At some point in the early hours of Friday morning (10th July), an artwork appeared on Hove Lawns. Tens of thousands of pebbles had been laid out on the east end in the shape of the UK’s official Coronavirus death toll:
It’s a stark and thought-provoking piece of work, placing this horrific number into the midst of a public area. My first response was amazement at seeing each stone had been individually numbered. At first, questions about the piece’s construction were a distraction from its meaning, until that came back with a shock. Each one of these tens of thousands of pebbles represented a life lost.
The following day, on my daily walk, I saw the artist and got talking to someone who described themselves as their ‘gofer’. He said he’d written some of the numbers, an effort that had taken a week’s work to complete. He had burst into tears at one point, he told me, the stark numbers suddenly reminding him of the tattooed numbers at Belsen. That comparison feels problematic to me, but I can understand it.
The piece is confrontational, particularly when we’re being told that it’s our duty to go back to pubs and restaurants; while, at the same time, government ministers say mask-wearing should not be mandatory, even though they might save lives, even though there seems to be little downside. This is just another number we’ve got used to, alongside millions who die of hunger each year.
Another question about the artwork is why that number, which is the official death toll. The Gofer said it was picked because that number was controversial, and the artist wanted people to think about it. Looking at the piece on Friday lunchtime with Kate Shields, we got talking with a couple who told us about their friend. This person had been suffering a variety of conditions related to cancer, but had been marked as dying of coronavirus; and the family felt this was incorrect, that this cause of death was a political move.
The number formed by the pebbles is being updated daily. The shock of the artwork will diminish, and I’m not sure how long it will survive in its current location. Maybe people will encounter the numbered pebbles on the beach in years to come, and wonder who wrote on this pebble, and why?
Back in March, Stephen Powis said of the coming death toll, “If it is less than 20,000… that would be a good result though every death is a tragedy, but we should not be complacent about that”
The larger a number, the more difficult it is to reason about.If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list