I am most amazed that the United Nations, of all the institutions in the world, would succumb to pressure to censor art about the “Art of Peacemaking: the Gun Sculpture” by Edmonton artists Sandra Bromley and Wallis Kendal. It is even more ironic when you consider the nature of the UN event in Vienna where the Gun Sculpture was displayed. The UN Academic Council was meeting on "New Security Challenges" and
having speakers on the UN and the Media. (sic).
Sheila Pratt of the Edmonton Journal broke the story on the front page yesterday. Congratulations to the Edmonton Journal for giving this important but not conventional story such prominent display. Others have picked it up including the Montreal Gazette and the CBC, amongst others, with more interest being shown all the time.
I am very attached to this piece of art and have helped promote it in my own way for the past few years. I have helped bring it out of storage and brought it back from Europe for a display at The Works festival in Edmonton a few years ago. I am mostly interested in finding a permanent home for it...even considered the UN headquarters in New York, but with this development by the UN – you have to think twice.
The Gun Sculpture is one of the best examples I know of art doing its job. In no small part this piece tells us something about the human condition, ourselves and provokes strong reflecting reactions. By doing so, it becomes effectively controversial in a number of ways...all of them positive from my point of view.
The Chinese delegation at the Vienna International Centre was offended because a couple of the Gun Sculpture related photographs showed Tibetan victims, but did not reference any direct Chinese involvement with the victims. The Chinese delegation to the UN event objected to officials and insisted the Gun Sculpture be removed. The fact that the UN partially capitulated to such political pressure and removed the photographs of victims that forms an integral part of the exhibit is absolutely alarming. It makes you wonder what they were thinking especially since China was not singled out and this artwork has been displayed all over the world without similar incident.
The message of the Gun Sculpture is critically important. It is in the form of a prison cell and made up of 7000 thousand of decommissioned weapons from handguns, to AK- 47s, to ammunition and landmines. It challenges “accepted ways of thinking” about violence and “acts as a catalyst that makes (people) respond to the suffering” these small arms weapons cause for so many people in the world.
We need more artists like Bromley and Kendal and artwork like the Gun Sculpture to provoke our thinking and to make us reflect on our values, beliefs, perceptions and attitudes. I hope the artists get a formal apology from the officials at the UN, including those who made this decision to censor the Gun Sculpture.
Free speech is not free and if we are not aggressive in using it and vigilant in protecting it – we will lose it. The UN censoring of the Gun Sculpture is a shameful example of the erosion of free speech.
I hope this story has legs and others start to help to ensure this story travels around the world. We need to get the Gun Sculpture message out and deplore the kind of violence and suffering these weapons are causing in so many places, in so many ways to so many people.
We also need to get the message out about the place of art in illuminating this kind of core message about violence, suffering and aggression in the world. You would expect more support from the United Nations for endorsing that kind of core message and more respect for art as a way to communicate it, at least one would like to think so! This shameful example of capitulation and censorship is not the kind of action we would or should accept from the United Nations. They need to be more accountable and thoughtful about their role and responsibility on these core issues too.
Please forward this blog post around. Share it with as many people as you can who care about free speech, the role of art in our society and who decry institutionalized censorship.