(Originally featured in The Quarterly Magazine)
At a glance, the objects in these images – an air rifle, bullets and an axe, among others – look like ordinary weapons; yet the items’ alarming significance becomes clear when their context is known: they are improvised weapons made and brandished by schoolchildren before being confiscated by the children’s schools.
For 10 years, artist and teacher Guy Tarrant has been collecting these objects from the schools he has worked in, and turned them into installations. Tarrant’s interest is in ‘resistance behaviour’, where pupils challenge the school environment by being deliberately disruptive or refusing to engage, perhaps by doodling on a notebook or scratching a name into a desk. Taken to its extreme, resistance behaviour can involve aggression and even violence, with pupils making weapons to attack others or defend themselves.
Words by Gemma Padley
Photographs by Tom Brannigan
Art Direction by Sanj Sahota
It is difficult to know what is more chilling: a homemade bomb by a school child, or an axe, cobbled together from materials found in the playground. These items among many others are part of a collection of objects confiscated from schoolchildren, which artist and supply teacher Guy Tarrant has been compiling for several years. When viewed collectively, as in a recent exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London, the objects paint a fascinating if unsettling picture of the multiple ways children challenge their learning environment and authority.
“There is certainly an underlining level of resistance from pupils in our schools,” says Tarrant, who is based in London. “The behaviour operates on a sliding scale of frustration often beginning with small everyday acts of defiance before moving onto more blatant rule-breaking and ultimately aggressive acts involving vandalism and violent outbursts. I worked in many schools and noticed common traces in the way some pupils were behaving. I collected evidence in the form of vandalised furniture and confiscated objects to highlight my concerns about this behaviour. Obviously the weapons here represent the extreme end of the wedge but generally I would say there is an increasing air of resistance within schools. The more I teach, the more I find disengaged and unsettled behaviour among our youngsters.”
Photographer Tom Brannigan collaborated with Tarrant to present some of these objects photographically. With an interest in still life photography, Brannigan isolated and photographed select items to highlight their disturbing significance. “The photographs are very much a collaboration between Guy and I,” says the 28-year-old photographer. “They give his curated sculptures a different platform. To me, the objects feel prehistoric and wouldn’t be out of place in museum collections that explore primitive culture. I’m interested in children’s subconscious need to make weapons to attack someone or as a means of defence. What motivates a kid to bring an air pistol into school or to make and yield an axe? It’s shocking that children feel the need to do this in a place where they should feel comfortable and secure.”
For the project, Brannigan photographed the objects straight on, opting for a minimal approach. “I focused on the objects I found most interesting,” he says. “They look like they have been confiscated from a prison not a school. I love this element of design by necessity – how a toilet handle has been used as a knuckle-duster, for example. I wanted to photograph the objects in a direct, graphic way – to allow them to resonate and to tell their own story.”
The stories behind the items make fascinating reading. In one image, we learn that the axe was made by “a Year 7 boy who was so angry that he jumped onto the school roof, pulled off a roof slate and wooden strut support, and impulsively joined them together to form a primitive weapon.” The boy then ran through the playground trying to attack his peers. The story of a handmade bomb is equally disturbing: a Year 9 boy purportedly filled a tennis ball with 200 match-heads and threw it against a classroom wall; all because he didn’t want to do his homework. “It’s almost tragically comical,” says Tarrant.
The objects have been presented on coloured backgrounds to remind viewers of their context. “The use of pastel colours bring the objects back to the schoolyard, a child’s environment,” explains Brannigan. “By taking black and white images of hard objects and placing them against softer, coloured backgrounds it’s possible to contextualise them; they aren’t weapons from a warzone, they’re from a school.”