Art

Robert Longo’s Death Star is a 40,000-bul­let ar­gu­ment against gun vi­o­lence

Newsweek - - News - BY MARY KAYE SCHILLING

Robert Longo’s Death Star

in 1970, robert longo was a se­nior at Plain­view High School on New York’s Long Is­land—a foot­ball star with long hair who smoked pot. “I wasn’t good in school, and I was wor­ried about get­ting drafted and go­ing to Viet­nam,” he says. “I’d seen guys older than me come back to­tally scram­bled.”

On May 4 of that year, the Ohio Na­tional Guard shot and killed four stu­dents dur­ing an anti-war de­mon­stra­tion at Kent State Univer­sity. One of them, Jef­frey Miller, had grad­u­ated from Plain­view a few years ear­lier. In John Filo’s now iconic Pulitzer Prize–win­ning photo, Miller is the 20-year-old man ly­ing face down on the pave­ment as a young woman crouches over him—the two for­ever a sym­bol of the coun­try’s so­cial un­rest.

Longo would go on to be­come one of Amer­ica’s most im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary artists, a mem­ber of the ground­break­ing Pic­tures Gen­er­a­tion (1974 to 1984); along with Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Bar­bara Kruger (among oth­ers), Longo re­jected min­i­mal­ism and con­cep­tu­al­ism, of­ten us­ing ap­pro­pri­ated images in­spired by news­pa­pers, ad­ver­tise­ments, film and tele­vi­sion. But

Filo’s photo of Miller, a cat­a­lyst for Longo’s so­cial ac­tivism, “is one of those images I could never make art out of,” he says. “It still haunts me.”

The work that got him no­ticed, Men in the City, is a se­ries of 35 photo-re­al­ist char­coal and graphite por­traits (1977 to 1984), of busi­ness­men and women in sus­pended an­i­ma­tion, flail­ing and fall­ing. Though not overtly po­lit­i­cal, each anony­mous por­trait is a po­tent skew­er­ing of ’80s ex­cess and alien­ation. “I came up as an artist un­der Ron­ald Rea­gan—the pre-trump Trump,” says Longo. “He was the guy who said ‘Make Amer­ica Great’ first. I re­mem­ber him talk­ing about re­turn­ing the coun­try to tra­di­tional val­ues, and I thought, What does he mean—own­ing slaves?”

In the years since, con­tro­versy and tragedy— war, im­mi­gra­tion, po­lice bru­tal­ity and gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion—has con­tin­ued to pre­oc­cupy him. His lat­est work, Death Star, tack­les one of the most con­tentious is­sues in Amer­ica: gun vi­o­lence. It’s far more com­pli­cated, the artist notes, than the crises of his youth. “In 1968, it was ob­vi­ous that the Viet­nam War and racism were wrong,” he says. “To­day, the mag­ni­tude of our prob­lems is far more com­plex. Stricter gun laws, for ex­am­ple, will cer­tainly help, but that’s not go­ing to solve the prob­lem en­tirely. It’s not clear ex­actly how to pro­ceed.”

The piece, de­but­ing at Art Basel in Switzer­land on June 14, is a mas­sive ball com­posed of 40,000 bul­lets, a num­ber that ap­prox­i­mates the overwhelming num­ber of U.S. cit­i­zens killed by guns in a year (not in­clud­ing sui­cides). The work is an up­date, of sorts, of a project—also called Death Star—that he com­pleted in 1993—a piece com­posed of 18,000 .38-cal­iber bul­lets. The look of it was in­spired by, “dare I say it, Star Wars and a disco ball,” says, Longo, though there was noth­ing whim­si­cal about the in­ci­dent that sparked the idea.

In 1993, his son, 14 at the time, came home to say that one of the kids at the lo­cal bas­ket­ball court in New York City had pulled a gun. “My kid was re­ally ex­cited about it,” says the artist, who has raised three sons with his wife, the Ger­man ac­tress Bar­bara Sukowa. The “ex­cite­ment” was a re­ac­tion to a change in the power dy­namic. “You didn’t have to be the strong­est or the tough­est kid any­more, you just needed to have a gun. It made me re­al­ize that I should pay more at­ten­tion to guns,” says Longo, who be­gan to do re­search with the FBI, which led to the first Death Star.

The gun prob­lem, you may have no­ticed, has ex­ploded since then. “All my rage and help­less­ness has re­ally am­pli­fied my work in the last three or four years,” Longo says. “All th­ese mass shoot­ings!” It is not his choice, he adds, to make po­lit­i­cal art: “Mak­ing art in it­self is a po­lit­i­cal act—the free­dom of ex­pres­sion. I don’t want to in­struct or preach,” he adds, “I want to present some­thing that has a vis­ual im­pact, that lets the viewer make a de­ci­sion.”

The big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween the new Death Star and the orig­i­nal (now at the Burch­field Pen­ney Art Cen­ter in Buf­falo, New York) is the types of bul­lets used, a re­flec­tion of the na­tion’s shift in pref­er­ence, from hand­guns to AK-47S and Bush­mas­ters. “What re­ally killed me,” the artist says, “is how much gun­pow­der th­ese bul­lets con­tain—over twice as much as a .38-cal­iber. It’s overwhelming.”

Not that there’s any gun­pow­der in the bul­lets. In 1993, Longo could pur­chase blanks in the mail, but that’s now il­le­gal in New York state. “So I had to buy the cas­ings and tips sep­a­rately, as well as a loader to put them to­gether,” he says. Yet af­ter or­der­ing tens of thou­sands of cas­ings, “no one knocked on my door. Noth­ing. Sure, they don’t have gun­pow­der in them, but it’s not like that’s hard to make!” The only ques­tion came af­ter he had ordered an ex­tra 4,000 bul­lets and the woman on the phone asked if he’d like to round off the amount of the pur­chase with a do­na­tion to the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion. Longo laughs. “Are you fuck­ing crazy?”

To com­pose the ran­dom se­quenc­ing of bul­lets—each at­tached by hand—the artist worked with a NASA en­gi­neer at Neoset De­signs in Brook­lyn, New York. Longo didn’t want any rec­og­niz­able pat­terns—be­cause gun vi­o­lence doesn’t have one. The 2-ton re­sult, which took over a year to com­plete, will be pre­sented by Metro Pic­tures and Ga­lerie Thad­daeus Ropac at Un­lim­ited, a cu­rated plat­form for projects that tran­scend the clas­si­cal art fair booths. (More of Longo’s work will be in the Metro Pic­tures booth.)

The ball will be hung at eye level, from a chain se­cured to I-beams. “I’m a big fan of the mu­si­cian Nick Cave,” he says, “and there’s a line in one of his songs, ‘Ju­bilee Street,’ about a 10-ton catas­tro­phe on a 60-pound chain. It re­minds me of this piece.”

Death Star will sit in dark­ness, with a high-in­ten­sity spot­light at­tached to the I-beam. As you walk to­ward it, the hori­zon of the edge starts to glow. “It’s very trippy,” Longo says, “be­cause when you first see it you’re not quite sure what it is. Once you get right up to it and you re­al­ize it’s made of bul­lets, it be­comes rather shock­ing. The amount of bul­lets is pretty in­sane.”

It does seem, I suggest, that Death Star is in­tended as an anti-gun state­ment. Longo sighs deeply, then an­swers with an anec­dote. “I was in col­lege, tak­ing acid and walk­ing down the street with a friend,” he says. “And I saw Jimi Hen­drix’s head in the tree ahead of me. I said to my friend, ‘Do you see Jimi’s head in the tree?’ Of course he didn’t see it, but later on I re­al­ized it was kind of like what mak­ing art is: You’re try­ing to get peo­ple to see what you see.”

A month or so be­fore we spoke, on April 22, a white man, armed with a semi-au­to­matic ri­fle, had killed four peo­ple at a Waf­fle House in Nashville, Ten­nessee. The in­ci­dent re­in­forced the deep di­vi­sions and sad ironies that come with liv­ing in a highly racially di­verse democ­racy: The man who saved the sur­vivors, James Shaw Jr., was a young black man. “In a coun­try where cops are afraid of black men with guns—and un­der dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, might have ar­rested this guy—he was the one who grabbed a hot bar­rel with his hand and threw it away,” says Longo.

Maybe, he sug­gests, the coun­try is hard­wired for vi­o­lence. “Amer­ica is in­sanely com­pet­i­tive,” he says. “I’m in­sanely com­pet­i­tive.” He points to his pas­sion for foot­ball, a game that en­cour­ages and re­wards bru­tal­ity— some­thing he was in­doc­tri­nated in at an early age. “I know foot­ball’s bad and I wouldn’t let my kids play it,” he says, “but I still love it.”

The 2006 book Dan­ger­ous Na­tion, by the neo­con­ser­va­tive Robert Ka­gan, got Longo think­ing about Amer­ica as a sports team. “It’s a fright­en­ing con­cept, be­cause what’s the goal of a sports team? To win,” he says. “To slaugh­ter the op­pos­ing team, to hu­mil­i­ate them. So when 9/11 hap­pened, there was no at­tempt to un­der­stand why it hap­pened. They scored a goal, now we have to go and kill 100,000 of them.”

That men­tal­ity—win­ning at all costs—whether you agree with it or not, is sup­ported by mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. Longo be­lieves that gun own­er­ship is “ridicu­lous, and the NRA is hor­ren­dous. But there are peo­ple liv­ing in the woods who have to con­tend with griz­zly bears. I have a friend in Mon­tana who has tons of guns; I don’t think he’s go­ing to kill any­body.”

On top of that, he adds, is the un­de­ni­able eco­nomic in­cen­tive of man­u­fac­tur­ers. “All the things I’ve bought lately are made in Pak­istan or China,” he says. “But most of the guns sold in the United States are made here. It’s a huge in­dus­try. And the irony is that ev­ery time there’s a mass shoot­ing, the sales of guns go up be­cause peo­ple are afraid of gun reg­u­la­tion.”

It’s odd to think that 40,000 bul­lets

“The irony is that ev­ery time there’s a mass shoot­ing, the sales of guns go up be­cause peo­ple are afraid of reg­u­la­tion.”

might be in­tended as a form of gen­tle per­sua­sion, but for Longo it sort of is, par­tic­u­larly with both sides of the U.S. gun debate seem­ingly in­ca­pable of com­pro­mise or conversation. “The ex­ces­sive sense of in­di­vid­u­al­ity that Amer­i­cans have, which is ex­ac­er­bated by the me­dia, re­in­forces bi­ases so that no­body trusts each other any­more,” says Longo. The re­sult­ing and ex­treme trib­al­ism, he notes, adds up to many dif­fer­ent kinds of Amer­i­cans. What art can do is “give you the chance to pos­si­bly fuck with bi­ases, to say, Why don’t you look at it this way or think about it a lit­tle differently?”

But isn’t it likely that those at­tend­ing Art Basel—ar­guably the world’s most im­por­tant art fair, at­tended by the rich­est col­lec­tors and deal­ers—will think much as he does? The European Union is def­i­nitely on Longo’s side; its gov­ern­ment has es­tab­lished strin­gent new gun con­trols. “You are preach­ing to the choir,” he says, “but the thing about the choir is that they have to do some­thing.” For ex­am­ple, 20 per­cent of the sales of Death Star will go to Every­town for Gun Safety, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion founded and largely fi­nanced by for­mer New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2014, as a way to match the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­ton in po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence. “I’m not run­ning out to protest or march,” Longo says, “but there is a way that I can do some­thing, and money is power.”

Mak­ing beauty out of dis­as­ter can seem a con­tra­dic­tory pur­suit, but Longo is fol­low­ing in a long tra­di­tion. He con­sid­ers Théodore Géri­cault’s The Raft of the Me­dusa to be “one of the great­est pieces of po­lit­i­cal art ever made. So is Pi­casso’s Guer­nica,” he adds. “And I watched some­thing re­cently that was some of the best art I’ve seen—a mu­sic video by Child­ish Gam­bino [the alias of Don­ald Glover] called ‘This Is Amer­ica.’”

He talks about a mo­ment in the video, when Gam­bino, af­ter shoot­ing a fel­low black man, hands off the gun to some­one who wraps it, al­most ten­derly, in a soft red cloth be­fore spir­it­ing it away. Mean­while, the body is roughly dragged off screen, sug­gest­ing that the in­stru­ment that ends a life is more valu­able than the life it ends.

“It’s fuck­ing bril­liant and mov­ing,” Longo says. “Kanye West must be dy­ing when he sees it.”

GUN SHY

Longo’s 2-ton ball will de­but on June 14 in the Un­lim­ited ex­hi­bi­tion at Art Basel in Switzer­land.

A WORLD ADRIFT

Longo’s mon­u­men­tal char­coal trip­tych, Un­ti­tled (Raft at

Sea)—from his 2017 show “The De­stroyer Cy­cle”—is based, in part, on a pho­to­graph of mi­grants in the Mediter­ranean. A per­cent­age of the sale went to refugee or­ga­ni­za­tions.

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