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Monday, August 24, 2009

Dear Yoko: This Is an Intervention

Posted by on Mon, Aug 24, 2009 at 2:34 PM

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
Yoko Ono
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


Comments (30) RSS

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michael strangeways 1
yoko has friends?
Posted by michael strangeways on August 24, 2009 at 2:47 PM · Report this
I agree that there is a wide grey area about whether Mae's actions would be considered ok or not in terms of the artwork, but her own statements about it do little to make me want to take her side. She comes across as someone who deliberately did something provocative that would result in a negative response (seriously - otherwise she'd have done it when she wasn't on the clock), to bask in the glow of attention generated from someone else's work.

"She chose to be an artist rather than to be a guard ('for me it was a higher calling,' she said)..." Yeesh, how freakin pretentious can you get.
Posted by genevieve on August 24, 2009 at 2:48 PM · Report this
yes pretentious. but she'll probably get alot more attention for her action after having been fired. and then she'll do a whole show about it, and jen will cover it in the stranger, and the whole tedious and self-referential circle jerk will continue, and everyone can pat themselves on the back...

p.s. good luck finding a job in this economy. i hear the "higher calling" sector has been particularly hard-hit by the recession...
Posted by b1ng on August 24, 2009 at 2:52 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 4
She should have just set them on fire and used the now-wet ashes after the sprinklers came on to write Yoko's name on the wall with.
Posted by Will in Seattle on August 24, 2009 at 3:19 PM · Report this
Jason Josephes 5
She's a regular Blaine Patnode, she is.
Posted by Jason Josephes on August 24, 2009 at 3:29 PM · Report this
Ohmygoodness! Amanda talked to me about this at a party last week -- she invited several of us to come out and watch her "performance piece". I would have come if I hadn't been working.


@6 - Amanda was not on duty during this; she was doing it specifically as a patron of the museum, not as an employee.
Posted by arts&letters on August 24, 2009 at 3:42 PM · Report this
Julie in Eugene 8
Did she do this on the clock or not? That makes a bit of a difference to me in what I think about this. If not, I don't see how firing her makes any sense. If so, I think it's a little grayer... maybe firing her on the grounds that she wasn't doing her actual job at the time, sure.

But, regardless, what a bunch of bullshit this statement is: "altering a work of art hanging on the wall of a museum is never really an okay thing to do." I mean, for crying out loud, the whole point of what you're doing with that piece is to break museum "norms" and have it be interactive. You can either make rules about the interaction or not. This museum did not (e.g., they could have put up a sign that said "feel free to add your contribution, but please don't remove anything).
Posted by Julie in Eugene on August 24, 2009 at 3:43 PM · Report this
Sorry I was not clearer about this: Mae's performance was *not* while she was on the clock. She came in on her day off, as a patron.

I just spoke to her again. Her termination letter reads, "It is inappropriate for staff, especially for security staff, to do anything with the art other than protect the art, and to protect the intent of the art. You took it upon yourself to dismantle a piece of art, which is not your prerogative. It is for these reasons that you are being let go from your employment with the museum."

I asked whether she wanted to be fired.

"I didn't want to be fired, no, I wanted to engage with the piece of art, but it should be noted that I had given my notice recently—but I hadn't finished my shift yet," she said. "I wasn't trying to be fired, for the record. I was just surprised that they misinterpreted the effort so much that it became this other thing."
Posted by Jen Graves on August 24, 2009 at 3:59 PM · Report this
If she wasn't working (the post make it sound like she was on duty), that makes a difference, I guess. But I do think it's fair to hold employees to a standard of behavior when they're the 'customer'. I mean, if a server comes into a restaurant and does a dine + dash, would anyone be surprised if they got canned the next time they showed up to work?

Like I said before, she clearly meant this to provoke, not just other attendees but her employers. Not saying she shouldn't have done it, but if her intent was to still have a job afterwards, one would think she'd have checked in with SAM about whether what she wanted to do was kosher or not.

Posted by genevieve on August 24, 2009 at 4:07 PM · Report this
amanda mae 12
Not to join into the "circle jerk" but my brief artist statement about this performance is available on my website: under the "projects" page.
Posted by amanda mae on August 24, 2009 at 4:17 PM · Report this
Fnarf 15
Here's an idea: don't fuck with shit that isn't yours.

Here's another: don't put Yoko Ono in your museum. She was an interesting sidelight in the giddy 60s London art world, but that was forty years ago. Her stuff is impossibly dated and lame today. Just another dead end. It didn't get better with heroin, either.
Posted by Fnarf on August 24, 2009 at 4:41 PM · Report this
Jaymz 16
I am a Landmark Member of SAM and we went with the kids a week or so ago and added our own scrap to the piece with the provided hammer and a nail (a ferry schedule since we came in to the city that way). It was packed with interesting things and we saw some stuff falling off and figured it would be left that way to the end of the show. I don't think the employee should have messed with it - very poor judgment - and I agree with SAM's decision here.
Posted by Jaymz on August 24, 2009 at 4:52 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 17
The fact that she was "creating" her own installation seems like a firing offense to me, but I guess I'm just sick of artists who won't create their own work.
Posted by keshmeshi on August 24, 2009 at 5:00 PM · Report this
Max Solomon 18
wait - you gave your notice, and then they fired you? unemployment check bonus!
Posted by Max Solomon on August 24, 2009 at 5:08 PM · Report this
gettingtoknowyoubetter 19
Wow. This is kind of unbelievable and makes me wonder if there was some other reason why she was fired.

It is key that she did not violate the rules. Nowhere on the title card does it say "Take out the trash in your pocket and nail it to the wall." Nowhere does it say that nothing should be removed. The premise for the interaction with this piece was totally random, which makes SAM's reaction absurd. Does Michael Darling know the career boost he gave Amanda Mae by firing her for this?
Posted by gettingtoknowyoubetter on August 24, 2009 at 5:34 PM · Report this
Museum Studies?
All that awaits her is unemployment or a job with poor pay and no future. Although, I must admit, pulling off this stunt after having already resigned was quite clever. I wonder what she has planned for the Museology faculty.
Posted by dj007 on August 24, 2009 at 5:47 PM · Report this
A) She was fired on her last day.
B) She lied and told people (other guards/her boss) That she had permission.
C) Yoko wanted to keep the piece intact so it could be photographed and documented.

Its to bad that Ms. Mae hadn't gotten permission and done her piece on the last day of the show after Yoko got her documentation. It would of made for a thought provoking close to the show as opposed to an attention spectacle.
Posted by Seafoodsalesman on August 24, 2009 at 5:56 PM · Report this
Julie in Eugene 22
@11 - But a dine + dash is clearly illegal. A better analogy would be, what if a server came in and was a rude customer. To me, it would depend on exactly how rude and exactly what was said/done as to whether it would be appropriate to fire the off-duty server.

I have no comment on the value of her actions as art. But, it seems like, the museum wouldn't want just a regular person dismantling the work (which is fine by me). But, I wonder what would the repercussions be if a regular patron did it? Would they just be asked to stop? Would they be kicked out? Would they be arrested?

The action wasn't explicitly prohibited and to me it falls into a gray area of what might or might not be appropriate. The piece was interactive and there were no explicit rules vs. her actions violated the spirit of the piece. There's no clear answer, which is why firing her seems like not a proportionate response.
Posted by Julie in Eugene on August 24, 2009 at 5:58 PM · Report this
Julie in Eugene 23
@21 - That's additional context (#2 and #3, anyways), which, if true, changes my opinion. She should have been fired.

And @18 - typically you don't get unemployment if you're fired for cause.
Posted by Julie in Eugene on August 24, 2009 at 6:04 PM · Report this
translinguistic other 24
This girl wants attention, we're all giving it to her. Guess who wins?

Happy fame, Amanda Mae.
Posted by translinguistic other on August 24, 2009 at 6:11 PM · Report this
Another good reason to boycott this 3rd rate museum.
Posted by Pat on August 24, 2009 at 6:28 PM · Report this

Isn't the overarching issue here the line between conceptual art and the market or institution? In other words, conceptual art is about an idea, not an object. I look forward to Ono's reply because the idea that Amanda Mae is suggesting has to do with the role of museum curator (remember all our fun experiences during the NEA IAJI)? In the end, I've never quite been able to grasp the idea of art wholly and purely as concept, because museums collect and display and galleries sell. Every scrap of paper is now a part of this art and Mae's response is equally a part of the art. It is no longer just a concept but an object. There's a reason artists like Donald Judd took matters into their own hands and created their own personal spaces--interference from curators and museums.

Leanne Goebel
Posted by ArtWriter on August 24, 2009 at 7:52 PM · Report this
gettingtoknowyoubetter 27
I can't imagine Yoko Ono having a problem with what Amanda Mae did; I would think that she'd find it mildly amusing at worst (or best). Maybe she'll have another laugh with her friends and forget about it.

It's interesting that the curator didn't let the public in on the real intent for the piece: that the debris-posting was started by a museum employee; that a decision was made to allow it; that other decisions were made regarding what was not to be allowed; that the fallen "notes" (more like gum wrappers) were being meticulously saved for Ono; that it was to be documented at the end.

That Mae was privy to this information as a museum guard makes it clear that it was the curatorial work she intended to offend; not the artist's.

This "installation" of Mae's failed NOT because she took advantage of a platform that wasn't hers to get attention and serve her own interests. Artists do that all the time. It failed because she was ethically clumsy, letting her "higher" efforts get tangled up with her responsibilities as an employee, even though she was not working at the time. She was quitting her job anyway. By getting herself fired -- as opposed to simply quitting -- she'll be eligible for unemployment benefits. That's manipulative and sloppy.
Posted by gettingtoknowyoubetter on August 24, 2009 at 8:23 PM · Report this
sirkowski 28
Doesn't make a difference if she was on the clock or not. The museum admin's fucking anal and pretentious and deserves a swift kick up the ass.
Posted by sirkowski on August 24, 2009 at 8:54 PM · Report this
LaRiiiiM0RrrHAwtiiii696969 29

Posted by LaRiiiiM0RrrHAwtiiii696969 on August 24, 2009 at 11:40 PM · Report this
I think I'd like to ADD about 2 yards of concrete and incase the entire piece. Or how about ADD twenty feet of razor wire around it? The statement by S.A.M., that it's an "Add Only" piece, is a lame excuse and a frail attempt to protct themselves from litigation. If it was "Add Only" then state that next to the piece, in big bold letters: "PLEASE ADD TO THIS MOCKERY AND DO NOT REMOVE ANYTHING FROM IT OR YOU WILL BE SHOT ON SITE!".

Darling and his cohorts should be removed from S.A.M. immediately and not be given ANY authority when it comes to ART!
Posted by Noah Body on August 25, 2009 at 9:25 AM · Report this
Greg 33
Everybody comes off looking like a jerk here: Amanda Mae, SAM, and Yoko Ono.
Posted by Greg on August 26, 2009 at 8:20 AM · Report this
It's unfortunate that this peice evolved the way it did, in the least organic way possible. SAM gave everybody the pacifier that they would have cryed about by removing the nail that was driven through the chain connected to the hammer. This nail in effect crippled the peice and made it very difficult to get any momentum when swinging the hammer. Somebody at SAM decided that the people of Seattle deserved to to feel important and removed this nail. This action alone extended the life of the peice and enabled the giant tribute to garbage and nothingness that exists on the gallery wall today. I'm sure Yoko Ono would be very pleased to see the droves of fannypack wearing rednecks that come into the museum just because they have air conditioning, rifle through their wallets and nail whatever reciepts they have to wall. Amanda Mae is pretentious and boring in her her attempts at subversion. SAM is an amusement park and everybody loves that stupid ride with the hammer and nails.
Posted by LZRSOS on August 26, 2009 at 3:04 PM · Report this
Interesting story and well reported, thanks Jen!
Posted by Ryan Molenkamp on August 27, 2009 at 9:01 AM · Report this
zedomax 36
Ridiculous, it's obviously abuse of power of the manager, that's why I hate managers. Good for Mae, I bet she has a better future ahead of her, stay away from the museum! Best, Max.
Posted by zedomax on October 14, 2009 at 9:19 PM · Report this

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