What artist and security guard Amanda Mae did in the name of art last Thursday, Seattle Art Museum called vandalism—and the museum fired her.
Mae thought she was participating in Yoko Ono's interactive Painting to Hammer a Nail. She set up in front of the piece and began attempting to excavate the original board and nails that had been buried by a month and a half of visitors tacking up random bits of paper over it. She worked at the museum, so she knew that the protocol was to pick up and save any papers that fell off in the course of new ones being hammered on, so as she removed papers she set them in piles (ticket stubs here, business cards there), intending to leave each pile like a gift at the base of the piece for the guards to carry off and put in the utility closet with all the others. She left the nails in their places. She called her installation Yoko Ono Excavation Survey, or Y.E.S..
But after she worked for about a half hour, curator Michael Darling came into the gallery and told her to stop. Darling is not available for comment today, but Nicole Griffin, the museum's spokeswoman, said, "The intent of the piece does not include taking things away, only adding things."
The next day, she came back to the museum, and was "unceremoniously fired," Mae said.
SAM says it can't comment on why she was fired since that's a personnel issue. Griffin added, "I can say that this is a work of art that's hanging on the wall in our museum, and altering a work of art hanging on the wall of a museum is never really an okay thing to do."
But there is a significant gray area here.
Painting to Hammer a Nail has inspired various interpretations, responses, and treatments since its creation in 1961. It has been occasionally hung with a "Do Not Touch" sign. Once, in London, Griffin said, visitors began spontaneously tacking their own pieces of paper to the piece and the wall, as happened at SAM.
Except at SAM, Mae said, this didn't happen spontaneously: a person working in the registrar's office encouraged a friend to start the trend. (UPDATE: SAM denies this, and says it did happen spontaneously by a member of the public, and with no encouragement from any SAM employee.) Afterward, the museum contacted Ono to make sure this was okay, and Ono okayed it, with the stipulation that the pieces of paper be saved and returned along with the loaned piece when the exhibition ends.
The piece itself gives no indication of what it will and won't accept—it simply is called Painting to Hammer a Nail and appears like this, with a box full of nails on a chair beneath it.
Its label at SAM reads:
Painting to Hammer a Nail, 1961/2009
Painted wood panel with 42 -inch chain and container
with 1½- to 2-inch finishing nails
American (born in Japan), 1933
Collection of the artist
Museum visitors are invited to pound a nail into this painting. Like so much of the work in this exhibition, while the idea might at first seem a destructive, physically aggressive act against the accepted traditions of painting and museums in general, in the end the concept opens up new potentials for painting, and for bringing others besides the artist into the creative act.
Do Mae's intentions matter? Griffin said she couldn't answer that question. But the label—calling as it does for "bringing others besides the artist into the creative act"—seems open to Mae's response. There was no other indication of what is and is not allowed.
While it makes sense to stop Mae, in the spirit of Ono's intention that the piece gain rather than lose, it seems extreme to have fired her.
Then again, she was supposed to be guarding the work, not interacting with it. She chose to be an artist rather than to be a guard ("for me it was a higher calling," she said), and maybe the museum simply agreed with her decision. "I am not shocked at the institution's decision, I am however disappointed at the narrow interpretation Darling has for the artworks he traffics in," Mae wrote in an email to an artist friend, Lynn Schirmer. (Schirmer is trying to organize other artists to test the museum similarly by going there and reenacting the conflict in order to get more clarity.)
Mae is a mainly performance-based artist who has created other works based on pieces in local museum collections. In the vein of Cindy Sherman, she built stage sets of paintings from the Frye Art Museum, set herself as the subject in them, and exhibited the resulting photographs. She has a BFA in the comparative history of ideas from UW and starts work in UW's program in museum studies in the fall. In September, she has a show opening at Shift Studio in the Tashiro-Kaplan building (where she has shown before), and she may include some work from her interaction with SAM.
Mae said her intention was to "unearth" the piece, to give it a new iteration that she saw as ultimately additive to the life of the piece, "if you think abstractly." She said she was fearful that she was misinterpreting the piece, "but it's definitely about interactivity and it's definitely about chance, sort of open." She researched its treatment in other venues. "It has been installed with a hammer made of glass before, where they put up signage saying do not touch so it was just the idea of the instruction instead of the instruction, and I was just curious of what the flexibility of this one was. Now I'm wondering, if people decided to rearrange things for aesthetic reasons, what would the staff have to do? Once the museum developed this objective of allowing the public to interact in this way, it seemed like the museum had this self-congratulatory attitude of Look, we did a good thing, the public likes it, aren't we so precious. But it happened because a person from the registrar's department coaxed a patron friend of his to hammer something else onto the wall when it had thus far been restricted to nails on a board. Later on, when I went in and did my intervention, I felt I was doing kind of the same thing."
Mae, the future museum-studies scholar, said she sees the situation as having revealed the hierarchies inside the museum: Someone who is assumed to be more educated from the administration (registrar's office) is allowed to interpret an artwork without permission, while someone on the guard staff isn't.
Mae also said she sees the situation as revealing of the museum's desire for some sense of order.
In the end, Mae probably got what she wanted: an experiment in "drawing attention to the work of curators," which she describes as a major component of her work.
And this piece is a perfect test case for the limits of what a museum can do or does do, and what an artist (like Ono, and others like her) might wish for from their works.
The million-dollar question is: What does Yoko have to say about all of this? Should Mae have been reprimanded and then fired for vandalism, or was her work a conceptual addition worthy of being included in the universe of Painting to Hammer a Nail?
I emailed Ono this morning and haven't heard back yet, but if I do, you'll be the first to know. She has (I think) responded before, when the mountain of paper began back in July:
Thank you, Jen! I had a great laugh with my friends. yoko
Posted by yoko ono on July 8, 2009 at 5:48 PM