SANTA FE, N. Mex. — A constant tension in contemporary art is finding the right balance between socially engaged practices and high quality, aesthetically pleasing artwork. While the making of traditional art objects isn’t always the goal of social work in the arts, many times these two approaches to art are so essentially different that they might seem to happen in completely different realms. DIRECT ACTION, Pedro Reyes’s current exhibition on view at SITE Santa Fe, elegantly combines these two artistic experiences in a show that is captivating, approachable, and beautifully urgent as it tackles some of society’s most pressing issues.
DIRECT ACTION displays some of the artist’s most important community projects. Much of the exhibition is dedicated to Reyes’s ongoing practice of repurposing guns from the streets into everyday objects such as shovels, musical instruments, and most recently flower vases made in collaboration with the advocacy group New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence. These stunning, carefully crafted pieces transform the pristine white rooms of SITE into a space for introspection and interaction, offering a new wave of possibilities through the transformation of matter. The same way sculpture is the alteration of materials, Reyes invites us to imagine a world in which the same material that is used for death can be used for expressions of life: trees being planted with the shovels, music produced by the instruments, and flowers sprouting from old guns.
Reyes takes a risk by relying on the clichéd juxtaposition of guns and flowers — a visual that was made famous during the Vietnam War by French photographer Marc Riboud’s “Young Girl Holding a Flower “(1967) — and with the implications of being a Mexican artist using weapons as a medium. As a maker with a background in architecture and whose attention to detail emanates from all the artwork presented, we can assume that Reyes calculated this risk as an invitation for the audience to look deeper into his creative decision. By dismantling the weapons, he prompts us to think about their production, creating an elephant in the room in the shape of the military-industrial complex that has reigned over US international relations for decades. This idea is additionally developed in “Disarm Mechanized” (2013), an installation in which six instruments made with the remnants of guns confiscated by the Mexican army are automatically activated in a human-less concert, filling the space with matter and sound. The artwork’s message of disarmament is prominent while also highlighting the link between the violence in the artist’s home country and the unhinged weapon production of the northern neighbor: It is estimated that around 90% of illegal arms in Mexico are made by US manufacturers.
Perhaps the most pressing issue that Reyes puts forward is seen in “Under the Cloud” (2023), the short documentary that SITE Santa Fe commissioned. In the film, he shifts the focus to a different kind of disarmament: nuclear weapons, which have had a death grip on the New Mexican community for many years. The piece, which comprises found material and the experiences of Native American leaders and activists Petuuche Gilbert, Leona Morgan, and Larry King, offers an alarming view into the reality of uranium mining and nuclear waste and their harmful implications to the Native community in the state. Through historical facts, undamped activism, and a strong demand for environmental justice, the narrators make a clear and straightforward argument against the country’s misleading campaign of nuclear energy as a safe and clean alternative to coal and oil. Simultaneously, “Under the Cloud” offers a sinister parallel between the gun crisis seen in our communities and the use of nuclear weapons by the government. While we endlessly argue about the need for deadly weapons as means of individual and national liberty and protection, countless voiceless, innocent lives are lost in all stages of gun production, distribution, and use.
The social actions carried out by Reyes can seem miniscule in the face of the gargantuan problems he surveys in his work. As he repurposes a handful of guns, thousands more are created and introduced to the world daily. However, the importance of talking about these issues through art, and their real, daily life implications were on view through the process of organizing DIRECT ACTION. While working with Albuquerque youth in the creation of the gun-made flower vases, two young students from the institution he collaborated with were shot and killed in the streets of their city. The artistic and social practices of Reyes, or any other artist, do not offer a comprehensive solution, but the commitment of creators who continue to raise their voice in awareness of issues that affect us all, alongside the implementation of spaces for imagining a new, transformed reality, provide a much needed ray of hope.
DIRECT ACTION continues at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo de Peralta) through May 8. The exhibition was curated by Brandee Caoba.