Firing Bullets in the Museum

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By Paul Brown  –

In early 2012, a Navy SEALs sharpshooter fired multiple shots that rang through the Great Hall at the Cincinnati Art Museum. There were no casualties.

Crown, an installation by Todd Pavlisko, commissioned by the Museum and now on display, has been criticized by some members of the Cincinnati community and representatives from the board of the museum itself as being an inappropriate fit for the institution.

To create the work, Pavlisko hired a professional marksman to fire 19 rounds from a high-powered rifle through the Great Hall, an area housing a survey of some of the museum’s most prized and historically-relevant works.

Each bullet found it’s mark, ripping through the front of  a bronze cube modeled after a Donald Judd sculpture held elsewhere in the museum and leaving dimples in the opposite side. The title ‘Crown‘ is marksman lingo for the shape bullets create when they pierce an object.  Several inches of ballistic gel, in which the bullets are now permanently lodged, cushioned the force. Footage of the bullets whizzing past the Great Hall’s collection has been slowed and transformed into an eight-channel video to accompany the affected object.

Pavlisko conceived the piece as a metaphorical odyssey through art history.  As patrons follow the shots’ trajectories past the famous works, centuries are compressed into a fraction of a second.  We rush from antiquity to modernity faster than you can say ‘Soup Can.’ However, firearms are symbolically freighted with heavy cultural baggage requiring a deeper reading of this work.

Regardless of the artist’s intention, the piece strikes a nerve for many, given the United States’ complicated historical and present day relationship with guns, and their interaction with public space. This is especially relevant given the sheer number of recent mass shootings.

The massacre at Sandy Hook occurred just a few weeks after the piece was created in 2012. And the recent shooting at Fort Hood, the second to have taken place there in the last decade, happened just a few weeks after the show finally opened in March, with the most recent tragedy at Isla Vista occurring as the exhibition winds down before closing in mid June. There were, of course, many others in the two years spanning these events, which polarized and fortified many Americans’ feelings towards guns, and how they should or should not be regulated

In ‘Crown’ we not only have a government-sponsored rifleman, but, if examined through the lens of Michael Fried’s analysis of Donald Judd’s work, the bronze box is a human body.  The figure is vaguely human in proportion, forcing us to relate to the piece and engage with a ‘silent presence of another person,’ according to Fried.  The hollow cavity of the original indicates an intangible space contained within a kind of shell, the human soul within the body. In Pavlisko’s replica, this space is appropriately filled with a more fleshy component; nineteen bullets encased in ballistics gel serve as a grim reminder of how very not impermeable we people are.

Pavlisko’s work is a relevant and necessary conversation starter. Pavlisko, whether or not it was intentional, manages to open dialogue while neither passing judgment nor providing clear answers, a delicate touch necessary when handling such an incendiary topic without alienating either side of the argument.

Crown detail

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