A few minutes ago, I opened an email from the Union Chapel, a gig venue in Highbury, London. It was an invitation to a commemorative concert for the "Thankful Villages" of the First World War. These were villages where every young man who was sent off to fight made it back alive – a miraculous rarity in a conflict that touched almost every family in Britain.
That these places were so few in number is indicative of the scale of the conflict. But the email also reminded me that, this weekend, villages, towns and cities everywhere are finding creative ways to mark the Armistice centenary.
Four years ago, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red took over the Tower of London and the nation’s consciousness to mark 100 years since the start of the First World War. A wave of ceramic poppies gradually spilling out of the tower into the moat, the installation drew millions of visitors over the course of a few weeks.
Commemorative art has always been around – but it felt like that work planted a seed that has grown over the past four years. And with the centenary of the declaration of the end of war this weekend, tributes are taking place in all manner of ways.
For the Tower of London, there was undoubtedly pressure to capture the nation’s mood once again. The artistic response is Beyond the Deepening Shadow, a nightly visual and aural experience featuring choral music and the words of poet Mary Borden set to a growing circle of flaming torches that will gradually illuminate the moat.
The Olympic Park is temporarily home to 72,396 shrouded ceramic figures, each one handmade and representing a soldier killed at the Somme with no known resting place.
A light and sound installation proclaiming hope is taking place in Durham, a town where the illumination of a miner’s lamp has long meant something more than simply seeing in darkness.
And the specially created 14-18 Now organisation has commissioned an ambitious array of responses from artists, musicians, designers and performers over the past five years, culminating in Danny Boyle’s project Pages of the Sea, which takes place this Sunday, 11 November.
Different though they inevitably are, there are recurring themes that run through these tributes. Themes of remembrance and thanks. Of sorrow and anger. Of courage and hope.
Westminster Council will hold its own commemoration across the famous Piccadilly screens today (Friday). Taking place between 6pm and 7pm, the experience will draw watchers and passers-by into a poignant and thought-provoking world of light and sound.
We have been consumed by this project for the past few months at the Unlimited Group, highly aware of the responsibility that goes with it. The pressure we’ve placed on ourselves has been to create something that would resonate with people of all ages and that would honour those who served in the First World War in a sensitive but brutally honest way.
It seems obvious, but every passing year takes us further away from the conflict and makes the horrific scale of the sacrifice feel more abstract. One of our aims was to give meaning to the extraordinary death toll and to put a human face on what can often seem like a dizzying parade of statistics.
The installation will feature a relentless stream of soldiers marching across the screen, each one representing someone who lost their life between 1914 and 1918 – punctuated by 11 stories of real people (many from or have connections to Westminster) who served in the war.
When we finally raised our heads from our own work a few days ago, it was staggering to see the sheer number of creative projects taking place to commemorate the Armistice centenary across the UK and the world.
Not every memorial will please everyone, but each has its own place and its own purpose. And each serves as a reminder that creativity, in service of something bigger than itself, still has the power to bring us together.
Phil Rhodes is creative director at TMW Unlimited