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Papaver rhoeas – Lost lives and fading memories

11 Nov, 2015

As we pause to mark Armistice Day, artist Paddy Hartley considers the act of remembrance. His delicate ‘Papaver rhoeas’ poppy sculptures, made from paper-thin slices of lambs’ hearts, are currently being exhibited at venues across London. We asked him to tell us more about the inspiration, collaboration and creation of his vanishing bio-tissue sculptures…

Papaver Rhoeas: Iron and copper stained lambs heart tissue, horsehair, vintage suture cotton, glass, water. Credit: Paddy Hartley 2015

Papaver rhoeas: Iron and copper stained lambs heart tissue, horsehair, vintage suture cotton, glass, water. Credit: Paddy Hartley 2015

In the lead up to Remembrance Day, there hasn’t been a day without some sort of controversy or debate in the media regarding the wearing of poppies – our national symbol of remembrance. Be it a newsreader, politician, or professional footballer choosing to not wear a poppy – or even a war veteran refusing to publicly wear a poppy because he believes that it has become a politicised symbol.

Some regard the poppy as a tool of propaganda and patriotism, and as someone who chooses to not wear a poppy during remembrance week, I find the increasingly vocal peer pressure to wear one is tangible, and at times disquieting. In the mix of the controversies, and the pressure to make a public display of remembrance, the origins of what the poppy represents can become somewhat diluted.

It was with these concerns in mind that I set about creating sculptures which sought to respond to the origins of the symbolism of this delicate little flower in our remembrance culture.

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Papaver rhoeas: Lambs heart tissue, horsehair, vintage suture cotton, glass, water. Credit: Paddy Hartley 2015

While lambs hearts, horsehair and tissue clearing processes may seem an unlikely combination with which to spark debate around the cultural phenomena of remembrance, I wanted to craft an object whose material made a direct reference to the corporeal loss of war. To represent the human and non-human sacrifices (willing and unwilling) that have been made – the destruction and loss of flesh, bone, blood – the obliteration of the body and of life. Not only those of our (then) Commonwealth and allies, but to mark all losses, regardless of nationality, gender, age and religious belief.

Papaver Rhoeas installed at Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum, London Lambs heart tissue, horsehair, vintage suture cotton, glass, water. Credit: Paddy Hartley 2015

Papaver rhoeas at the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum. Credit: Paddy Hartley 2015

Aside from the loss of human life, possibly the most prevalent symbol of sacrifice – across a wide range of religious beliefs – is the lamb. It was this “innocent’s” engine, the heart, which became the primary material I used to create my poppies.

With Dr Ian Thompson (my collaborative partner at King’s College London) facilitating the creation of the work, I set about the task of taking thin slices of lamb’s heart tissue, large enough to create petals, leaves, and the head and stem of Papaver rhoeas. Compressing, freezing, slicing, moulding, stitching and binding eventually resulted in poppies with the appearance of being in full bloom, but also on the cusp of wilting and dying.

Papaver Rhoeas installed in The Crypt at The Museum of The Order of St John, London. Lambs heart tissue, horsehair, vintage suture cotton, glass, water. Credit: Paddy Hartley 2015

Papaver rhoeas in The Crypt at The Museum of The Order of St John.
Credit: Paddy Hartley 2015

Considering the unspeakable losses on the battlefield due to extensive use of heavy artillery during WWI, the form of a spent artillery shell casing provided the inspiration for the presentation of these heart tissue blooms. Blown glass receptacles influenced by the cylindrical form of an artillery shell case, combined with the aesthetic of glass vessels used to present pathological specimens, house my poppies.

In addition to marking the loss of life, of equal concern for me while creating this work were the notions of “memorialisation”, memory and the passing of memory.

Papaver Rhoeas installed at the Alexander Fleming Laboratory, London. Lambs heart tissue, horsehair, vintage suture cotton, glass, water. Credit: Paddy Hartley 2015

Papaver rhoeas  at the Alexander Fleming Laboratory.
Credit: Paddy Hartley 2015

As the distance between our own time, and wars of the past increases, so we actively ‘remember’ them with a lesser frequency. It could be argued that the passing of time and fading of memory are what allow us to heal, perhaps more so even that an act of forgiveness or remembrance.

Subjecting my pathologised memento mori to a process known as “tissue clearing” means that the poppies I’ve created will literally fade, fragment and vanish over time, existing only in the memory of the viewer.

Having lovingly fashioned each poppy from a single lamb’s heart, the hardest part of this work is accepting its finite, terminal nature, and that each poppy has a limited lifespan. Their existence must be cherished for the time they – we, you or I – exist.

When we remember them, we remember the good of each individual and less so, the events and circumstances which brought about their end.

You can see Paddy’s Papaver rhoeas bio-tissue sculptures at a range of venues  in London, including the Saatchi Gallery, Kew Gardens, and the Brunei Gallery at SOAS. They will be on display until 28th November, and are then touring the UK, thanks to exhibition curator Niamh White. Visit papaver-rhoeas.com for more details of the project and the artist, or watch this film about how the poppies were made.

Papaver rhoeas is a collaborative project led by artist Paddy Hartley in collaboration with Dr Ian Thompson (Device Innovation), William Edwards (Curator of the Gordon Museum of Pathology) and Professor Malcolm Logan, (Randall Division of Cell & Molecular Biophysics), all at King’s College London. It was funded by a Wellcome Trust small arts award.

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