OPTICAL ILLUSION: Pingpong balls transform into political message at Association for Visual Arts

photo Artwork by Michael Murphy

GET INVOLVEDThe opening reception for Michael Murphy's "Damages" exhibit at AVA Gallery, 30 Frazier Ave., will be Friday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. He will offer a lecture on his work and creative process on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Girls Preparatory School's Evans Center. Both events are free to the public. His work is on display at AVA through June 29.

Michael Murphy just wants to keep the conversation going.

That's likely to happen, too, when visitors to the Main Gallery at the Association for Visual Arts weave their way through a sea of 1,000 black pingpong balls he installed and then see what awaits them on the other side -- an assault rifle.

"Guns are fetishized in the U.S.," says Murphy, an artist and assistant professor of art and technology at Georgia College. "Many, many Americans love guns. I'm creating a giant gun. Gun enthusiasts should love the piece.

"I just want people to keep talking about guns [and] why we should have guns," he says. "Communication is necessary because I don't see any sort of solution being proposed."

Murphy, a resident of Milledgeville, Ga., has been exhibited across the United States and included in magazines such as Time, New York, Uptown and Washington Life. Recently, his portrait of President Barack Obama was featured on the cover of Time's Person of the Year iPad edition.

Lauren Goforth, education and exhibitions director at AVA, says this will be Murphy's first exhibition in Chattanooga.

"What people will find," she says, "is he is very intelligent. He makes a lot of very deliberate choices. He thinks about it. In explaining his thought processes, he makes his work very accessible. A lot of times this type of work isn't very accessible [and] is very confusing. This is straightforward and honest."

Most of Murphy's installations are created to be similar commentaries to "Damages" -- the AVA exhibit -- and are either a critical observation or reflection of popular culture. For the exhibit at the North Shore space, he was given the 30-foot-by-40-foot Main Gallery as a canvas.

"Every situation is different," Murphy says. "Some are more experimental. In some, you're selling work that is specific, that can be acquired. With AVA, where most of their funding comes from grants, they're not going to be disappointed if I don't sell [the work]. That provides me with a bit of liberty -- that [the work] doesn't have to be something that would sit in a living room."

For the Chattanooga installation, the artist says he was drawn to pingpong balls and what role the game of pingpong played in U.S.-China relations in the early 1970s, when an exchange of players between the countries led to a thaw in relations between the two superpowers.

"To me, it's a meaningless sport," Murphy says, "but it has a place in politics."

Guns also have a place in politics, he says.

So Murphy painted the pingpong balls black and arranged them on a ceiling grid where, in the initial view as visitors enter the gallery, an image is not obvious. As they move around the room, their three-dimensional view of the balls morphs into a two-dimensional view of an assault rifle.

"The thing is about point of view," he says. "The [optical] illusion is when you see the gun."

As a visitor moves off the correct vantage point, "you watch the gun disappear. It turns into particles. It reminds me of the lives taken by gun violence."

The thought of an assault rifle was suggested by the Smith & Wesson M&P15 semi-automatic rifle, one of three weapons that suspect James Holmes is accused of using in the Aurora, Colo., movie shooting last July, Murphy says.

To decide on a final image, though, he consulted "some young gamers" where, in game enthusiasm, guns are "already a fetish object."

The final image is that of an M4A1, a popular assault rifle used by almost all U.S special operation units, including the Army Rangers, Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs and Air Force Combat Control Teams, and also in video games.