600,000 Sculptures to Remember 600,000 Dead in Belgium

Coming World Remember Me
Journalists from American and European outlets take a turn making sculptures in the Coming World Remember Me art installment. Sivan Askayo

In a warehouse near Nieuwpoort, Belgium, 26,000 small clay sculptures sit and wait for 2018. By then, the centennial of World War I will be nearing a close and the sculptures will have multiplied more than twentyfold.

The goal, says co-organizer Lotte Moeyaert, is to create 600,000 of the clay objects—enough to represent every person who died on Belgian soil during what was then dubbed "The War To End All Wars."

The war, of course, failed to bring a permanent end to worldwide conflict. But in the province of West Flanders where Nieuwpoort sits, near the confluence of the Yser river and the North Sea, the egg-like sculptures—in a project called "Coming World Remember Me," or "Cwxrm"—form a remarkable emblem of how remembrance of war carries on in Belgium a full century and many generations removed from Armistice Day.

In a dimly lit Nieuwpoort studio, clay is molded and pressed, under Moeyaert's direction, to add to the pile. In dungeon-like rooms nearby, exhibits display conceptual art projects involving chickens, eggs and a living owl.

The sculptures, grapefruit-sized and shaped like ill-formed eggs, "are a symbol of hope because of their strongly pronounced spine," said Moeyaert from the Belgian non-profit organization Kunst, which is collaborating with another organization, Combat, on the project. "We're going to create 600,000 little sculptures because 600,000 people died. We don't make a difference between soldiers and civilians."

Ultimately, the art installation will last as long as the war itself; by the spring of 2018, the sculptures will be on display at the site of the wartime no man's land in Ypres, where another workshop is steadily producing the clay symbols.

Though launched in March, the idea for the installation first came to Moeyaert's father, the artist Jan Moeyaert, several years ago. "The commemoration of the centennial is important for him," the younger Moeyaert told Newsweek. "But more important is the fact that we focus on the universal and human aspect of war. For him (and for the team) the project is not really a 'war project' but more a 'peace project.'"

Jan Moeyaert then approached conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen—the figure behind the chickens, which he is crossbreeding as a work of art. Under Vanmechelen's direction, each sculpture has a dog-tag containing two names, a reference to the ID system used during the war. The first tag is that of a soldier who died on Belgian soil, taken from a list from the In Flanders FIelds museum Ypres. The second is the name of the artist who made the sculpture a century later. The effect, according to an official description of the project, is to join the present with the past and "remind us of the uselessness of war: yesterday, today and tomorrow."

Vanmechelen, though, perceives a more topical purpose in the project. "The generations who live at the moment, they don't know what war is in Belgium or in Europe," he said. "Because the war is always somewhere else. … I think it's important to do this remembering—because it's part of our history, part of our DNA. It makes more clear how we can avoid a war like this in the future. I think it's part of education."