. Schools who commit to a minimum of 800 New Generation sculptures can, for instance, arrange a mobile workshop at a location of their choice.