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Sven Augustijnen, L’histoire est simple et édifiante: Une sélection d’articles parus dans Paris Match, première partie 1960–1972 (The Story Is Simple and Edifying: A Selection of Articles Published in Paris Match, Part One 1960–1972) (detail), 2014, eighty Paris Match magazines, dimensions variable.

Sven Augustijnen, L’histoire est simple et édifiante: Une sélection d’articles parus dans Paris Match, première partie 1960–1972 (The Story Is Simple and Edifying: A Selection of Articles Published in Paris Match, Part One 1960–1972) (detail), 2014, eighty Paris Match magazines, dimensions variable.

Sven Augustijnen

Jan Mot

Sven Augustijnen, L’histoire est simple et édifiante: Une sélection d’articles parus dans Paris Match, première partie 1960–1972 (The Story Is Simple and Edifying: A Selection of Articles Published in Paris Match, Part One 1960–1972) (detail), 2014, eighty Paris Match magazines, dimensions variable.

As D. W. Griffith said, all audiences want to see is “a girl and a gun.” Sven Augustijnen has perverted this crowd-pleasing formula by throwing a topless male centerfold smack in the middle of his documentary-esque L’histoire est simple et édifiante: Une sélection d’articles parus dans Paris Match, première partie 1960–1972 (The Story Is Simple and Edifying: A Selection of Articles Published in Paris Match, Part One 1960–1972), 2014. The ever-photogenic Ernesto “Che” Guevara is the model in question, and here he is sprawled over a white bed while suggestively sipping yerba mate. The spread, shot in 1959 by Andrew Saint-George, is one of eighty-two unaltered gatefolds from old Paris Match magazines selected and placed side by side in chronological order by the artist and presented here on long, table-like displays that ran along the sides of an otherwise empty gallery.

Though it’s not a girl who’s featured here, the work’s second protagonist really is a gun. In 1954, the fusil automatique léger (light automatic rifle), or FAL, entered military service. Produced by the for-profit Belgian arms manufacturer FN Herstal, the weapon was soon adopted by most NATO member states and their armies. Nicknamed and marketed as “the right arm of the free world,” the rifle would soon find itself on both sides of the Cold War divide as revolutionary forces in Cuba and elsewhere appropriated it. Augustijnen’s editorialized crosscut “shots” narrate the weapon’s visual emergence in the pages of the magazine to show an alternative history: the West being hoisted by its own petard.

Most of the conflicts featured here cover the proxy wars fought in subjugated developing nations; the Cuban Revolution is juxtaposed with conflicts in the Congo, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Levant states, and elsewhere. Images of guns and of people fighting, dying, mourning, rallying, and even lounging abound. Since both FN Herstal and NATO are headquartered in Belgium, Augustijnen (who is himself Belgian) is undoubtedly pointing to his country’s central (if mostly behind-the-scenes) role in these counterinsurgencies; the show’s closing date marked the fifty-fourth anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, for which the Belgian government later admitted “an irrefutable portion of responsibility.” This “coming home to roost” narrative is also hinted at in an image that shows the battlefield death of a war correspondent in the Congo in 1960, captioned by the words DURING THE FIGHT, A MAN FALLS VICTIM TO HIS OWN MISSION. THIS IS THE JOURNALIST. . . .

The week of this show’s opening saw the Russian media announce that the FAL’s old symbolic rival, the Soviet Kalashnikov, or AK, was being rebranded as a “weapon of peace.” To present its new logo, the manufacturer, the Kalashnikov Concern, released two videos. The first presents a gloss on the rifle’s use on the “other side” of the very anticolonialist wars profiled by Augustijnen. In the second, the AK is shown “liquidating” terrorists in the Caucasus followed by the slogan “Kalashnikov: promoting peace and calm.” Counterintuitive as this all sounds, L’histoire est simple et édifiante acts as a rejoinder to the simplistic idea that any tool’s use is determined by its creator. But more important, the cognitive dissonance engendered by these historical records calls into question the view, promoted by the National Rifle Association, among others, that guns, and the violence they breed, represent anything like the democratic ideal of “freedom.”

Adam Kleinman