REVIEWED: Pedro Reyes: Disarm

By Gloria Wiley-Garcia

Gun crime linked to drug trafficking in Ciudad Juarez, on the Mexican-American border is no laughing matter - drugs enter the US from Mexico and guns enter Mexico from its northern neighbour. Reflecting on the issue of violence in Mexico's border region, Disarm at Lisson Gallery features recent works by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes (b. 1972, Mexico City). An activist at heart, Reyes openly condemns the violence that has blighted thousands of lives in many northern Mexican cities and in an attempt to make a difference, his pieces intend to help disarm the region. Reyes’s show at Lisson Gallery includes fabric works as well as pieces made from 6,700 weapons decommissioned by the Mexican army in the war against drugs in Ciudad Juarez. These become the raw material for musical instruments and kinetic sculptures. Reyes’s practice is therefore not art for art’s sake; by literally making a bang about it, his agenda goes further than simply drawing the London public’s attention to the situation of violence in his homeland.

Pedro Reyes, Music Machine (Tank 2), 2013             
Photographic print on canvas and collage
191 x 95 cm (two panels)
75.2 x 37.4 in (two panels)

Setting the tone of the exhibition, the series Machine Music (2013) displayed in the first two rooms comprises photographic prints of old military weaponry and musical instruments on canvas - stitched together in the form of collage. Monochrome images of tanks and rockets with pianos and tubas sticking out of them are sewn onto a background of a different tone. The works offer a surreal vision of the history of war whereby the artist criticises the role of scientific research in weapon development throughout the twentieth century and its aims to finding new ways to kill more efficiently. This artificial amalgamation of musical pieces and heavy weaponry shows the instruments replacing ammunitions. The works display the transformational aspect of Reyes’s practice – weapons of destruction metamorphose into something new that brings people together - that no longer kill but instead evoke an understanding between people of all walks of life. 

Pedro Reyes, Imagine (Violin 2), 2012             
66 x 29 x 12 cm
26 x 11.4 x 4.7 in

Pedro Reyes, Disarm (Guitar), 2013             
86 x 30 x 10 cm
33.9 x 11.8 x 3.9 in

The rear of the gallery features various musical instruments made from weapons including AK-47s and revolvers. Some of these are displayed as individual sculptures and others are plugged into the mechanical installation Disarm (2012) and play a 20 minute long musical piece set in a continuous loop. The installation’s interactivity is reflected in the fact that the instruments can actually be played by musicians - as on the show’s opening evening. This is part of Reyes’s goal - for people not just to acknowledge what is going on in Mexico but also to trigger change and assume a collective responsibility. 

Pedro Reyes, Disarm (Mechanized), 2012             
Recycled Metal, Installation comprising 8 mechanised instruments
Dimensions variable

The border city of Juarez has been a lost territory for many years now. The numbers of deaths may have decreased recently but the combined efforts of both the US and Mexican governments have been insufficient. With a murder rate of 147.77 per 100,000 habitants, Ciudad Juarez occupies the embarrassing second place in the ranking of the world’s most dangerous cities – just below San Pedro Sula, Honduras and just above Maceio, Brazil. The Mexican government confiscates arms in their quest to disarticulate gangs and mafias operating in Ciudad Juarez but geography plays an important role in the city’s lack of safety - crossing the border to get legal and illegal weapons in the US is a short 20 minute drive. 

Pedro Reyes, Imagine/Disarm II (construction), 2012             
HD video
4 minutes 25 seconds

The gallery’s basement includes a video installation related to the instruments’ construction whereby craftsmen in workshops make the musical pieces from disabled firearms. The artisans’ collective effort symbolises Reyes’s idea of commitment to the community and the transformation of feared weapons into music gives hope to the region.

Reyes’s artistic practice is therefore trying to stitch Mexico’s social fabric back together. Whereas his idea may come across as overly utopian, his art at least does not simply sit back addressing an issue but instead takes steps to make positive changes in the region. Through the international circulation of Reyes’s works – he has exhibited in many parts of the world - and his aims to reach a global audience, it is not only about making changes in Mexican violence but also decreasing violence around the world. The only point of concern is that since the firearms do not lose their shape, they may paradoxically be promoting the very gun culture Reyes is trying to eradicate.   

Pedro Reyes, Disarm (Magnetic Cello), 2013             
140 x 135 x 80 cm
55.1 x 53.1 x 31.5 in

Pedro Reyes, Disarm (Trigger Puller), 2013             
118 x 170 x 170 cm
46.5 x 66.9 x 66.9 in