For the last year I’ve been completely engaged with the largest single work I’ve ever made. It’s a freestanding paper sculpture, 1 metre high and about 17 metres long, constructed in the form of a huge concertina book. It’s called Thames to Dunkirk.
This May 2010 sees the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. In the course of my research when making Thames to Dunkirk I was struck by how extraordinarily different each person’s account was of an event shared by hundreds of thousands of people, the sheer variety of experience within such a momentous shared event, and the far-reaching effects of conflict on the individual. Through fragments of stories, my work explores the forces of compulsion and power, the tensions between individuality and duty that led to this sea’s edge extremity.
The book, opened out, reflects in its size something of the surreal scale of the event, and altogether subverts the concept of ‘book’ – something familiar, useful, dependable, portable – into something altogether unfamiliar and difficult to handle, which you have to walk all the way round to read. It also reflects some of the tensions between individuality and communal responsibility that we’ve seen so much of recently – how we can be swept away on rivers not of our own choosing, into conflict or State-determined disaster, or indeed sold down the river by the powers that rule our lives. During the time I was making this work (July 2009) 94 soldiers died in Afghanistan; the contemporary relevance is evident without overstatement.
Thames to Dunkirk is now part of a major online interactive installation, which I hope will give some new insights into the lasting legacy of one of our most potent legendary events. The Dunkirk Project is online now, the story will be unfolding daily during the nine days of the anniversary, and I hope you’ll want to contribute to the collective story.
The Dunkirk Project is at http://thedunkirkproject.wordpress.com