In 2015, there were 372 mass shootings in the United States. The resultant fatalities represent a mere fraction of the year’s cumulative 13,286 firearm deaths, a number which roughly doubles if suicides are included. Since 1968, there have been about 1.4 million deaths by firearms in the United States; that’s more than the combined total of all American fatalities from every military conflict in which the United States has taken part since the Revolutionary War.
These statistics come from a recent BBC profile on American gun violence. Since the ratio of guns to people in America is exactly one to one, it goes without saying that guns are an intrinsic part of our culture, their presence inextricably written into the Constitution. Unloaded, a travelling exhibition currently on view at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids, is a spirited and politically-charged show which cynically comments on American gun culture.
The exhibition, organized by Susanne Slavick of Carnegie Mellon University, brings together multimedia works by twenty international artists who collectively address the role of guns in the context of suicide, violence, and the “militarization of the private life.” The topic is serious, but the artists approach it with irony and subtle, if embittered, humor.
Granny Smith & Weston by Lauren Adams, for example, at first glance appears to be an innocuous little footstool, its cushioned seat covered in a traditional cross-stitch pattern. Close inspection reveals the fabric’s floral pattern to consist of flowers and, idiosyncratically, small handguns. Similarly, Stephanie Syjuco creates images of handguns and rifles through the traditionally domestic medium of crochet on panel. Originally intended to gently parody American gun culture, Syjuco’s works, interestingly, are sometimes purchased and admired by gun owners. Both artists intentionally apply the visual language of traditional American craft, commenting on guns as a firmly embedded presence in America’s heritage.
The unmistakable centerpiece of Unloaded is the Cross for the Unforgiven, a visually and conceptually striking sculpture that has, quite deservedly, become something like a symbol for the show. Assuming the shape of the traditional Maltese Cross (similar to the much more familiar Celtic cross), the work is made from strategically arranged cut and welded AK-47s, the world’s most popular assault weapon. In this sculpture, artist Mel Chin compellingly and evocatively subverts a symbol traditionally associated with forgiveness and redemption.
At times, the UICA’s massive multi-story gallery spaces admittedly seem to overwhelm the comparatively small-scale works in the show. But Unloaded clearly succeeds in provoking reactions. In one room, visitors are invited to post comments on the wall. “Guns are massive amounts of entertainment; you should try them out,” one reads. “I feel less safe around guns. Even if you are a good guy,” says another.
This exhibit prods us not to be satisfied with the status quo, and creates space for all parties to acknowledge, at the very least, that there’s no good reason for the United States to statistically be, by an exasperatingly high margin, the most homicidal country in the developed world.
After Grand Rapids, Unloaded is slated to appear at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. Additional dates and venues for the traveling exhibition can be found here.