This morning I woke up to several nagging feelings. One, I needed to talk to SAM curator Michael Darling, who'd been corresponding with Yoko Ono's studio about her work Painting to Hammer a Nail—which was the subject of a Seattle artist's intervention last week. (Darling was a major player in the story but I hadn't been able to get in touch with him yet.) The Seattle artist, Amanda Mae, was also working as a security guard at SAM at the time she performed what she called an "excavation" of the piece, although she wasn't on the clock when she did it (she was fired for it, but had already resigned). This whole thing inspired a pretty good comment thread yesterday.
Some people asked: why does this matter? It matters because it's about power, of course. And Ono's best work is about power. I'll get back to that. Now to Darling.
"I guess I can't argue with 'higher callings,'" curator Darling joked in a conversation this morning, referring to Mae's statement that her intervention was a "higher calling" than her work as a security guard. "But I think we could have avoided all of it if Amanda had just sort of come to me and said I'm concerned about this piece and where it's going and I would love to do this thing— something that honors Yoko Ono's role and her voice in the whole thing rather than jumping to conclusions that the museum is ruining this piece and that she is gallantly restoring it."
He said that immediately after Mae's intervention, he emailed Ono's studio "to make sure I wasn't imposing some rule that the artist didn't agree with, and they also backed up what I did." A creative interpretation of the instructions "Museum visitors are invited to pound a nail into this painting" (from the wall label) may be allowed, Darling said, but another artist adding her own "stamp" crosses the line.
What fascinates me is the role of Ono in all this: Despite her desire to share authority, she hovers out there as a god, or an oracle. She is the only one who knows the answers. Everybody wants to "honor" her "intentions," even though her intent is to share power with anybody who walks into the gallery.
Mae positioned herself as a demigod, as someone who knew better than the public. In an email to an artist friend of hers, she tossed off a reference to what the public was doing to Ono's piece as a "gang rape." When I spoke with her by phone, she didn't emphasize this point and instead talked more broadly. But it's this protection narrative that makes me most unsympathetic to Mae, and which caused the other nagging feeling I had this morning. Ono is an artist whose goal is now, and has always been, vulnerability to the interfering hands of a public. Unfortunately, it seems as if Mae's interpretation is either a dead misread or a convenient manipulation for the purpose of gaining attention.
Remember when I said Ono's best work was about power? Her greatest work was Cut Piece, which is almost precisely the opposite of this cumulative Seattle iteration of Painting to Hammer a Nail. In Cut Piece, Ono sat on a stage (first in 1964 in Japan, then in 1965 in New York at Carnegie Hall) with a pair of scissors and allowed people to come up and cut off her clothing.
Some of the people who came up to the stage were surprisingly vicious (especially one young man, if I'm remembering right). Ono sat still. Her acquiescence was also aggressive. Was she in control? What constituted control of this situation, anyway?
Darling's reference to Mae as having positioned herself as a "gallant" protector of Ono, Ono's knight in shining armor, raises gender implications that have always been part of Ono's work. If the transaction between an artwork and a viewer is semi-erotic, then how do the two share the choreography of positions? How do things change when the same question applies to two artists rather than to an artist and a viewer? Even if Mae wasn't aware of it, Mae essentially tried to wrestle Ono until she had her pinned, even if only for a second.
But Ono rolled right back on top.