Right behind Hammering Man at Seattle Art Museum, in the tower of the former Washington Mutual—now JPMorgan Chase—hundreds, if not thousands, of people are losing their jobs. Are you considering renaming your sculpture "Laid-Off Man"?
Uh, the answer is no, I'm not considering renaming. But it is a difficult moment, isn't it? Hammering Man still stands for the worker in all of us, that's the simple answer I usually give to what the piece means, and if these people are laid off, the goal is still to get them back to work again. The piece has always had a big idea of humanity working together, hence the idea of several large ones all hammering at the same time around the world: Basel, Seoul, Frankfurt, Seattle.
Is there any way Hammering Man could be used to create jobs?
If you're asking whether I could put people to work building them, I certainly could direct. But now we have to go buy the steel, and that's where the problem begins. [Laughs] I do work with a factory in Los Angeles, and when I get a project it puts those guys into a good moment because they know they're going to get paid for another year. That's the best I can do. Unless I win the lottery.
Are you playing?
Once in a while. If you're in the market and there's tickets right there and it says $120 million, it's hard to resist.
It has been 16 years since Hammering Man was installed in Seattle. Back then, Boeing was still headquartered here.
At the time I did connect it to Boeing, but I don't think I was too specific when I made my presentation. In fact, I recently had a request from Norway, some people wanting a 25-meter one—which is very large, larger than yours. I don't know what the workforce is in this town in Norway, but the bigger idea does work for me. Because every city has a workforce that helps to make the whole thing go.
Have you seen Hammering Man in front of the new Seattle Art Museum building?
No. Do you have pictures? Send them on. We're putting together a new website.
Right now there's a labor dispute across the street from Hammering Man at the new Four Seasons. A sign out front says, "SHAME ON FOUR SEASONS." Does Hammering Man take sides in labor disputes?
Well, I've got a few thoughts going through my head. As you were describing that, I was flashing back to when I was originally there and there was some kind of nudie palace across the street.
That's still there: the Lusty Lady. Next to the Four Seasons.
So you can eat at the Four Seasons and then go in for your massage? Okay, enough.
Does Hammering Man take sides? Well, you know, if he is a metaphor for me, I naturally would like for everybody to be treated fairly. In these bailouts, the banks are getting reimbursed and the factory workers such as at General Motors, the workers themselves are not. I try to keep Hammering Man on a different level.
I can't figure you out. Are you a capitalist? A Marxist?
None of those make sense to me. I'm just a humanist. That's the best I can give you, and I'm not sure what that means except I'm really interested in human beings—how each of us can be happier and what keeps us from being happy. One of the ways to be happy is work. It's like the famous Gauguin painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?. As a child when I saw that painting, the painting was very pretty to look at with the colors of the tropics, but what really got me was the title. I was maybe 10, 12 years old and I thought, Ooh, artists can think like that. Maybe all those questions are more in the realm of philosophy and psychology, but I never quite bring it down to the Hammering Man as a protest for the underpaid worker.
What did you think on Labor Day in 1993, when a local artist named Jason Sprinkle attached a 700-pound ball and chain to Hammering Man?
First I was kind of concerned that the piece wasn't damaged, and I was told the ball and chain was padded, and I thought, that's a very sensitive act by that person; I was very taken with that. I explained that I certainly was sensitive to people being taken advantage of by a wealthier class, so it seemed fine if it stayed there a week, but if it was left there, it would make the idea of the piece smaller than it is. It would take the connection away from the other figures. The piece is larger in its goals.
Do you idealize work?
It's not like I walk in and clap my hands joyously every day. I have my own struggles. But I guess if I step back, well, I've made art my whole life. I haven't had to hold a menial job that I hate and that I get paid nine dollars an hour for. I am a little spoiled.
If you could install a Hammering Man anywhere in the world right now, where would he go?
I just did a large piece in China for the Olympics, based on the same idea. It was 126 life-size steel figures, silhouettey like Hammering Man, painted bright colors, and they were all bolted together to make one tower. But let's see. All right: Let's just put it in Iran. Let's just put it right there in Ahmadinejad's town, okay? Let's do that. Because if we're having any problems right now connecting to other parts of the world, there's one hot spot. We could put it in Jerusalem, but we'd have to really locate it right between the three temples there. Africa came to mind, but it takes a few hundred thousand dollars to make one of these, so it seems like that money should go to feeding people rather than building a sculpture.
You're 65 years old and a famous, successful artist. Is the economic crash affecting you?
I feel comfortable at the moment, but I can see it and feel it even from here in my little town of Ogunquit, Maine. I'm not going to get a call from a city saying we're interested in having you make a presentation for us like I did 10 years ago. Public art does depend on an outside industrial-based economy.
If Hammering Man could talk, what would he say?
The Hammering Man, he is my religious statement, religious without any particular god in mind, just that we're all connected. As long as we keep attacking each other, it's a very uncomfortable place to live, this planet. Learning how to live with each other is the big game, even in commerce, learning to live with China now, for instance. My work is kind of a prayer for that.