Imagine walking into a room with roughly one hundred assault rifles laid out on a canvas tarp on the ground. Now, imagine these assault rifles have been constructed from spare machine parts and everyday household items, sculptures both of industry and of familiarity to be inspected as having a deeply human impact despite their mechanical exterior.
David Hess, an artist who primarily works on public installations, created this aptly titled “Gun Show” after the events of Sandy Hook, an elementary school shooting in 2012. Hess regards this event as his own “‘personal awakening to the American obsession with weaponry and the abstraction of violence.”
It is not a typical gun show; there are no bids, no auctions, no sale of any sort. The only poster advertising anything is one that details the difference in the total estimated number of firearms in the United States between 1791 and 2016. In 1791, there were 118,629 estimated firearms in a total population of 392,214. In 2016, there was an estimated number of 357 million firearms in a total population of 325,025,419 — more firearms than people.
This is the main point Hess hopes to drive home with his exhibit. Come for the guns, and hopefully, stay for some honest conversation, on both sides. Hess, when presenting the installation, often suggests his audience pick up the guns and talk about them in the context of the larger conversation centering on gun violence in the United States today.
Hess’s exhibit also includes a short film chronicling the Gun Show’s reception in various cities around the country and pictures of some of the visitors to his installation holding his guns. Some of these visitors are laughing, a visually jarring scene given the fact that they are holding assault rifles — fake assault rifles, of course, but the intent is still there.
The guns themselves are structurally beautiful, and Hess’s craftsmanship is precise. In theory, many of the items he shapes into the guns should not fit together as well as they do, but in practice, the guns blend seamlessly from one component to the next. Given the combination of parts Hess comes up with, that is not exactly the easiest job.
The body of a guitar acts as the buttstock of one gun, a portion of a Dyson vacuum as another. Each gun is tied to something so distinctly human, it is difficult not to imagine the people the assault rifles would affect — or the people who would be wielding them. Once you start to develop such a humanistic view of these machines, it becomes even more troublesome to imagine them as real.
David Hess’s “Gun Show” will be on display at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture until October 14. The CDAVC is located on the first floor of the Fine Arts Building, Room 105. Professor Kathy O’Dell, the exhibit curator, will be hosting a public discussion of the exhibit in Fine Arts Studio A. More information to be announced at a later date.