Artists do not normally associate themselves with guns, but Carl McCrow has a more personal reason for enshrining the AK47 as artwork.
What started as an exploration into his boyhood fascination for guns quickly changed direction when his friend Matt Webb an arm and both legs while on tour in Afghanistan in 2011.
Pictures of Matt’s injuries quickly made McCrow re-evaluate his approach to making art out of guns, what he calls his “fetisisation” of the weapon.
“Matt’s injuries were horrific, it made me sick to my stomach and I couldn’t actually do my work it just didn’t feel the same. I thought, I’m not worthy to make artwork out of this while lives are being smashed on the other side of it,” he says.
But ever since McCrow left his job in the City in 2007 to pursue a career as an artist, he has always been internally conflicted about making art out of weaponry.
His interest in guns stemmed from an early age, encouraged by his grandfather who was in the army, but he quickly began to question his own implicit acceptance of the life-ending object.
“I played computer games, I played with guns, I watched Expendables and I love a great war movie. I don’t really feel it’s my fault I enjoy these things, but I realised I’d been watching them like there was no consequence to them,” he says.
At first, McCrow had to come to terms with his decision to make money from selling guns as art.
“For the first year or two I had to justify what I was doing, because I thought that I was being a bit manipulative. So I had to question if what I was doing was sincere,” he says.
When he first bought an AK47 to experiment making art with, he says his fascination for the weapon soon diminished once the gun was close at hand.
“When there was suddenly one in my room I started to reflect on the darker side of it, and I thought maybe that’s what everyone should do,” he says.
At first he experimented with distorting guns aesthetically, by chopping them up and turning them into different three dimensional objects. He then decided to balance the painted AK47s on plinths, as a way of physically showing their “darker side”.
But after Matt’s injury, McCrow realised he couldn’t just make an aesthetic statement about guns- he needed to do something more.
“I enjoyed what I was doing and I turned myself off to some of the problems of guns to create my art. I’d put it on display and discuss it, but when I saw Matt it just brought the human side of it flying straight back and I realised I had to change my game,” he says.
For his next body of work, currently on display in London, McCrow decided to focus more closely on what was happening on the front line across the world.
In partnership with the UN, he has put a collection of painted decommissioned guns from countries such as Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cambodia on show.
His exhibition focuses more closely on the commercial value of weaponry and the world economy’s dependency on the arms trade.
For example, he has painted a barcode across the SA80 gun that he has dedicated to Matt, a decommissioned gun of the same type he was shot with.
McCrow has also set up his own charity, One Less Gun, which seeks to destroy one AK47 for every £5 donation received by text. He hopes this will provide a greater underlying ethos to his work.
“We can safely destroy a weapon and then people can say if you’re going to play your computer games or watch movies you can actually do something about it."
Working with the UN and other NGOs including the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has helped him to address the wider conflict of guns in society, which he hopes will force his viewers to question the implications of weaponry.
“After visiting the mines in Cambodia, you realise that in London we live in such a sanitised environment. We play with these guns and we enjoy the explosions and fun of weaponry, but we’re not really thinking about people living in those environments.”
But despite exposing the physical conflict caused by guns, a central confliction still remains within McCrow.
“My art’s pretty much an indulgence in my own journey in terms of my relationship towards guns. I still think they are abhorrent and on the other hand quite cool.”
History Interrupted runs until 21 July at gallery@oxo, Oxo Tower Wharf, London