Pedro Reyes and Disarm at Lisson Gallery, 2013
Image courtesy Lisson Gallery

Mexican artist Pedro Reyes in conversation with Louise Neri, Creative Associate for Visual Arts, Melbourne Festival, about the exhibition Pedro Reyes: Disarm, at NGV International 11 – 27 October 2013.

Louise Neri: You refer to yourself first and foremost as a sculptor, which in your case involves the sculpting of social realities as much as physical materials. Can you discuss the developments in your work that led to Imagine, 2012, and its later iteration Disarm, 2013?

Pedro Reyes: I have always been directly engaged in social activism, and this became manifest in Palas por pistolas (Pistols into spades), 2008, where I created metal shovels from 1527 destroyed weapons voluntarily donated by the civilian population of Culiacan, Mexico, and began a tree-planting initiative with local residents.

LN: This brings to mind Joseph Beuys’s 7000 eichen (7000 oaks), for Documenta 7, Kassel, Germany, 1982, a plan that called for the planting of 7000 trees, each paired with a basalt column, by local residents throughout the city over the course of the next five years.

PR: Yes, for sure. But if you think of my sculpture, the fact of taking these metals and rearranging the broken parts into new forms is a classical approach that relates to the advent of bricolage in the postwar era. It also connects with ideas of social sculpture, in the physical transformation of the original materials, which also triggers psychological and social transformation. At the moment the new instruments are played they become agents of change, creating a musical event at which people gather in a positive manner.

LN: But it is not only about people playing music. Viewers learn that the metal you use already possesses a very powerful story. For the most part, the postwar artists worked with anonymous flotsam and jetsam, whereas your materials derive from a decommissioning weapons program and are therefore highly charged from the outset.

PR: It is important to me that we aren’t seduced by the weapons themselves. Our brains (men’s especially) are predisposed to violence and the drive to kill, whether by the most basic or the most sophisticated technology. I am trying to instigate a psychological process of sublimation in which the desire to terrorise others is totally transformed.

LN: Can you elaborate?

PR: Objects have a strong effect on us. A musical instrument like an electric guitar can be powerful, sexy and totemic without actually being dangerous or lethal.

LN: Composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xennakis mapped certain relationships between music and violence, and the transference that they entailed; contemporary noise musicians like Otomo Yoshihide and Keiji Haino produce music that literally assaults the senses.

PR: We all have the capacity for violence in some form. Rather than trying to deny or eliminate it, I am trying to displace it in terms of its object. Extreme contemporary music provides opportunities for this kind of ritualistic catharsis. That is how art can be ‘useful’.

LN: Can you also discuss your work in terms of the history of critical practice, from Hans Haacke’s corporate disclosures to Thomas Hirshhorn’s monuments?

PR: My work bleeds into different art forms – sculpture may lead to music and certain elements of theatre. Beuys thought of sculpture as an object that would trigger active and critical discourse. Recently I was looking at comments posted on the Youtube videos of Disarm; now the discourse happens online with anonymous voices that fight and debate in a more heated way, perhaps because they are protected by the virtual, digital environment. For example, many people are of the opinion that this work is not good, and a waste that weapons are being destroyed to make musical instruments! One of my goals with Disarm is to show that the violence visible in places where weapons are actually used begins long before, in the factories where the weapons are produced. People invest money in the public companies producing weapons – you can follow their fortunes in the stock reports.

LN: To what end?

PR: Ultimately what I am trying to do is create a cultural rejection of guns. Guns are promoted through mainstream popular culture and they are seductive. But, just as we have begun a revolution in language with regard to gender, sexual preference and race, so do we need to instigate a systematic revolt against active violence.

LN: Perhaps Stockhausen was right when he talked about World Trade Center bombings as being ‘the greatest works of art’. This was not an endorsement of terrorist atrocity, but rather an assessment of its spectacular effects on both life and imagination. Disarm works to redirect creative energies currently engaged with the romance of destruction.

PR: Artists are often against their work being used as a means for social good, but I want my art to enter the wider debate that affects public policy. You once mentioned the term ‘public imagination’, which I often use now; I find it much more powerful than ‘public opinion’.

LN: So you are closing the gap between art and reality with the topicality and timeliness of this work, which has travelled around the world, gathering impetus at each stop and ending in the centre of a heated global debate about civilian warfare. There is nowhere that this issue is not relevant today. If Disarm did not exist already, it would have to be invented!

PR: Disarm is in the tradition of pacifist agitprop and I would be happy to see similar endeavours in this kind of pacifism. I conceptualise my work in order to be very clear about its intent – because it has a very well-organised enemy.