Visual Arts

Jennifer Nelson Takes on the Subtleties of the Second Amendment at ASU Art Museum

Gunshots shatter the quiet of ASU Art Museum.

Thankfully, the shots are coming from an edgy video installation created as part of "Securing a Free State: The Second Amendment Project," by artist Jennifer Nelson, on display in one of the museum's main galleries through December 31.

Until last year, when it decided McDonald vs. City of Chicago, the U.S. Supreme Court gingerly had avoided dealing head-on with specific rights under our Constitution's Second Amendment, which affords to private U.S. citizens the right to keep and bear arms. Deceptively simple, the amendment provides that "[a] well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Those few words have spawned some of the most acrimonious and dangerous debates about guns in our country's history.

For Jennifer Nelson, the issue of the right to bear arms was too obvious to tackle in the seventh of ASUAM's continuing Social Studies Projects, too fraught with the risk of shrill demagoguery and patriotic fervor. Rather than go for the obvious, Nelson has concentrated on the phrase "the security of a free state" — whatever that may mean to project participants personally.

Her chosen approach homes in on viscerally human issues of fear and threats against one's sense of safety and security. Wisely (this is gun-toting Arizona, after all), the artist seems to make no judgments whatsoever about firepower, per se, though she acknowledges that guns really have an aura to them.

"I don't think it's helpful to get on those big talking points," says Nelson. "Everybody can kind of honor that."

Tackling the Second Amendment is pretty curious stuff for someone who started out in 1987 as a formally trained dancer in ballet and modern dance, working first with the Field Ballet in New York City, then with the Ballet du Grand Théatre de Genève in Geneva, Switzerland. Nelson's art credentials could choke a horse — her mentors at UCLA, where she got her MFA degree in 1999, were legendary performance artists Paul McCarthy and Chris Burden.

The artist sees her work as "social choreography," an intricate interaction between people and their environments, societies, and ethical systems. Initially inspired by the ideas behind the Ten Commandments, she subsequently took an interest in the clash between private and public rights afforded by the Bill of Rights. This is the second Bill of Rights-themed project for Nelson, the first created in 2005 around the 10th Amendment's rights of states versus the federal government.

As part of her ASUAM project, Nelson engaged interested volunteers to interact with a wide array of people connected, in some way or other, to guns, their use, and their effects. They were taken on field trips to two shooting ranges, a sniper training school, and a prosthetics design facility. Added to this were a public panel discussion and interactive dialogues centered on the idea of security and self-defense involving two martial artists, an NRA-certified firearms instructor, and a trauma therapist. Though difficult to quantify the divergent responses these experiences provoked, the artist was able to successfully synthesize them in several videos on view in the gallery in which most of the project activity occurred.

The first one you encounter in the space is a two-channel installation with monitors close to being face to face; the one to the left focuses on a young black male, the one to the right a young white male. Strands of overdubbed "thoughts" about bias and fear hang in the air between the two. A bit too dissociated from the touchy subjects being pondered, the overly philosophical piece lacks the gut-wrenching intensity of two other videos on display, which are beyond memorable

In one, an NRA firearms instructor, while intermittently shooting at targets, explains the psychological space one must inhabit to effectively use a firearm for protection; especially haunting is his reference to resorting to, yet controlling, one's "lizard brain," a purely reactive, primordial mental state of emotional reaction to what one perceives as danger, centered in the amygdala.

Vying with that is a three-channel video installation filmed at McDowell Mountain Regional Park and Papago Park, each segment visually focusing on a victim of violence and its lasting effects on that victim, simultaneously.

On the leftmost screen, we hear the soft voice of Kim Hendrick recounting details of a brutal rape at gunpoint in her home. On the center screen is Juan David Guerrero, with his quiet tale of being mistaken for a gang-banger and beaten so savagely at gunpoint on his own doorstep that one of his eyes dangled from its socket. On the right screen, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Deputy Chief Frank Munnell softly relates an incident that happened in his own neighborhood, where a mentally deranged suspect, head wrapped in duct tape, tried to pull a gun on him. Munnell was forced to shoot the assailant, who was wounded, arrested, and then released. A SWAT team was assigned to Munnell's house for protection of his family.

The viewer has to work hard at understanding the superimposed dialogue of each personal story, since the soundtrack has a Tower of Babel quality that forces one to focus on fragments of each narrative intermittently. I suspect that's the critical point of the often incomprehensible audio mash-up — one has to consciously and forcefully work at understanding and appreciating the stories and reactions of others.

Supported by a grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, "Securing a Free State" was initiated by ASUAM curator John D. Spiak, who has left the museum for the golden promise of California and the directorship of California State University-Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, in downtown Santa Ana. (Full disclosure: Spiak is a friend of mine.) The end product of Nelson's thoughtful undertaking is a nice going-away present for those of us who will miss Spiak's brave curatorial insight.