Several years ago, sculptor and printmaker David Hess, “amid the daily headlines of mass shootings and gun violence,” began constructing a personal arsenal of dozens of mocked-up assault rifles out of everyday items and scrounged scrap. He has gone on to declare this project his “personal awakening and response to the American obsession with weaponry and the abstraction of violence.” He then took the collection on the road and began exhibiting it in multiple, vastly different venues, resulting in numerous interpretations and responses from audiences. For our good fortune, Richard Chisolm was along for the ride to make his documentary short Gun Show, taking the highlights from the tour and crafting it into a stunningly neutral piece on the art, the art’s subject, and the impact of both.
While starting outside of Baltimore City, Hess works in his shop where he’s crafted many of his other public art projects which adorn spaces in Washington DC and Baltimore. While he begins exhibiting the first of these guns in galleries and at colleges such as UMBC, the art community muses over their implications. As his collection grows, his galleries change from sterile well-lit halls to sidewalks in New York City, a rural gun show in Pennsylvania, and at community organizations in Baltimore. Responses range from adoration, to scorn, to fear, to adulation – every audience member is somewhat encouraged to inspect and handle the weapons, though this perceived encouragement is met with a wide swath of reactions.
“…taking the highlights from the tour and crafting it into a stunningly neutral piece on the art, the art’s subject, and the impact of both.”
While there aren’t any particular points of view expressed in the film that has not already been echoed in similar media on the subject, the manner in which the conversation occurs makes this short so unique unto itself. The defined and maintained neutralness of the short’s tone presents all points of view on even footing, which directly represents the ambiguousness on the ethical debate surrounding gun ownership and its correlation to gun violence. If any soapboxing occurs, it’s only from those people that the filmmakers were interviewing at these shows, and how willing people were to explore ideas with one another. While by Chisolm’s own admission, some of the more wacky and wild interactions they experienced were cut from the film, the reason echoes the aforementioned impression the film delivers – to present all points of view with the same respect and seriousness, and these more bombastic events would have curtailed the effectiveness of the film as a result.
Whether discussing constitutional rights, or the dramatic and deathly effects of gun-propelled violence, Gun Show manages to invite all perspectives to the discussion, while presenting decent cases for each in the context of an art project. Whether its rural farmers seeing the weapons as optimistic homages to freedom, community programs for at-risk youth viewing them as a fetishistic love letter to romanticized violence, or an ethical debate with no right answer (or end), Gun Show succeeds in almost every way.
Gun Show (2019) Directed by Richard Chisolm. Starring David Hess.
9 out of 10