“Manifest: Armed,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, was in the works long before a dead-eyed young man with orange hair was charged with killing 12 and injuring 58 in a movie theater in Colorado, and before a white supremacist killed six, wounded three, and leveraged racial and religious fears in a Wisconsin Sikh temple. And since it opened on Aug. 8 there have been yet two more high-profile shootings, with three dead in Texas on Monday and a security guard wounded outside of a right-wing think tank in Washington on Wednesday.
In a culture besotted with guns, any exhibition about firearms is likely to become horribly, accidentally, surreally topical. And so “Manifest: Armed,” dominated visually by a display of meticulously crafted paper guns, hanging from the ceiling and arrayed on the floor like a spectral arsenal, arrives at yet another moment when much of the country is outraged: about the ubiquity of guns, or the ritual but impotent calls for gun control.
Yet the Corcoran’s director of college exhibitions, Joseph Hale, who helped organize the cogent and provocative one-room show, insists that it is not about guns. Rather, guns are a prism for looking at ideas about how information circulates; how facts are disseminated, stored and gathered on the Internet to create new things in the real world; and how communities are formed through our complex and interconnected world. Guns turn out to be a good way of exploring these issues, because they are icons and instruments of power. Gun fetishes and pornography circulate on the Web because they are fueled by pure, libidinal energies in the flesh-and-blood world.
The three projects on display have a curiously utopian element, a second or third thought they spark about humanity that makes one feel almost sentimental about the prospects for our species. That’s remarkable, given how dark and depressing is the main idea they each embody. Artist Sarah Frost, the creator of the ghostly paper guns, has gathered online instructional videos from YouTube in which boys teach viewers how to make elaborate and detailed models from white paper and tape. The community of boys is far-flung, passionate and dedicated to craftsmanship.
“These kids are crazy committed,” Hale says.
The models range from precise reproductions of popular guns in circulation to fantasy weapons found in video games such as Halo and Mass Effect. The boys’ obsession with instruments of death and destruction, at least as old as the Iron Age, is mildly depressing — rather like it’s depressing to watch motorists rubberneck when passing an accident or shoppers trample each other to secure the best merchandise on Black Friday. It’s humanity, it’s flawed, and it’s a bit humiliating that we belong to this club.
But much of what these boys are doing resembles art, including the need to communicate with each other, the rendering of ideal objects based on things in the world and the craftsmanship with which they make the models. Frost’s paper guns — which look fragile and are mute in way that suggests both death and dispassionate detachment — are a poignant attempt to honor the things that resemble art in the strange, sweet but eerie world of online gun modeling. Titled simply “Arsenal,” Frost’s work is provocative, nonjudgmental and curiously moving.