The Knotted Gun: A Compelling Symbol for Non-Violence

Violence is no longer inevitable. By shifting social dynamics, violence can be prevented.  The Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd created the knotted gun sculpture, Non-Violence, after the murder of his friend John Lennon in 1980. Reuterswärd hoped to promote discussion about non-violence.

Image courtesy of abac077, © 2012, some rights reserved.

The Non-Violence Project, a non-profit educational NGO, adopted this image as their logo. But logos and images are not without controversy. Some argue that marshaling an image of a gun to advocate for non-violence is itself a support for violence. Is the sculpture Non-Violence by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd an effective and powerful symbol to promote non-violence and violence prevention? Or, on the contrary, is it a problematic image for non-violence?

Non-Violence has served as a symbol for non-violence for over four decades. The knotted gun represents non-violence on several levels. First, literally, the knotted gun can be interpreted to indicate a verbal pun, knot/not violence. Second, the knotted gun must be historicized. It should be placed on a continuum of anti-war art dating back to John Heartfield in 1930’s Germany and Picasso during the Spanish Civil War. Third, this provocative, counterintuitive conceptual representation provokes engagement and debate – a function of political art that seeks to disrupt commonly accepted ways of thinking about the world.

Knot and not: A play on words that propels a unique work of art to function as a conceptual symbol for non-violence. K(not) violence grabs attention: it simultaneously focuses discourse on both the knotted gun as an object and as a conceptual representation.

To understand how the sculpture Non-Violence functions as a powerful and provocative symbol for non-violence, the debate must be historicized. The lineage of political art develops in the Dada and Surrealist movements of early 20th century modernist art.  These avant-garde movements urged artists to twist (pun intended) the old meaning of objects into a new non-linear meaning.

Perhaps the most famous of Dada photomonteurs, John Heartfield embraced this radical, theoretical, and inherently political impulse. Emphasizing satire, subversion, public education, and conceptual images, Heartfield’s work critiqued Nazi Germany. Heartfield had faith in both people and the truth. He believed that that if the two merged, society would improve.Heartfield’s 1933 work, The Old Motto of the “New” Reich- Blood and Iron, exemplifies his convictions about the power of art to provoke discourse and new ideas. The image shows four iron axes, dripping with blood and tied together to form a swastika. Heartfield attempts to peel back the New Reich’s populist veil. With this strategy, he reveals the foundations of Nazism: blood and iron. Its shocking and violent cornerstones form the basis of the regime. Re-interpreting the swastika, Heartfield demonstrates the true nature of Nazism–violence. He twists the meaning of the symbol by altering the original image.

 In his 1937 painting Guernica, Picasso furthers the idea of art as both a critique and an inspiration to political change. Guernica was Picasso’s response to the German and Italian bombing of the Basque city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Guernica was the first city, a civilian target, to be deliberately bombed. This painting, then serves as both the embodiment of peace and an anti-war symbol.

Guernica demonstrates the tragedy of violence by depicting suffering.  The black and white colouring creates a somber mood, graphically expressing pain and chaos.  The mangled and twisted bodies in the painting protest their inability to influence the violence engulfing them. The crumbling buildings in the background show both the destruction of Guernica and the destructive nature of civil war. A broken sword lies at the bottom of the frame, indicating how violence defeated the people.

Fifty years later in 1987, ACT UP, an activist group advocating public education and policy changes about HIV/AIDS, transformed the inverted pink triangle—synonymous with homosexuality in Hitler’s concentration camps—into a symbol for action and awareness.  The logo Silence=Death continues the political art legacies of Heartfield and Picasso.

ACT UP activists reinterpreted an object of marginalization and created their movement’s symbolic calling card. The image shows a pink triangle towering over the phrase “silence=death”. This provocative phrase draws attention, provokes discussion, and raises awareness. The image encourages a double take: an image of marginalization is transformed into an image of empowerment.

A year later, in 1988, the Non-Violence sculpture was installed in front of the United Nations building in New York City. As Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, points out:

“The sculpture Non-Violence has not only endowed the United Nations with a cherished work of art; it has enriched the consciousness of humanity with a powerful symbol that encapsulates, in a few simple curves, the greatest prayer of man; that which asks not for victory, but for peace”

Non-Violence continues the theme of art as a tool for stimulating awareness and social change. Art is not only about transcendent aesthetics; it can also function as a lever to raise political awareness.

Non Violence, then, cannot be overlooked: it requires examination, provokes discourse, and inspires action. The knotted gun is a visceral symbol for non-violence. Such a startling image creates an emotional response, encouraging consideration of non-violence. Viewers are drawn into the work because, initially, it motors an emotional rather than an intellectual response. By rousing an emotional reaction in viewers, the sculpture transfers the abstractions of non-violence into tangible feelings that demand immediate resolution.

The history of 20th century politically engaged art underscores how everyday objects can be twisted and reshaped to intervene in the social and political spheres. The 20th century avant-garde art movements of Dada and Surrealism moved art away from its position as an object of passive aesthetic contemplation towards a notion of art as a political weapon to stimulate debate. In this tradition, political art—when it works– provokes profound discussions and debates about culture, politics, and society.

The knotted gun, a conceptual oxymoron of opposites, has functioned as a symbol of the non-violent approach to life. Any evaluation of the effectiveness of Non-Violence as a symbol and as a concept must consider it within the context of the more commonplace symbols of peace: the dove and the peace sign. These symbols have been mobilized to create beautiful images. They embody peace as a state of being, an achievable reality, and a concept.

In contrast to these more passive images of peace, Non Violence suggests an active approach to the human condition.  While peace is often invoked as a social or community goal, the application of non-violence is located on the more micro-level of individual choice and behaviors. Non-violence resides in interactions with others. It involves individuals and communities. Through its twisting of the gun and its large scale, Non-Violence encapsulates another oxymoron; that non-violence not only needs to engage individuals, but also needs to write large, in communities and political life.

A knotted gun is (k)not a beautiful image for aesthetic contemplation. The sculpture is counter-intuitive.  It guides discussion and creates dialogue, and, as this piece has argued, generates important debate about the questions of violence and non-violence.

The image disturbs on many levels:  physical, psychic, and emotional.  A conceptual inversion of how we expect a gun to look, the twisted gun does not appear in our day-to-day landscape. However, as a sculpture, Non-Violence is oversized, larger than any actual weapon, accessible, and materialized. Non-Violence is physically imposing and psychologically unexpected—just like violence in its more horrifying forms. Non-Violence, then, serves as a provocative symbol for non-violence.

Political art intervenes into accepted discourse. Truly politicized art not only creates awareness, but also encourages debate, dialogue, and even action. Non-Violence by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd propels all three.

Non-Violence asks us to consider the never-ending political challenges of violence and non-violence.

Non-Violence asks us to take action, to knot up violence in society.

Non-Violence asks us to create knots in the frightening movement of violence around the globe—in Indonesia, Nigeria, Russia, and Mexico to name just a few places—so that a different way of living, without threat to life, in peace, can thrive.

Non-Violence asks us to consider the gun, with its cold stiff metal and latent, terrible, violent power, as something we can bend, stop, and reshape into a new space affirming life rather than death.