THE LIMITS OF LICENCE AT SAM
Artist-cum-security-guard Amanda Mae has caused a stir in Seattle after she pushed the limits of a participatory Yoko Ono piece at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Ono’s seminalPainting to Hammer a Nail is a small panel with a hammer hanging next to it, and a wall label that encourages visitors to "pound a nail into this painting" (the very artwork that, according to legend, brought Ono and John Lennon together). Hammer a Nail is featured in "Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78," June 25-Sept. 7, 2009, an exhibition that showcases works that "deconstruct painting in order to usher in a new way of thinking" -- though, apparently, this new way of thinking has some strict limits of its own.
At SAM, someone had the idea -- whether it was a museum official or a member of the public is disputed -- of using the license granted by Ono’s work to nail a piece of paper to the museum wall next to it. In short order, the piece was surrounded by a dense ring of announcements, receipts, business cards and other detritus that visitors had posted, all under the museum’s approving gaze. Informed about the paper-hanging, Ono stipulated that it was acceptable as long as the scraps were preserved as part of the work, and returned with it.
On Aug. 20, Mae -- who in addition to working at SAM, also makes performance-based photo art, and is about to start a graduate program in museum studies at the University of Washington, according to Stranger art critic Jen Graves -- decided to take things a step further. She set up in front of the work and began to remove all of the pieces of paper, categorizing them in neat piles for archiving. Mae dubbed her own performance Yoko Ono Excavation Survey, or Y.E.S. After a half hour, SAM curator Michael Darling arrived, and ordered Mae to halt. The next day, she was fired.
Though Mae’s termination is probably to be expected -- she was clearly exceeding her brief as a guard -- whether or not her intervention is acceptable as a part of Painting to Hammer a Nail is a more intriguing question. The museum’s reasoning, that "altering a work of art hanging on the wall of a museum is never really an okay thing to do," seems a little odd given the fact that the piece’s own label calls for "bringing others besides the artist into the creative act."
Mae, for her part, researched the history of Yoko Ono’s work before intervening, and describes her gesture as an attempt to "unearth" its original state, cutting against the "self-congratulatory attitude" that surrounded the museum’s presentation. "I am not shocked at the institution's decision," she is quoted as saying, with respect to her firing. "I am however disappointed at the narrow interpretation Darling has for the artworks he traffics in."
As a footnote, Graves has posted a surprisingly pious letter from Jon Hendricks, curator for Yoko Ono Exhibitions, addressing Mae’s interpretation of Ono’s work. Apparently Mae had written to Darling explaining the rationale for her intervention, and Darling forwarded the letter to Hendricks, who admonishes Mae, "you have to consider art in a much deeper, more profound sense than you do," encouraging her to have "greater respect for the artist" -- all of which sounds strangely academic in the context of a show about artists questioning tradition. Hendricks does concede that because Painting to Hammer a Nail is a participatory work, "one could argue that your participation was just as justifiable as anyone else's participation."In the end, Hendricks’ holier-than-thou letter is particularly ironic considering that he is co-founder of the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG), which did its own share of unauthorized art interventions back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. GAAG is probably best-known for storming uninvited into the Museum of Modern Art lobby in 1969, covered in blood, and protesting in front of Guernica at MoMA in 1970.