A Google search for ‘bullet holes’ returns a majority of results of stock photos, free images, and decals. They are weird apparitions, bullet holes in nothing: just black circles, with drawings of stripped paint around them, on monochrome (mostly white) backgrounds. Holes are lacks, dug or made in substances, yet these ‘bullet holes’ are disembodied, not in anything. They prove a weird fascination with bullet holes themselves: marks of violence, instantly recognisable, a symbol that we can all read with no context. And, as we dig a little through Google, a symbol that we can sell: a Copenhagen bar allows patrons to see the bullet holes from the execution of a WWII informant if they buy a shot (pun intended by them), while one of Andy Warhol’s portraits of Mao, with two bullet holes left by Dennis Hooper, sold for more than $300,000.
Why do bullet holes sell? They do because they have stories in them, stories which have a conflict, maybe even a tragedy by their very nature. We create such stories by buying decals or using stock photos, but some have learned to read them from the bullet holes which are already around us. Rather than exploring them in a forensic whodunit, New Yorkers Raymond Normandeau and Rita Frazier Normandeau let the bullet holes speak for themselves, by taking photos of all they encounter in Queens and then chronicling through them the violence of the housing projects. A similar preoccupation with isolating the violence and bringing it in exhibitions is that of British artist Piers Secunda. Among other works, he creates moulds of ancient works of art with bullet holes in Iraq and brings closer, in a tangible way, a story of violence which is only read about or seen in pictures in the West.
Others have used bullet holes to anchor memories. Gigi Cifali, based in London and Milan, chronicles through pictures of bullet holes and other details the violence of the Italian ‘years of lead’ (1969-1989), in which many bullets were shot, including the ones that killed the former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Others seek to preserve the bullet holes which became part of the architecture of areas marked by conflict. The Beit Beirut (House of Beirut) project aims at turning a house used as a sniper lair during the civil war into a museum of memories, with the building itself, strewn with bullet holes, as the main exhibit and reminder. In the same city there are efforts to preserve ‘The Egg’, a building of an unfinished complex, in the state the civil war left it in, with its bullet holes uncovered. Hong Kong artist Leung Chi Wo used photos of WWII bullet holes from the Legislative Council Building of the city as the illuminated background of different messages, filling the holes with his own (or others’) words in a project entitled ‘We must construct as well as destroy’.
While some read or bring forward the stories hidden in bullet holes, other write them themselves. Garrett Hansen uses bullets to create voids, while Deborah Bay remakes the Big Bang and creates new galaxies by shooting Plexiglas. Walton Creel, an American artist, draws animals with bullets (rather than killing them), in an attempt to ‘deweaponise’ the gun. Bullets are objects made to kill, leaving fatal holes behind them. Yet our fascination with them proves that even destruction hides a substance which we need to strive to see. Artists have read stories or written them in bullet holes, filling deadly gaps with meaning.
Andrei Belibou (Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)
- Copenhagen bar – https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/this-danish-bartender-will-serve-your-shot-with-a-side-of-bulletholes
- Andy Warhol’s Mao portrait – http://artdaily.com/news/44092/Dennis-Hopper-s-Bullet-Hole-Andy-Warhol-Sells-for–302-500-Today-at-Christie-s#.WOFTjVWGPIU
- The Normandeaus – https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/23/nyregion/queens-couple-sees-art-in-the-bullet-holes-piercing-a-public-housing-complex.html?_r=0
- Piers Secunda – http://www.pierssecunda.com/shot-works.html
- ‘ISIS bullet holes’ – http://theartnewspaper.com/news/british-artist-makes-work-out-of-isis-bullet-holes-in-iraq/
- Gigi Cifali – https://www.gigicifali.com/images-signs-italy-1969-89-practices-memory
- Beit Beirut – http://www.beitbeirut.org/english/index.html
- The Egg – https://www.failedarchitecture.com/the-value-of-a-war-scarred-ruin-in-beirut/
- Leung Chi Wo – http://www.leungchiwo.com/construct_destroy/main.html
- Garret Hansen – http://www.garrettohansen.com/Hail/Pages/Void-1.html
- Deborah Bay – http://deborahbay.com/gallery/the-big-bang/
- Walton Creel – http://www.waltcreel.com/previousworks.html