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Thursday, September 9, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Don Hannula

Put `Hammering Man' In Chains Every Labor Day

THIS has not been a good year for labor.

The jobs President Clinton promised have yet to appear. Livable-wage work gives way to service jobs with paltry pay.

Labor unions decline. Monday's Labor Day parades were a hollow echo of glory days for working men and women.

Even in the arts, labor had a tough year.

In Olympia, a fickle Legislature took down the Twelve Labors of Hercules, the controversial mural in the House.

They felt the abstract art was out of sync with the dignified Capitol motif. Some lewd-eyed legislators conjured up Debbie-Does-Olympia-type porn in the murals.

Not even the Greek-mythology labors of Hercules could escape demeaning.

It's enough to make a working stiff sing the Labor Day Blues.

Then along came "Subculture Joe" with a statement. A good one.

Joe, a steelworker turned artist, and a dozen art-warfare guerrillas attached a huge sheet-metal ball and chain to the right leg of "Hammering Man," the Seattle Art Museum's 48-foot-high moving outdoor sculpture.

He said it was a Labor Day statement on the oppression of working people. "Supposedly `Hammering Man' represents the workers, but the workers are getting hammered," Joe said.

Truth is everywhere - even in the subculture.

This was not a slap-dash job. The sheet-metal ball was 19 feet around and the nine-link chain of plate steel stretched 5 feet. It weighed nearly 700 pounds. It blended perfectly with the huge

sculpture.

This ball and chain really struck a populist chord. Almost 70 percent of those responding to a KOMO-TV instant poll said it should stay. Petitions were being signed to keep it.

Alas, that's not possible.

Quietly, in the still of the night (actually 4 a.m. Wednesday), city engineers hauled away the "Hammering Man's" ball and chain and put in in storage at the request of the Seattle Arts Commission.

It's sad such a popular addition had such a short life.

But if the statue's creator, Jonathan Borofsky of Maine, wanted a ball and chain on his work he would have put one there. Also, because the ball and chain weren't fastened, there were safety and liability concerns about children crawling on the rolling ball.

Wendy Ceccherelli, arts commission executive director, said the owners can reclaim the ball and chain but must reimburse the city for cost of removal - about $500.

The art guerrillas were careful not to damage Borofsky's $450,000 sculpture. The shackle was lined with industrial rubber to protect the sculpture from scratches.

Somehow, the ball and chain put "Hammering Man" in publicly beloved company with Rich Beyer's "Waiting for the Interurban," the Fremont statue people love to dress up in everything from sou'westers to leis.

There are lots of versions of hammering men. Even downtown Helsinki has one. But none with a ball and chain. For a fleeting moment, Seattle's was unique.

Borofsky has had mixed feelings about the ball and chain. He was grateful for the group's care not to damage his work of art. In fact, he said it was in the true spirit of public art that the sculpture could evoke such a public reaction.

But the artist, talking by phone from Maine, said he's thought a lot about the ball-and-chain message.

"The ball and chain implication is that workers are mistreated, held down. It is a negative thing. I wanted my work to allow people to have both positive and negative feelings about work. The ball and chain simplifies and narrows my idea."

"Hammering Man" is a resilient piece of art. It crashed during installation, but rose again. It has been chained and unchained.

No, you can't have art guerrillas doing freelance editing of public art.

But Subculture Joe showed a flair for making a tasteful art statement that shouldn't be buried in a city building forever.

I have a humble suggestion to make the sculpture a truly different piece of moving art that wouldn't cripple Borofsky's intent.

Re-shackle "Hammering Man" every Labor Day weekend until the lingering hammer of hard times is lifted from working men and women.

Don Hannula's column appears Thursday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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