Special Detective

Detective Special

This was my first gun.

I couldn’t wait to go out and shoot up the neighborhood.[1]

An arsenal of gun parts seems to levitate on the wall. Soft shadows halo their edges. Poised and deliberate, each component within the compositional grid alludes to a completed firearm, splayed across the gallery space, diagrammatic, precise and irreverent.

Detective Special invites us to observe our response to the image of a gun. Divorced from the brutal catastrophe of war and separated from their continual presence in screen culture as symbols of wrath, justice, status or virility – what do guns invoke in us? Most of us are rarely this close to and hyper conscious of a weapon. What happens when we bear witness to the naked form of a machine that has redefined battle, punctuated all levels of popular culture and seeped into the consciousness of every man, woman and child? And how are we to approach these sinister components if they are ‘forgeries’, identical simulations made from moulded plastic and intended for a child?

Murphy began collecting toy guns after finding a broken piece of a plastic revolver at home. On the casing it identified itself as a ‘Detective Special’. Amused by the title, Murphy discovered the gun was a replica of the Colt ‘Detective Special’ first manufactured for plain-clothes detectives in the US in 1927. For a year, Murphy continued to research and purchase over three hundred toy guns, photographing them in her studio, fascinated to discover a business that mimicked, so accurately, the contours of their real world counterparts.

A provisional search presents an extensive catalogue of US sites selling elaborate toy guns aping the functioning original. Scrolling through page after page of seemingly lethal plastic replicas, the parallels between gun catalogues and the offerings of ‘Kid’s Army’ are chilling. A Super Submachine Gun is grandly titled ‘Star of Justice’, a range of AK47s is complete with ‘silencers’ and effects ranging from artillery sounds to smoke, to ‘give your child’s play a more realistic feel’.

It’s not often that we are granted a momentary pause in the ‘game’ to dissect and contemplate the thing itself. We are familiar with the impulse to create baddies and goodies: to identify oneself by establishing an enemy. A lifelong political condition with a prelude in childhood. Monster or hero, prisoner or assassin, direct shots never stall the game for long. Bang! Bang! You’re dead – two boys fall, succumb effortlessly to their fate. Before their next breath, instant resurrection, instant retrieval of the self. Infallible bodies. Unending ammunition. Bloodless weaponry. Murphy’s work intervenes in this play.

I note the shapes that tessellate with the body. I see the form that extends from the hand. The parts that would be whole, and in turn decimate the whole, imagined or otherwise. The curve that would softly spoon the palm, the familiar arc of a trigger, an imposing, abstract barrel. Negative space allowing room for the remaining pieces. Murphy studied the guns amassed in her home, and began disconnecting their constituent parts as if preparing the gun for cleaning, or transportation.

Using a hacksaw, she slices into the moulded plastic, dissecting the toy into its engineered parts, destroying this simulacrum of death with its declared intentions of play. This process also mirrors the dismantling process of illegally trafficking guns into regions of conflict, whereby guns are deconstructed and transported piece by piece over borders where they are then reconstructed, ready for action.

There is a pleasure in this destruction, a castration perhaps. The gun is leeched of functionality, and yet this dissection – of stock from trigger, cylinder from barrel, grip from muzzle – pushes the object into gun catalogue territory, and a very realistic end game. They link innocence with anarchy, and play with its antithesis.

The photographs seem forensic. They might be documented evidence from a police haul or the regimented sensibility of an assembly line. Close inspection reveals the occasional shards of plastic where the cut has been made, or subtle clues like chipped silver paint on a gun’s barrel. The would-be guns are creations however, a new hybrid, implausible but still menacing. It is intentionally hard to determine where Murphy stands in relation to these objects. Her treatment of them creates an unwavering aura – an aestheticisation that celebrates their design, while analysing their power. If these works are critical of the worlds they bridge, their presence remains ambiguous.

Murphy has held a watergun party for her son every year since he was 5, he is now 11. She acknowledges the importance of gun slinging play in children: ‘I remember being a BMX Bandit. It’s not about killing, it’s about role playing and imagination. Some adults project their fears and anxieties onto the child [but] I couldn’t imagine stopping that play. They’re negotiating, problem solving, navigating their world.’[2]

Parents across the West wrestle with the needs and desires of their children. Boys in particular have a primal drive to violent role play whether guns are allowed in the house or not. Our most ancient neural impulse is a will to power, as the reptilian brain instinctively compels us to aggressively establish and defend territory[3]. As such, the imaginary battlefield serves as an important developmental theatre in which children physically assert themselves, think symbolically and imaginatively, determine boundaries and social status. But the media exacerbate and exploit this drive with a constant stream of heroes and vigilantes who operate in a world where life is cheap, the cars are fast and the gun is cocked, continually, towards the enemy. The proliferation of heroism through simulated violence is questionable terrain. Is the delineation between imagined violence and real world possibility defined enough? We are constantly moving between the fetishised violence of cinema and gaming, and the grisly reality of news footage in which violence is always the main event.

It is impossible to protect children from either the imagery of war, or their inherent aggressive drives. But the ‘good fight’ is being transformed. Face to face, mano a mano battle in which local disputes could be settled or the alpha is established is a trope now reserved for childhood games. Contemporary war seems closer to the gaming screen, as unmanned combat drones are deployed, ‘securing targets’ and ‘protecting’ national interests with a de-personalised ‘click’ thousands of miles away. Afghanistan alone was subjected to over one thousand drone strikes between 2008 and 2012.[4]

In years to come, perhaps these photographs of Murphy’s toy guns will be viewed as nostalgic relics from the warfare of yesteryear, obsolete as combat recedes further and further into the virtual domain.

The gun’s current status in the world of weaponry is, however, unequivocal. Excluding military weapons, there are estimated to be 310 million firearms in the US, hurting or killing over 10,000 children a year.[5] The narrative in which fantastical battles collide with real world shoot-outs in schools and homes, and police mistakenly shooting teenagers brandishing fake firearms, has become alarmingly familiar. The porous terrain of the consumer market and real-world utility is ever present in Detective Special. It’s a dystopian scene: plastic toy Uzis are manufactured using child labour in China, while the corresponding metal parts are illegally dispersed across the globe, perhaps ending up in the hands of a child soldier conscripted in Pakistan[6].

Murphy creates a loaded quietness amongst the noise. A space for reflection amongst the complexity and barbarism of modern day conflict. In a world seemingly continually at war with itself, moral certitude is consistently elusive. Murphy’s photographs explore the proximity of wars and their realities waged in bedrooms, battlefields and boardrooms, unflinchingly questioning the tension in that continuum.


[1] Michael Moore, Bowling for Columbine (2002) describing a toy gun he got for Christmas.

[2] Prudence Murphy, ‘Boys with Guns’, Life Matters, ABC Radio National, 14 October 2013.

[3] Source: http://www.opednews.com/articles/From-Reptiles-to-Humans-A-by-Rand-Clifford-090108-868.html

[4] Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/03/08/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-drone-debate-in-one-faq/

[5] Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/guns-injure-7-000-u-s-kids-yearly-study-article-1.1592703

[6] Countries who have reported use of child soldiers since 2011 are Afghanistan, Colombia, India, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Mali, Pakistan, Thailand, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Source: http://www.child-soldiers.org/faq.php