Flute players with Gun Flutes at March For Our Lives, Cincinnati, 2018.
Pedro Reyes took a new direction in his recent exhibition at London’s Lisson
Gallery, bringing the sociopolitical sensibility for which he is best known
to an unexpected form—statuary. Many of these figures memorialize anonymous protesters. In other works,
humans battle with robots and machines. Volcanic stone, marble, bronze, and steel come together in sci-fi
dystopian scenarios that mirror everyday reality. While creating this body of work, Reyes was continuing his
ongoing project to repurpose firearms. Earlier this year, his flutes made from rifles performed in Cincinnati
at a March For Our Lives event advocating for stricter gun control laws in the aftermath of the Parkland high
school shooting in February 2018. “Double Agents: Carla Fernández and Pedro Reyes” is on view at the Scottsdale
Museum of Contemporary Art through January 27, 2019.
Robert Preece: Machines seem to be taking over all aspects of life--fast-food ordering
machines, self-scanning checkouts at public libraries and supermarkets, smart cards, and
smart gates are all eliminating human workers. What are your new works saying in regard
to developing technological applications?
Pedro Reyes: They are connected to a class called "The Reverse Engineering of Warfare:
Challenging Techno-optimism and Reimagining the Defense Sector–an Opera for the End of
Time," which I was teaching at MIT with my wife Carla Fernández in the fall of 2017. This was
a critical take on MIT's mentality. They are constantly thinking of new ways to replace
humans with robots--self-driving cars, clerk-less grocery stores. The problem with automation,
which is a clear example of job destruction, is that it's creating a new class struggle.
This is not a new problem, but it is accelerating, and I think that we will face a lot of conflict
due to automation in the near future. So, I wanted to stage an allegory in which you
had humanity victorious against the machine.
RP: Many of these works refer to historical sculpture. Is there a specific work behind Versus
PR: Versus Machina is based on a piece that I saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum--
Giambologna's Samson Slaying a Philistine. Paired figures in Baroque sculpture have
extremely convoluted postures--it is almost
impossible to imagine how they worked
with models to figure out such complex positions.
I rarely have access to models because
I don't do much figurative work, so I used
this sculpture as a template to stage two
conflicting figures. But before that, I had
the subject itself. I wanted to do an allegory
of humanity overcoming technology.
RP: A few years ago, a work like Machinic
Phylum I (2017) would have appeared fun
and cartoon-like. Now, it quickly becomes
PR: The title refers to Manuel DeLanda's
first book, War in the Age of Intelligent
Machines, in which he describes the
machinic phylum, which is at once a record
of the evolution of machines and a taxonomy. The idea
of a car with legs is connected to a startup that I began
10 years ago called Aventon.com, which was a carpooling
Web site. The logo was a car with legs, so I made the
three-dimensional version of it. Most of my sculptures
have a story behind them that motivates me do to them.
Versus Machina, 2018. Bronze, 154 x 119 x 90 cm.
RP: Do you think your protest figures on plinths
would work as life-size public sculptures? If so, where
would you site them?
PR: I haven't intended them as public sculpture,
and I don't know if they would fit that program. However,
I drew inspiration from the idea of the monument,
and I wanted to have a new take on the role of statuary.
Since most statues depict known heroes, mostly men, I
wanted to do the opposite and use the anonymous protester
as an allegory of the contemporary hero.
A lot of current social involvement happens on-line,
so to go beyond electronic interaction and take yourself
to the streets as an act of resistance has a pressing,
heroic weight. I wanted to represent the spontaneous
act of grabbing a piece of cardboard and writing a sign.
These sculptures were made at the end of 2016, before
the United States presidential election, so, in a way,
they were a premonition of the Women's March and
other, later events.
RP: Could you walk me through Jaguar and Seer (both
PR: They are connected to an experiment that I did
years ago as part of the first edition of Sanatorium
in 2011. More than 200 participants were blindfolded, and they had to stick
out their tongues, which were then exposed to lights covered with different
colored filters. Their job was to describe the flavor. Light, in fact, has a taste,
and each color is different. As I collected the answers, some patterns started
to emerge. Blue, for instance, was often associated with a salty flavor. So,
I made a logo of a tongue coming out of an eyelid, which led to Seer. And
then I made the opposite, Jaguar, which is an eye coming out of a mouth.
Both works are connected with synesthesia. They look like pretty obvious
products of imagination; so far I haven't found other representations of these
RP: You use bronze, concrete, steel, and volcanic stone. Do you make the works
yourself? And if not, to what extent are you involved in the process?
PR: I'm involved in all of the processes, but I don't work alone. In my studio, I have a team
of assistants. Some of them do welding, others do casting, carving, and sanding, which is
how sculptors have always worked. In all periods of history, sculptors have had ateliers with
a team of people. I focused more on doing the figurative carving because you have to make
decisions every second. If I have to make a perfect cube out of marble, I can delegate; but if
I am doing a portrait, for instance, I try to do most of it.
RP: Among these materials, which do you like most to work with?
PR: What I enjoy most is stone carving because you are working directly on the final piece.
I never thought I would do bronze, so it is still a guilty pleasure, and I am just learning to
RP: In Sanatorium (2011–present), you invited visitors to sign up for a "temporary clinic"
that offered therapies, including trust-building games and hypnosis. What have you learned
from the project's different iterations?
PR: Sanatorium as a subject is very broad, but the specific role of sculpture within it is as a
relational device. This has been the role of sculpture since very ancient times. In one
therapy, Philosophical Casino, which works
as an oracle, you ask a question, and then
you have dice with sides featuring philosophical
quotations. You take these giant
dice and throw them to get an answer.
The fact of using an object for this chance
operation prepares the mind to put specific
weight and relevance on the sentence
that is given. In Goodoo, you have a doll
to which you attach objects or charms
intended to do good to a person. It's a sort
of white magic. Creating sculptures that are
activated by the public is a big part of my
work. The framework is a kind of secular ritual
that allows the mind to enter a specific
Philosophical Casino II, 2008.
RP: Doomocracy (2016), sponsored by Creative
Time at the Brooklyn Army Terminal,
featured multiple room-size environments
that conflated Halloween and the 2016 U.S.
presidential election into a single house
of horrors. The work used 31 actors and 40
volunteers. Were there any rooms that you
PR: You were welcomed by an effigy of the
Statue of Liberty as a Trojan horse, which
obviously addressed U.S. imperialism. The
U.S. has spent 200 years waging war
against other countries in the name of freedom,
so I wanted to reveal the real face of
There was another scenario that I had fun
doing, called "Keeping up with the Shkrelis,"
in which you play a part in a boardroom
and you have to choose between getting
a golden parachute of 50 million dollars
or saving 5,000 jobs. Those who decided to
help themselves were invited as guests to a
ritzy apartment. The others were sent up the
stairs to play the role of servants. The couple
hosting the party had found excitement
racing rockets, so they bragged about commissioning
new rockets from Frank Gehry.
Meanwhile, in a corner, a 3D printer was
printing small chocolates shaped like rockets.
Because this was a farcical play, I was
able to mock the excesses of star architects.
RP: Were there any unexpected surprises?
PR: I thought people would be offended
to see the Statue of Liberty, the icon
of the city and the country, mocked in this
way. Surprisingly, people ended up taking
selfies next to it. I don't know if they liked
the allegory or didn't get it.
Machinic Phylum I, 2017.
RP: It takes a team to produce something on such a large scale. Did you see yourself as
the conductor of an orchestra?
PR: Theater obviously involves a large production team, and this immersive installation had
to run like clockwork. We had 16 rooms, which had to be perfectly synchronized. Before the
play started, everyone had to set their clocks; an alarm went off every 10 minutes, which
signaled when it was time to finish the scene and start over. In that way, we could keep
up with a theater piece that was catering to a dozen people coming in every five minutes.
I love working on complex projects such as this. Theater is up for a few weeks then gone
forever, so it is a miracle to witness it.
RP: In Disarm (Mechanized) (2012), you used approximately 6,700 illegal firearms, crushed
by tanks and steamrollers, as base material to make musical instruments. This project continued
Palas por Pistolas (2007–present) in which you transformed guns into shovels and
used them to plant trees. Are these works enabling a wider dialogue?
PR: The focus of these pieces is not so much on illegal or legal firearms, as on weapons
manufacturing itself. My goal is to draw attention to the fact that we often place the
blame on those who pull the trigger, while the manufacturers get off the hook. Sixtyfour
percent of all weapons sold worldwide
are bought by civilians in the U.S.
That is why the NRA spends so much on
lobbying in Washington--because if the
civilian market were to dwindle it would
be a major blow to the military industrial
complex. It's inspiring that the Florida
students now leading a campaign against
the NRA have understood their power; it
is urgent for this critical mass to grow if
change is to come.
This is an ongoing project. I recently did
an edition in Cincinnati, where we turned
rifles into flutes--17 of them to honor the
17 fatalities of the Parkland school shooting.
The flutes performed at the March For
Our Lives. Also, for a show that I am doing
at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary
Art (SMoCA) in Arizona, we're creating a
new version of a workshop called "Amendment
to the Amendment" in which the
public will be invited to do iterations of the
Second Amendment. We're welcoming
everyone, even those who would like to do
a more pro-gun Second Amendment. The
goal is to put the fact that laws can be
rewritten into the public imagination. The
Second Amendment is the Achilles's heel of
the NRA, and if you create enough momentum
so that people become aware that this
amendment can be rewritten, it could lead
to real change.
Robert Preece is a Contributing Editor for