Peter Seeger and Lee Hays wrote “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” in 1949 as a simple folk song backing the U.S. progressive movement. However, the song’s political message was considered so threatening that Seeger was assaulted for playing the song at a concert. Over the years, it has been chosen as a representative song for the Civil Rights Movement and, more recently, WikiLeaks.
For the opening of “Matrix 249” at the Berkeley Art Museum, the song has also become an important source of reflection for Oakland-based artist Zarouhie Abdalian. Her work, “Ad libitum (If I Had a Hammer),” is a lengthy brass wire fixed on the museum’s wall with demarcations along the string showing the pitches in Seeger’s and Hays’ seminal song. The sounds that come from a single piece of brass wire, barely noticeable from a distance, evoke fragments of the influential song if one can fill in the lyrical and melodic gaps. The piece introduces the delicate relationship between sight of the object and the sound it makes as well as the subjectivity of sound based on the listener’s ability to contextualize it.
The sculpture “Each envelope as before” is a glossy black vitrine with a concealed hammer hitting the inner box, which creates a distinct and rhythmic tapping noise. One of the museum’s curators, Apsara DiQuinzio, commented that the acoustics of the museum helped the sound ring through the third floor, creating an ominous atmosphere as a listener might have trouble determining the source of the tick-tock sound. This piece plays with the idea of something that is heard but cannot be seen, which evokes the transcending influence of the Civil Rights Movement, when minorities who were neglected and considered invisible by the law and the media collectively generated a voice that could be heard around the world. This piece allows one to ponder the relationship between visibility and audibility.
The last sculpture, “As a demonstration,” is the reverse concept of “Each envelope as before” as it shows an electronic bell inside a vacuum container. Although you can see the rod continuously hit the bell, you can’t hear the ring, because the sound doesn’t have air to travel through. In light of the recent controversy surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden, during which the government tried to extradite him, “As a demonstration” feels even more meaningful. DiQuinzio suggested that the sculptures “Each envelope as before” and “As a demonstration” work together to show the ebb and flow of the suppression and revelation of voices.
Later this year, Abdalian will be exhibiting her SECA Art Award project, commissioned by SFMOMA. The piece will be on display from Sept. 14 to Nov. 17 in downtown Oakland around the Frank Ogawa Plaza, a historic square for public gatherings and the Occupy Oakland protests. The public artwork will consist of five brass bells on the rooftops of public and private buildings that will ring together daily at random times. Similar to “Each envelope as before,” the bells are out of sight, creating an ephemeral and perplexing experience for passers-by. The public location of this piece, like her previous publicly displayed artwork, “Flutter,” helps create discourse among the locals about the jurisdiction and restriction of sound and information by individuals or the state. In her quartet of artworks, Abdalian conceptualizes the hammer and bell in internal and external spaces to metaphorize the interaction between sight and sound.