Pretend with me, if you will, that we live in the bizarro United States, where government isn’t utterly corrupt, where the psychopaths at the NRA aren’t treated almost universally as infallible, where the news media aren’t stupid, incurious, also corrupt and persistently simply wrong. In the bizarro United States, how would someone go about forming a reasonable understanding of and an opinion about the role of guns in society? Where might she come across some ideas about what to do with our many, very dangerous guns? Perhaps she would learn to extract useful lessons from relevant, thoughtful, trenchant works of art.
OK. Stop laughing, please.
With the tragic Navy Yard shooting earlier this week, that brings just the number of mass shooting-just in 2013-to at least 16 (maybe more, depending on which shootings get counted). Whatever it is that American society and political culture are doing with and about guns, it obviously, empirically is not working.
I am going to talk about two international contemporary artists who are known for their striking anti-gun artworks-a potentially instructive balm for what ails us as a country-but first a look at a couple of episodes of gun-themed art from the middle of the last century. It was a different time, a more innocent time; the country hadn’t yet descended into our current practically non-stop murderous rampage. Guns meant something different, culturally, than they do now. Still, guns are guns.
At the beginning of the 1960s, French/American artist Niki de Saint Phalle created a series of “Shooting Paintings,” completed during performances with prominent guests . . . and a rifle. Saint Phalle attached paint-filled plastic bags to canvases and covered the canvases with a layer of plaster. Then she and her friends (including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) shot them, spilling the colored paint down the white surfaces. The process and the finished paintings remain both playful and powerful. In these artworks, the guns helped produce a kind of painterly and metaphorically psychological catharsis, as the bullets broke through the purity of the white shells to release the bright colors, which had been hidden and restrained, and allowed them to flow freely. Saint Phalle explained why she gave up the series in 1963, after just two years of making them: they were too satisfying. She said, “I had become addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug.”
A decade after Saint Phalle began painting from the barrel of a gun, California multi-disciplinary artist Chris Burden took everything a huge step further by having a friend shoot him in the arm as a performance piece, Shoot (1971). I can imagine Saint Phalle having an easy time recruiting shooters, as if it were a party game, but it must have been an awkward and difficult sell for Burden to convince his shooter to participate. It has become an iconic performance, one for the art history text books, but it was clearly reckless and dangerous to undertake. (Incidentally, Burden will have a major solo show this fall at The New Museum in New York.)
There is a palpable shift in tone between Saint Phalle and Burden; even though she was doing the shooting and he was doing the getting shot, Burden demonstrates a more macho, violent relationship to the gun. Shoot, unfortunately, wasn’t the only of Burden’s performances that put his life at some degree of risk, so a gun’s more sinister appearance in his body of work is of a piece. Nonetheless, Shoot is more than just macho and dangerous. The performance effectively addresses the shifting role of guns in the US, on the way to where we are now-presciently, as it turns out, alas-and critics have pointed out that the performance had a special relevance in the context of the then-ongoing Vietnam War. Don’t try this at home.
The Twenty-First Century
The two more recent artists who use guns in their work, with themes and methods radically different from their predecessors, are Mozambican sculptor Kester and Mexican multi-disciplinary artist Pedro Reyes. I began this post bemoaning the metastasized violence caused by guns in the United States, and even though neither of these artists is American, their work still directly applies. Gun laws vary from country to country, but the art world has been and continues to be more and more international, and it would be refreshing for the imperial US to take a handy lesson from elsewhere. Especially since we’re managing guns superlatively poorly, and these two artists seem to have some clever ideas.
Kester is the nom de anti-guerre of Cristovao Canhavato, known for his blockbuster artwork Throne of Weapons (2001). The Throne of Weapons is, well, a throne (or chair) built out of still-recognizable parts of numerous guns decommissioned and collected since the end of the Mozambican Civil War that lasted from shortly after that country’s independence from Portugal in 1975 until 1992. (A brief pause to wrap our minds around the fact that Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony in 1975.) A consequence of the Cold War, the Mozambican Civil War saw weapons brought into the country from far and wide. The British Museum, which now owns the Throne, has compiled a diagram showing the national origin of each component in the sculpture; represented are: the Soviet Union, North Korea, Czechoslovakia, Portugal and Poland.
According to the British Museum’s Frances Carey, the Throne is the object in the museum’s collection that has been shown the most widely and in the most contexts: “community and shopping centres, cathedrals, popular music concerts, youth forums, government offices and a prison,” as well as in museums across the UK and internationally. What makes the Throne communicate so successfully with audiences is that each element is individually identifiable as part of a gun, but the reconfiguration into this new whole makes this proliferation of guns possible to consider with different emotions than the ones caused by intact weapons. It’s a kind of elegy for the Civil War, but also resonates with viewers who might have experience with gun violence from other regions and other circumstances. The guns are rendered safe, broken apart, but they aren’t disguised or hidden.
Pedro Reyes has a similar body of work, for which he created functional musical instruments out of disassembled and reassembled gun parts, also still clearly recognizable as gun parts, collected in Ciudad Juarez. For the 2012 series “Imagine,” Reyes created 50 instruments and commissioned six musicians to perform on them. As the artist explained on his Web site, “It’s important to consider that many lives were taken with these weapons; as if a sort of exorcism was taking place the music expelled the demons they held, as well as being a requiem for lives lost.” For a related 2013 series, “Disarm” (the link is lavishly illustrated), Reyes took the project a step further and attached computerized machinery to the instruments so they could be programmed to play themselves robotically.
His 2008 project “Palas por pistolas” (“Shovels for pistols”) is even wider reaching. Reyes combined a conceptual foundation with object-making and community engagement. He originated the project as a commission from the botanical garden of Culiac√°n in western Mexico, a city plagued by gun violence. He organized an opportunity for residents to voluntarily donate guns in exchange for vouchers toward home appliances or electronics. Ultimately, he collected 1,527 guns, destroyed them in public with a steam roller, had them melted down and then used the metal to make 1,527 shovels for artists, students and families in the community to use to plant 1,527 trees. This represented, of course, an even more dramatic transformation of guns into something productive, and unlike “Imagine” and “Disarm,” no visible traces of the original guns remained. You can see a series of photos documenting the project from beginning to end here. The project is hopeful and even has wit, but Reyes doesn’t display the kind of playfulness Saint Phalle brought to her shooting; this is serious guns-to-trees alchemy. He went to work as an activist, getting guns off the violent streets one vat of molten steel at a time. Those shovels are beautiful, in that gleaming gunmetal gray.
Reyes has since taken these shovels on the road, working with communities to learn about disarming their cities while planting trees in France, Canada and the US. The artist explains, “This ritual has a pedagogical purpose of showing how an agent of death can become an agent of life.” Clearly, Reyes is not afraid of grandiose rhetoric when talking about his projects, but his ambitions and the results seem to live up to the words.
One of the reasons I especially wanted to write about Reyes and “Palas por pistolas” gets back to the non-bizarro United States were we actually live. Although gun buyback drives have been very successful in numerous cities across the country and beyond, politicians, (legally) corrupted by lobbyists, are working to stop them. Since July, new gun laws in Colorado have forced police departments to cancel buyback drives. This is all the more poignant, since Denver is one of the cities to which Reyes has brought his shovels made from Mexican guns. The Denver Art Museum hosted a successful “Palas por pistolas” event in 2010 with the eager participation of local school children.
Anti-gun-buyback laws like Colorado’s are proof, just the latest pointed example among myriad others over the months and years, that the country is moving even further in the wrong direction. Mass shooting will continue on and on. Thwarting steps as modest and reasonable as organized buybacks is a new development in the collective American mania about guns, and it’s both disappointing and dispiriting. Maybe we need not only the examples provided by Kester and Reyes, but also their high-flying rhetoric about their artworks to ward off dispirited resignation and keep fighting for the bizarro United States we want and need.