Pedro Reyes

Transforming confiscated firearms into musical instruments and shovels, Mexican artist Pedro Reyes (b. 1972) believes in the ability of art to change societies permanently. In a new exhibition, Disarm, the artist showcases sculptural works, screen-prints, vinyl recordings and a live musical performance. Disarm continues until 4 May at Lisson Gallery, London.

The works in Disarm are made of guns; how did you approach this?
The danger in making art about guns is that you can easily be seduced by the object, so the result can end up glorifying rather than critiquing it. Some art uses cardboard or recycled materials to “make” guns and I think that, in these instances, it is not always clear what the artist is expressing. It may be that within the contemporary art world they stand as good pieces, but for my own agenda I need the message to be clear so that my works have currency for a general audience. I am interested in how the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho worked. He believed that what constitutes a Haiku is both technical construction and a moment of insight; when an object or image is seen in a new light or when something is added or revealed in a meaningful way. To me, this says that we don’t have to be afraid of radical optimism. I think Basho worked with art in a way that we now call “upcycling.” This is what we are doing with Disarm – taking weapons and turning them into musical instruments.

How did you decide to make musical instruments out of confiscated weapons?
In 2007, I was invited by the Botanical Gardens of Culiacán to make a public art project. I proposed Palas por Pistolas (shovels made from guns), for which we collected 1527 weapons in a voluntary campaign. The arms were publicly crushed and then the melted material was constructed into 1527 shovels; one shovel for every gun. These shovels were then distributed to schools, museums and other institutions that are helping to plant 1527 trees. So far we have done this in over 20 cities worldwide and are still counting. In January last year, I received a call from the federal government after they had learned about Palas por Pistolas. They told me that a huge number of weapons seized from criminals would be destroyed, and asked me if I was interested in keeping the metal to make more shovels. I was happy to accept, but this time I wanted to do something different and decided to make the destroyed weapons into instruments.

These instruments are played too; is art always interactive for you?
I have always been very interested in how an artwork can activate group dynamics, so this project is a collaborative undertaking in which many musicians and craftsmen have participated. But it is also intended to have a wider social impact, fostering discussion about gun control and how we can use culture to create a safer community.

Do you believe that art in general plays a crucial role in challenging the wider constructs of society?
The most important resource people have is their creativity. The solution to most problems is not found in money nor in technology, but rather in culture. I want to create community responses that lead to cultural change.

How would you describe your performance project Sanatorium?
The Sanatorium is a transient clinic that provides short unexpected treatments, mixing art and psychology. In order to experience this project, you have to sign up as a patient and participate in sessions that may be individual or conducted in groups. There are a variety of techniques used, such as Gestalt psychology, theatre warm-up exercises, conflict resolution techniques, Shamanism, corporate coaching, yoga, psychodrama and hypnosis. I conceived the Sanatorium as a system of placebos, or therapies that trigger self-suggestion mechanisms. We tell the patients up front that the Sanatorium is not real and it is up to them to believe; they even sign a piece of paper acknowledging that this is not a real hospital and these are not real therapists. Paradoxically, the mind loves cognitive dissonance and being aware that you are telling yourself a lie won’t necessarily prevent you from believing in it. The hypnotic adoption of a created idea can be an effective way to initiate behavioural change. The therapies have the humble goal of remedying mild afflictions, a bit like a psychological first-aid kit where the raw material is your own personal narrative. Overall, I think the Sanatorium is a happy place that offers a plethora of insights, allowing visitors to make meaningful discoveries about their lives while helping others.

What inspires you?
Second hand bookshops – that’s where I get all my ideas. I am a compulsive book buyer on every subject; the ideas pile up and merge into each other, so I have a whole reservoir of projects for years to come.