Hammer a Nail In
CURRENTS, at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, January 1990)
Yoko Ono‘s art is rooted in the avant‑garde art of the early 1960’s, when Alan Kaprow‘s Happenings, John Cage‘s music based on random sounds, and Joseph Beuys‘s actions turned artists and audience into performers and participants in loosely structured events designed to destablize the traditional boundaries between art and life.
Throughout the 60’s, Yoko Ono participated in performance pieces like “Cut Piece“, where she sat on a stage while people in the audience came up and cut pieces from her clothes. She also created conceptual works such as “Painting to Be Stepped On“, “Painting to See the Room Through” and “Painting to Be Constructed in Your Head“. Her “Painting to Hammer a Nail In” was a wooden panel, painted white, with a hammer attached to it on a chain. Viewers were asked to hammer nails into it.
Many of the artists who participated in Happenings eventually felt a need to return to the solidity and permanence of objects. Joseph Beuys created multiples ‑ such as small pieces of felt cut from a large felt sculpture ‑ which served as relics of the action. Robert Rauschenberg retreated to the studio but plowed his experience into complex, many‑layered paintings and prints. (“Currents” is also the title of a series of prints that Rauschenberg made from collages of newspaper clippings.)
Ono dropped out of art‑making 20 years ago, for reasons far too well known to bear repeating here. She came back to object‑making last year by casting in bronze some of her old conceptual works. The original and the bronze version of “Painting to Hammer a Nail In” are both exhibited here.
The 1961 piece is battered and bruised. The paint is cracked; the nails are black and bent. The 1988 bronze is shiny and metallic; the nails gleam like gold. The juxtaposition of the original and the bronze is a metaphor for transformation of fleeting moments and chaotic events into images. The happening is cast in bronze, and the messy, random tracks of life become a solid, shiny work of art.
Ono’s 1990 room‑size installation “Hammer a Nail In” pushes the metaphor even further. Here, you are confronted with a large wooden cross, a few hammers, and a bucket of nails. You are invited to hammer a nail in, and you can choose to see it as a work of art or as a religious ritual. Given the weight of the symbol, it’s virtually impossible to treat hammering a nail into this cross as a routine, meaningless act.
Every viewer who chooses to participate will have a different experience. For me, it was a moving meditation on loss, change, and getting a second chance. As one of the characters in William Faulkner‘s novel The Wild Palms says,
“Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.”
by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com