Gun violence is seemingly far removed from Australia. Since the 1996 Port Arthur massacre and the ensuing gun reform laws, Australians have dwelt in the smug knowledge that we could teach the US a thing or two about weapons. News of the drug wars in Mexico occasionally ripples to our shores, only to be washed over in the next news cycle.
However, what Australians fail to recognise is that through our use of recreational drugs – not to mention our investment in arms companies – we are complicit in the deaths of thousands of Mexicans. In 2006, former President Felipe Calderón sent federal troops into the state of Michoacán to stop gun violence. Since then, the drug war ravaging Mexico has killed 60,000 people.
In 2011, Liam Pieper wrote an incisive piece for The Lifted Brow about the tendency of ethically-minded Melbournians to fastidiously calculate food miles and research Fair Trade products, but at the same time, they cast a blind eye to the origins of the cocaine they snort into their systems.
“It’s an issue I felt could be addressed with art”
Pieper explores the fate awaiting many ‘drug mules’ who are paid to ingest packages of cocaine, smuggling the drug into Australia. If a package should rupture inside them, they are usually dead within two hours. Pieper also cites instances of violence in Mexico, targeted towards children: 12 bodies, tongues cut out, were piled high in front of a Tijuana elementary school in 2008; and, in Pieper’s words, a “disembodied head was recently found alongside its face – which had been peeled away from the head and stitched onto a soccer ball.”
In comparison to the horrific creativity of such acts of violence, the majority of drug-war deaths occur at gunpoint.
A large shipment of guns arrived in Melbourne earlier this month, in the form of the art installation Disarm, put together by Mexican sculptor and artist Pedro Reyes. It is precisely this gun violence that Reyes is railing against in his art. The exhibition – held at the NGV during the Melbourne Festival – featured 47 instruments on display; each instrument fashioned out of weapons seized from criminal cartels by the Mexican government.
“It’s an issue I felt could be addressed with art,” Reyes told Right Now Radio’s Anna Dorevitch.
Essentially Reyes has taken instruments of death and destruction and transformed them into musical instruments. The instruments are functional, and for the past three weekends, have been played as part of live performances. Right Now Radio’s Ev Tadros spoke of the shock facing these musicians – one flautist expressed the absurdity of putting a shotgun in his mouth, only to try to play it like a flute.
“I believe that someone who kills with a gun is guilty, but much more guilty is the person who invests their money in a company that fabricates weapons”
For Reyes, music creates gathering and community – there’s a certain shared experience through music. This is life-affirming and creative – just the opposite to a gun culture that instils fear and isolation.
Disarm is simultaneously an art installation and a campaign to raise awareness of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the weapons industry. “I believe that someone who kills with a gun is guilty, but much more guilty is the person who invests their money in a company that fabricates weapons,” Reyes said.
“These companies are fully aware that their weapons will be used around the world in crime and war, and war is a business”. Individual investors in arms companies, Reyes suggests, are “responsible for not tens but thousands of deaths”. Sharing such a vast border with the US makes Mexico especially vulnerable to gun violence – their proximity makes it easy to find and purchase guns.
Both Australia and Mexico recently signed the Arms Trade Treaty, adopted by the UN earlier this year. Mexico ratified the treaty in September, making it one of only eight to do so, but Australia still has not taken this crucial step. A legal framework such as the Arms Trade Treaty regulates the lucrative trade in weaponry, but perhaps Reyes, through art and music, has tapped into a more powerful way to disseminate the message that gun violence is an affront to human rights.
Repurposing weapons for art is not a new concept for Reyes – in 2007, he melted down 1500 guns into shovels to plant 1500 tress. The Mexican government heard of his project and offered up seized weapons to create something new; this is how Disarm came to be. Right now, Reyes is working on a large public clock that will chime on the hour. It’s composed out of gun parts, and the message – Reyes chuckles at the pun – is that “it’s time to disarm”.
The way guns are portrayed in film and video games – as sexy or cool – is divorced from their effect in real life, Reyes emphasises. He discourages the perception that guns are the only way to gain respect from a community. “There has to be a cultural shift that may take many years, but nevertheless has to be done,” Reyes says.