When entering University of Maryland’s STAMP Gallery in early May, a stark blank board blankets the main floor, and scattered across are varying metal objects: chipped and broken bells, abstract melted configurations, and a sinewy branch with budding flowers.
“As an artist, part of my process is I take weapons, bullet casings, firearms, and I melt them down and try to transform them into the opposite, something which is peaceful,” artist Stephanie Mercedes said about the multiple pieces that make up her artwork, “Sonic Fracture.”
Since the 2016 Pulse shooting in Orlando, Mercedes dedicates a large part of her art practice to melting bullet casings and turning them into objects symbolizing peace. As an LGBTQ+ artist, the attack to the community was personal. Mercedes knew she could use her art as a point of protest against current gun regulations, as well as serve as catharsis for survivors of gun violence and hate crimes. She has since worked with survivors of the Pulse shooting for her outdoor “Weight of the Rainbow” installation last year in Georgetown, and when melting down bullets.
“Sonic Fracture” adds a new layer to this practice. Speakers surround the piece with sounds of bullets hitting the kiln, and the sound of them melting and reshaping. The result is an immersive experience that aids a level of eeriness and awakening.
“I began to realize that the process, which I was working has a sound of its own. I’ve always been interested in creating objects which made sound or sculptures which made sound,” Mercedes said, referring to past projects where she intentionally creates original compositions to accompany her artwork. “There is this whole organic process of transformation of taking a negative to a positive [with melting bullets] that has its own sound. And even though it sounds obvious, it was a realization for me.”
The installation was part of a larger exhibit, “Distinct Chatter” which was open from April 18 to March 20. In addition to “Sonic Fracture,” the exhibit featured another piece from Mercedes and works from two other artists, Charlotte Richardson-Deppe and Hosana Shahramipoor. The exhibit was part of all three artists’ second-year projects in their MFA programs.
Similar to “Sonic Fractures,” Mercedes’ second piece in the gallery, “En Sonido,” incorporated an immersive sound experience. A large steel box basin filled with water sits towards the end of the exhibit. A digital inkjet image of a screenshot from an online archive peeks through rusted patches on the bottom surface of the sculpture. There are two stethoscopes attached to the piece as well, encouraging attendees to interact with it and “find the heartbeat.” When you move the stethoscopes’ metal heads over the bottom of the basin, a haunting sound emerges, creating ripples through the water.
“’En Sonido’ means sound loop in Spanish,” Mercedes said. “Half my family’s American, half my family’s Argentinian and I think that puts me in a very particular position in terms of the history.”
From 1976 to 1983, the military junta that the U.S. under Henry Kissinger backed in Argentina killed approximately 30,400 who spoke up against the military state. The desaparecidos (the disappeared) were accused as political dissidents and included, artists, journalists, scientists and other academics. The picture Mercedes chose for the piece is from a newspaper clipping of a missing journalist from that time who was the same age as Mercedes when she created the piece.
“I realized that perhaps if I made a sound loop, then the movement from the sound would cause the image to shake and for the image to move. I felt like it was a metaphor for something that is no longer, an absence. It is up to people if they want to activate history, if they want to remember history, or if they want to forget it.”
The vibrations from the piece are alarming when interacting with it and increase in intensity when you wander over the piece’s surface. The rust was an unintended result of the water interacting with the steel but adds to the ongoing metaphor of the image vanishing as time passes.
Next to the piece, is a bookshelf of newspaper clippings from that time, photographs and resource materials to educate exhibit attendees about the events that unfolded.
“I think it’s important that this is shown in the United States. It’s important that people be educated about this time period in Argentina because it is something their country contributed to.”
Mercedes noted that the reaction of this particular piece has connected and led to catharsis for many people who have no connection to Argentina or that time in history, due to the overall message it conveys.
“The diaspora is everywhere. When I show this work, there’s always someone who somehow relates to the history. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the United States, Canada, Europe or somewhere totally unexpected. The diaspora is always present. And I think also, violence is universal and history has always been clear that it wants to deny violence.”
While the exhibit is now closed, Mercedes recently received a grant to make more sculptures for a larger exhibit of “En Sonido,” and is producing an opera with CulturalDC, which will expand on the sounds created in the “Sonic Fracture” piece and include a live gun melting ceremony.
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.