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  • Nov 01, 2009

Yoko Ono Work Controversy

YOKO ONO’s Painting to Hammer a Nail, 1961, with various items nailed on by visitors, at the Seattle Art Museum, 2009. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

The hammering of nails could be heard during the early weeks of “Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949–78” at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), as visitors followed the instructions on a placard next to a 1961 Yoko Ono work—consisting of a hammer, a trough of nails and a white wood panel—entitled Painting to Hammer a Nail: “Visitors are invited to pound a nail into this painting.” By August 19, six weeks after the show opened, the artwork sat barely visible in the center of a maze of chewing- gum wrappers, business cards, fliers, plastic bags, receipts and assorted stray bits of paper that had been nailed on and around the work. The museum contacted Ono, who reportedly endorsed the spontaneous activity on the condition that the material be returned to her as part of the work at the exhibition’s end on September 7. On August 20, Amanda Mae, a museum security guard and local artist, troubled by the way in which “[the] institution [had] allowed the public to obstruct the artwork,” according to a statement on her blog, began removing the extraneous material with the intention of organizing it and restoring the work as closely as possible to the state it was in when the exhibition began. After half an hour, her “performance,” which she called Yoko Ono Excavation Survey (YES) was halted by SAM’s curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Michael Darling.

Though Mae was not on duty as a guard that day, on August 21 she received a letter from SAM terminating her employment at the museum. The reason for her dismissal has not been made explicit to the public, but Darling stated, in a conversation with art critic Jen Graves, that “altering a work of art hanging on the wall of a museum is never really an okay thing to do.” 

Yet the participatory nature of the work in question runs contrary to this general statement. Throughout her career, Ono has invited viewers to participate in completing her works, comparing her role as an artist to writing a musical score for others to perform. Painting to Hammer a Naildemands of the museum that established rules, such as those that prevent viewers from touching works, are temporarily suspended. In firing Mae, however, Darling suggested that there is a limit to the extent to which the power dynamic between artist, viewer and institution can be disturbed. What is unclear is who should regulate that limit, and who should decide the point at which participation becomes intervention and, subsequently, vandalism.

In a letter sent to Mae after the event, curator of the Yoko Ono Archive Jon Hendricks condemned her actions as disrespectful, explaining that she behaved as a kind of “art police,” presuming that “[she] knew better than the artist what the artist’s intentions were.” Curator Todd Levin, who featured Painting to Hammer a Nail in “Your Gold Teeth II” at New York’s Marianne Boesky Gallery at the same time as the SAM show, declared to ArtAsiaPacific that “there is no such thing as art conduct; it is an oxymoron, like military intelligence.” When asked about the situation in Seattle, however, Levin did concede that there is a model for appropriate behavior: “As far as I am concerned, artists only abandon control when they deem an artwork to be finished. They then relinquish control through a sale or donation.  In this case, the work is only borrowed for the exhibition, and so the artist has the final word.” It should be noted that the version of Painting at Marianne Boesky, a commercial space, did not carry a placard explaining the work’s participatory intent.

While those officially involved in the farrago are speaking for themselves in defense of the artist’s intentions, Ono has made it clear that she wishes to refrain from judgment of the consequences. “First the piece became covered with many things and lost its shape,” she told AAP in September. “I thought it was hilarious, and loved it! Then a woman decided that was not good, and tried to put the work back to its original shape. Then the museum decided that the woman should not have done that and fired her. Things keep happening, very much like life itself, with the original instructions being the genesis of it all. Life is beyond criticism, much less mine.”

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