If I was a gun guy instead of an arts guy, I might have been at the gun show at the Laramie Fairgrounds. It’s Christmas, right, and all of us deserve a Glock in our stocking.
But I was a few miles away at the University of Wyoming Art Museum viewing “Divine Ammunition,” an exhibit of the work of California artist Al Farrow. The work was selected from private and public collections. There were guns galore in the Friends and Colorado galleries. Matching handguns serve as a cathedral’s flying buttresses. Rifles frame the door of a synagogue splashed in blood-red. The very real skull of an imaginary saint sits in a reliquary fashioned from guns and shell casings.
Happy holidays, ya’ll.
Eighteen Farrow constructions span the two galleries. The first structure you encounter as you enter the exhibit is the “Revelation II,” a replica of a Protestant church.
What’s the artist up to? He “explores ideas about religion and conflict” and gives “new meaning to ideas about war, religion, culture, and beliefs in addition to shifting aesthetic considerations of the repurposed materials.” At the panel discussion, he mentioned that he got into art as a form of activism. However, he prefers not to intentionally insult people, which is why none of the familiar feeling structures are exact replicas, and why he created his own saint.
The loudest piece (to me) was “Burnt Church.” Farrow recreates a burnt-out church from a World War I battlefield. The charred spires of the church are constructed of three rusted rifle bodies unearthed at Verdun. Verdun, in case you skipped your world history class, was the site of a nine-month-long 1916 battle between German and French forces. The battle created 70,000 casualties each month on average. I couldn’t find any stats for the number of civilian casualties. This shell of a church stands in for them.
A French lieutenant, writing in his diary in May 1916, wrote this: “Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!”
Perhaps one of the rifles in Farrow’s piece belonged to that lieutenant, who was killed later in the battle. The bent and rusted body of that rifle now fashions a work of art 100 years later in a world that hasn’t learned a damn thing.
While it is tough not to be jaded by humankind’s foibles, I suspect that Farrow is not. Why spend years creating these ornate pieces out of war materiel if you don’t possess some shred of hope. The workmanship in these pieces is incredible. Each cathedral, synagogue, and mosque includes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pieces. Farrow often had to find matching handguns for his structures. One three-dimensional wall piece (“Vandalized Church Door”) shows a shattered church door surrounded by NATO ammunition cases. It makes me wonder how Farrow gets his hands on these things. They’re not exactly “found” objects, unless your hobby is roaming the battlefields of the world.
“The Tooth and the Spine of Santo Guerro,” is the largest and most elaborate piece in the exhibition. It is a good example of how Farrow works. The structures are not exact copies of any one house of worship, but rather his own creations which use familiar elements from famous structures. He begins by selecting the largest component in a piece—in this case the rifles that make up the spires. Because the structures are made to scale, he spends untold amounts of time searching for just the right material to keep the scale intact.
The question about where all the war materiel comes from, and whether he is on an FBI watchlist, came up at both the panel, held Sept. 20, and the gallery walk through on Sept. 21. The answer is prosaic: EBay.
For a man who began as a painter, this was a real switch — and engendered a new appreciation of the challenges of assemblage. He now maintains a huge collection of materials, and spends many hours searching for more on the internet. Sometimes he lucks into something, like the skeleton which provides many of the bones of Santo Guerro. It was given to him by an admirer. As for the FBI, he isn’t sure, but thought they could figure out his activities with a quick look at his website.
Bullets, artillery shells, buckshot, ammo boxes, weapons — that’s the hardware. Sometimes it’s the software included in the pieces that hits my heartache button. The shreds of an Israeli soldier’s kit — which included an Army issued tefillin (a set of scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah) and tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) inside a tefillin bag — sits inside “Synagogue (III).” Yet another way in which war and religion entwine.
The weathered pages of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can be viewed inside “Revelation II”’s tiny windows with the help of a smartphone flashlight app. I glimpsed portions of the apocalyptic horsemen and the faces of suffering humanity being crushed beneath horses’ hooves.
Another heartache that sneaks up on you is the magnificent “Bombed Mosque.” The viewer doesn’t see the bombed-out portion until you circle it, because the bombed section is at the back of the dome. Inside the mosque is a smaller replica of the same sculpture, that Farrow created to test his “bombing” techniques on. This makes for very convincing rubble when the viewer uses a cell phone flashlight to peer into the building. The mosque includes elements used in both Shia and Sunni mosques, and was created in response to the internecine violence between these two sects of Islam. The viewer wouldn’t know this, though, unless she had attended the walkthrough — the title and display information don’t provide those details.
And then there are the body parts of the imaginary saint, Santo Guerro. Farrow plays on the Catholic Church’s tradition of preserving parts of the bodies of saints, or, more likely, parts that allegedly belonged to a saint. Saints are revered in the Catholic tradition, a tradition I grew up on as I recited prayers to Saint Francis and collected holy cards for every holy entity of the church pantheon. Above my baby crib hung a portrait of St. Michael the Archangel, driving Lucifer from heaven.
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Santo Guerro’s parts are spread throughout the artwork. The large cathedral houses the spine of the saint within its worship area and his tooth is celebrated in glass above its entryway. I had to search for the tooth. When I saw it, I laughed. The tooth could belong to anyone, maybe even a saint known as Guerro (“war” in Spanish).
Santo Guerro, hear our prayers.
The real clincher was the skeletal finger of the saint perched in a reliquary made up of bullets and gun parts (“Triggerfinger of Santa Guerro (I)”). It looked quite lifelike, as if the saint was getting ready to shoot at a few targets. What kind of targets? That’s tough to say. Nonbelievers? Art critics? Our funnybones?
“Divine Ammunition” closed on Dec. 16. Some of the work in the UW exhibit, selected from private and public collections, can be viewed online at the Al Farrow website at www.alfarrow.com.
Michael Shay’s book of short stories, The Weight of a Body, was published by Ghost Road Press in 2006. His fiction and essays have appeared in Flash Fiction Review, Silver Birch Press, Northern Lights, High Plains Literary Review, Colorado Review, Owen Wister Review, and in multiple anthologies including Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams and Blood, Water, Wind, and Stone: An Anthology of Wyoming Writers (forthcoming); and In Short, a Norton anthology of brief creative nonfiction. Previously he served as the managing editor for the WY Arts Council Artscapes magazine among other duties. Michael lives in Cheyenne and blogs about books, culture and politics at Hummingbirdminds.
Additional material and reporting from the Sept. 20-21 artist panel and walk-through provided by Camellia El-Antably.