Three years after their first visit, Halifax Magazine editor Trevor J. Adams and photojournalist Tammy Fancy return to Belgium to cover events marking the centenary of the end of the First World War. Look for their reports throughout the next six days.
It’s tempting to say that Belgium feels like another world from Nova Scotia. The towns are compact and ancient, narrow lanes and tall, thin houses and shops, lots of brick and symmetry. If you want a template for a gingerbread house, this is the place to look. I could talk about language, food, fashion, art; there are so many differences between the Maritimes and where we are now that it’s silly to try to list them. Yet there are also poignant reminders that in some less tangible ways, we’re very close to home.
Thousands of young Canadians including scores of Nova Scotians, fought and died in the mud of the Flanders region during the First World War. When I say I’m from Nova Scotia, people know where I mean and why I’m here. How could they not? In the war cemeteries, you see row after row of Nova Scotian names. There are countless exhibits and memorials that mention Canada and Nova Scotia, and even a memorial specifically to the Nova Scotia Highlanders tucked away in a peaceful corn field.
One of the most moving connections to home, however, is the Coming World Remember Me art installation. From 2014 to 2018, thousands of people, both in Flanders and around the world, moulded some 600,000 sculptures out of clay. They’re about the size of cantaloupes, each one designed to look like a person huddled in the fetal position. They represent the 600,000 victims who lost their lives due to the First World War in Belgium. I had a chance to contribute my sculpture in 2015. In 2017, organizers set up their workshop at Halifax Citadel and locals, including Halifax Magazine contributor Tammy Fancy, had their chance to contribute.
Creating one doesn’t require a lot of skill; it’s mostly patience, time, and manual labour. Both times I encountered the work of building the installation, I was struck by how much effort has to accumulate to make 600,000 pieces. Today, not long after arriving in Belgium, I visited the completed installation for the first time.
Seeing those 600,000 sculptures together is difficult to process. They’re spread out over a site that was once a no-man’s land between opposing armies. A century ago, some of the bloodiest fighting of the war happened around Ypres at De Palingbeek. Seeing those sculptures is like seeing 600,000 ghosts.
It’s impossible to pick out the one I created or the ones that came from Halifax. Hand-crafted, they have countless tiny imperfections that make them unique, yet at a distance those differences are impossible to see. They form a sea of lives lost. They represent so much effort, but look so fragile and impermanent.
Nov. 11 is the last day for the installation. After that, visitors will be encouraged to take the sculptures away, carrying away a tiny reminder of war’s cost. The field will again be a quiet tiny park, a place where children play and cyclists pedal. Already, nature is reclaiming the site, weeds, grass, and poppies forcing their way between the sculptures. Signs and interpretive plaques will still share the site’s history, even as life grows anew.