"It is not necessary for the work to 'represent' a thing in order to symbolize that thing," says the critic Etienne Gilson in The Arts of the Beautiful. "It is only necessary for it to have the power to suggest it." The AK-47 in itself assumes a violent posture, because we know its destructive capability. The AK-47 by itself, however, is symbolic of a greater tragedy: of intractable warfare, a revolution unrealized, of a generation distracted by killing rather than crafting. The AK-47 is both confined to itself and symbolic of a greater phenomenon.
What symbols, then, does the AK-47 adopt when it is acted upon by others, in this case artists? Artists tackle the weapon for its greater, terrifying symbolism, and in doing so hope to transform the message from one of negativity to one of transcendent hope and peace. The most obvious route for changing an object's symbolism is to make it into its opposite. Andy Warhol , for example, transformed a commonplace, throwaway object—the tomato soup can—into high art. When it comes to manipulating objects of war, rare is the artist who chooses to do anything other than make a call for peace.
Above, we see a weapon of war decimated—metaphorically—by another, unseen armament, one that also shoots round bullets. The weapon used to execute the AK-47 remains unknown, but one immediately assumes that it was some other gun that committed the crime. The artwork, then, is evidence of intraspecies devastation. A case of the snake eating its own tail. What goes around comes around. Getting a taste of one's own medicine. Eye for an eye. And so on.
You are free to imagine, however. There is nothing to prevent you from considering that the AK-47 was rendered useless by, for example, a powerful and emotive Care Bear Stare.
Gilson asks, "can we truly speak of symbols if what is to be suggested are not notions, but emotions and feelings?" The photographer Bran Symondson's project "AKA Peace" is hardly symbolic; it's a straight up, hot-blooded, sentimental, in your face challenge.
Rather than using symbols of war, say a portrait of the god Mars or the nuclear icon, Symondson photographed the work of 23 artists commissioned to appropriate a ubiquitous weapon of mass destruction and transform it into something beautiful and uplifting. There was no dictate that the artists turn the weapon into its opposite, but the emotional results for every single one of the resulting works does just that. (The first three images in this post come from that project; see more here.) While the "AKA Peace" objects are beautiful, it would be more interesting to see unexpected interpretations, say an AK-47 dipped in gold and presented on a red velvet cushion, or mounted atop a pedestal. We worship the gun, do we not? Art must confront this reality.
What would Duchamp have done with the AK-47?
The above version is inspired by Biblical scripture: "He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4) Are swords even used in battle anymore? Their powerful, phallic symbolism remains magnetic nevertheless, for even today quarreling states are said to rattle their sabers.
The "AKA Peace" project was not the first to use the AK-47 as an artistic object. Perhaps the most famous transformation of the weapon is Kester's "Throne of Weapons" (2001) now housed in the British Museum. The piece is simultaneously stunning and shocking. The work is a reminder of the gun's brute force, but it also reminds the viewer that, in the right hands, a deadly armament can be rendered inoperable, even comfortable.
The mighty chair is made from decommissioned weapons collected in 1992 at the end of Mozambique's civil war. In exchange for turning in weapons, locals received ... wait for it ... agricultural tools. Thus, in an indirect way, the people of Mozambique did beat their swords into ploughshares. (In 2004, decommissioned weapons were also turned into the "Tree of Life," which is a bit more interesting, philosophically.)
What is symbolized by an object of violence made cute, pretty, or benign? Perhaps, as with the porcelain object above, we move from the realm of symbolism to that of irony. When the expectation of the gun (violent, deadly, explosive) is combined with porcelain (delicate, elitist?) and flowery decor (naturalism, nature), a complex irony is achieved. Appreciation becomes nuanced. The beauty of the object cannot be denied.
O tell us, poet, what you do. –I praise. Yes, but the deadly and the monstrous phase, how do you take it, how resist? –I praise.
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Peace, Variations on a Theme