In springtime Washington, little can distract the teeming outdoor crowds from the grandeur of cherry trees nearing peak bloom. One exception: a yellow school bus pocked by 6,000 rounds of ammunition.
The bullet-riddled bus, at first glance the remains of some unspeakable tragedy, is an art piece, one that received its first U.S. showing on the back of a flatbed tow truck driving through the streets of downtown Washington this weekend. There it was greeted with unholstered camera phones, quizzical looks and plenty of questions:
“Are these actual bullet holes?”
“When are you going to be in front of the NRA?”
“Was this thing driven through Iraq?”
Artist Viktor Mitic created the work, titled “Incident,” last fall after a spate of gang violence in his home town of Toronto. It involved Mitic buying a small used school bus, taking it to a rural Canadian location and inviting several well-armed compatriots to blow thousands of holes in it, raging from .22-caliber plinks to shotgun blasts.
“They’re not into art, these guys,” said Mitic, 43. “Didn’t really have to explain much about what I was intending to do and why. I just said, ‘I have this bus; would you like to shoot it up?’ And they said, ‘Yup!’”
“Incident” resonated after the mass shooting in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and Mitic was invited to show the piece as part of a D.C. show, “Newtown Project: Art Targets Guns.” It is also being shown Monday through Wednesday at George Mason University’s Fairfax campus.
Despite its inclusion in an anti-gun art show and the unsettling reactions it has generated, Mitic insists he is not an activist. Viewers can figure out for themselves what to do about guns, he said: “If they do more or less, whatever, it doesn’t matter. . . . It’s not the role of the artist to actually make those decisions.”
Mitic has used ammunition as a medium before, including in a series of paintings outlined in bullet holes made by the artist with a rifle. In 2010, he took a used Volkswagen Golf, painted it, shot it with 3,000 rounds and presented it as “Kandahar or Shooting the Animal.”
Mitic said he spent $12,000 to bring “Incident” to Washington, and he did not seem particularly optimistic that it might find a buyer. “That is what art is all about,” he said.
But the piece got plenty of attention as it plied downtown streets Sunday, moving from the Mall to Georgetown to Adams Morgan to Chinatown.
“My first reaction was pretty disturbed, because I have a 2-year old son,” said George Weathers, 38, a Philadelphia resident who walked past the bus while it was parked on M Street NW near Wisconsin Avenue.
Finding out that it was artwork, he said, “still doesn’t change the emotion, because you think of all the things that have happened here recently, in schools around the country. It’s reality.”
Ethan Harris, 23, and Eric Kilgore, 32, looked at the bus from the entrance of Old Glory barbecue, where they are both servers, more curious than appalled.
“I want to know what they shot it with,” Kilgore said.
“It’s pretty neat,” Harris said. “The fact it’s an art piece is a little relieving.”