It’s an actual machine gun—not a readymade, or a facsimile, but a fully operational firearm made mostly from scratch in the artist Jameson Ellis’s studio/workshop. He writes: “My understanding of pointability is that ideally both hands form a direct line from the shoulder to the target, something the M16 does not do. In mine, the hands are pretty much directly in line with the shoulder and barrel axis . . . In fully automatic weapons one wants to keep the muzzle from climbing, as this makes successive rounds progressively hit higher over the target. One way of negating this is to have the barrel axis go straight into the shoulder so the axis of rotation is into the shoulder, and not above it. The M16 does the second but not the first. Mine does both.”
Ellis, without assistants or a factory, has designed and built his own “improved M16.” It is a technical feat that must be seen to be believed, almost entirely made in the artist’s studio with a milling machine, including the trigger mechanism. Pulling that trigger for the first time required the courage of Ellis’s convictions—it was not theoretical. He fired the gun in order to activate it as an art work as part of the Hunt and Chase show at Salomon Contemporary in East Hampton, New York, this past July. Positioning himself on a ladder, he sited on a tiny red dot 30 feet away on the gallery’s opposite wall and hit it. Despite noise-cancelling earplugs, the shot roared.
As an art piece, the Improved M16 comes steeped in history. The original M16, still in use, debuted in Vietnam, where it came to emblemize that war’s diabolical hubris and the ensuing cultural and political fallout. Conceptual art erupted in that same revolutionary, toxic, and still reverberant era. Both the war and its art are paradigms now. As a sculpture, Ellis’s gun delineates space—it is a machine that makes a line from Point A to Point B with bullets. It also menaces, and more importantly, it seduces. The design, with its straight line from butt to muzzle, draws the eye from the customized stock to the shark-eyed cant of the trigger guard, the black-ridged cylinder of the upper receiver, the barrel with its slightly scorched flash hider. The piece is a rare opportunity to peer openly at a deadly object, contemplating just how much thought went into every element of its deadliness. Ellis, an abstract painter, is not interested here in any aesthetic beyond the stark one of pure functionality. As it happens, the pure functionality is mesmerizing. For all its lethal intent, the gun is something you can’t stop looking at.
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq—homicidal loners, war fetishists, the NRA. The gun is black. The whale in Moby Dick is white. These are symbols we can think inside for a long time. Ahab hunts his whale. What do you think comes out of Ellis’s gun?
—Zachary Lazar is a novelist whose most recent books are Sway and the memoir, Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder.