Wednesday, June 04, 2008

'Assassination' of Clinton, Obama artist questioned, vows to reopen installation

The piece is part of the installation Yazmany Arboleda entitled, 'The Assassination of Barack Obama.'

An artist looking to make a big splash got the attention of the Secret Service Wednesday when he tried to open a midtown exhibit "The Assassination of Hillary Clinton/The Assassination of Barack Obama."

Yazmany Arboleda, whose button-pushing shows barely caused a ripple when they were recently unveiled in Chelsea, was grilled by agents after he had the provocative title stenciled on the windows of a West 40th St. storefront.

Arboleda was questioned for an hour and publicly denounced by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly before he was released. He was not charged with a crime.

"It's my right as an artist to have that sign up," the defiant 27-year-old artist said after he was sprung.

Arboleda insisted his show was about the "character assassination" of the candidates and that he intends to open his exhibit tomorrow.

"There's no blood, there's no guns, there's no reference to violence," he said. "My work is about words and how the media has torn them apart."

Kelly called Arboleda's inflammatory art "totally inappropriate" and added, "This is all under investigation."

"Obviously it could be interpreted as advocating harm," Kelly said. "Our lawyers are researching it to determine if there are any violations of law."

Clinton was in town and Obama was en route to the city a day after he clinched the Democratic
Party's presidential nomination when Arboleda got his 15 minutes of fame.

Born in Boston, raised in Colombia, and based in New York, Arboleda said he was sleeping when cops swooped down on the storefront at 9:30 a.m.

"I woke up frantically after two hours of sleep," he said. "The landlord said there's a ton of police here - what did you do? They padlocked the building. They said you need to take down the sign. There were 10 police cars and tons of policemen. It was incredibly frantic."

While Arboleda was questioned "about his motivation," cops taped brown paper over the title on the plate glass windows.

Arboleda said he was grilled about guns, asked if he'd been institutionalized, questioned about whether he'd ever attended any campaign rallies - and was photographed.

His Obama and Clinton installations made their debut in the city in March.

"The Assassination of Barack Obama" was on display for all of that month at The Naomi Gates Gallery on West 22nd St. in Chelsea.

"The installation explores the figurative, but highly effective attempts by the American populace to assassinate Barack Obama's reputation," a press release states.

It describes Arboleda's style as "take no prisoners." Any potential public outrage was apparently dampened by the gallery's insistence that the exhibit be viewed by appointment only "due to the highly sensitive and controversial nature of the material presented."

Arboleda's "The Assassination of Hillary Clinton" ran simultaneously at the Leah Keller Gallery on West 24th St.

"Arboleda shows the extreme effects of a society intent on castrating anyone in power," the press release states.

That show was also by appointment only.

‘Assassination’ Artist Is Questioned and Released

Artist ArrestThe sign for an art installation inside a storefront at 264 West 40th Street was later covered up.

By Sewell Chan

Updated, 3:30 p.m. | This morning, a Boston-born performance artist, Yazmany Arboleda, tried to set up a provocative art exhibition in a vacant storefront on West 40th Street in Midtown Manhattan with the title, “The Assassination of Hillary Clinton/The Assassination of Barack Obama,” in neatly stenciled letters on the plate glass windows at street level.

By 9:30 a.m., New York City police detectives and Secret Service agents had shut down the exhibition, and building workers had quickly covered over the inflammatory title with large sheets of brown paper and blue masking tape. The gallery is across the street from the southern entrance to The New York Times building.

The police officers declined to answer any questions, and at first would not permit reporters to speak with Mr. Arboleda, who was wearing a black T-shirt and making cellphone calls from inside the makeshift gallery.

Later, Mr. Arboleda, who is 27, said in an interview: “It’s art. It’s not supposed to be harmful. It’s about character assassination — about how Obama and Hillary have been portrayed by the media.” He added, “It’s about the media.”

Mr. Arboleda said the exhibition was to open on Thursday and run all day.

The interview was abruptly ended as Mr. Arboleda was led off to the Midtown South police precinct station for what he called an interrogation.

Reached by telephone this morning, Eric Joza, the building manager for the building at 264 West 40th Street, between Eighth and Seventh Avenues, said: “I had no idea what he was going to do. All I knew is that he was an artist and was going to use the store for two days: today and tomorrow.” There are offices above the storefront.

Mr. Joza would not identify the building’s owner, and he would not disclose the terms of the lease or the previous occupant of the storefront, beyond saying that the storefront had been vacant.

Mr. Arboleda has even set up elaborate Web sites, one for Mrs. Clinton and one for Mr. Obama.

Shortly after 11:30 a.m., Mr. Arboleda called reporters to let them know that he had been released.

Cover UpAfter the police arrived, building workers quickly covered up the installation.

“The Secret Service had to do a whole questionnaire with me,” he said. “It was about an hour of questioning. They asked if I owned guns, if I was a violent person, if I had ever been institutionalized.”

Mr. Arboleda answered no. Nonetheless, he said the Secret Service asked him if he would voluntarily take down the exhibition title from the window.

“I’m renting that space; the space was allocated for an exhibition and it’s my right to put those words up,” he said. “They said it could incite someone to do something crazy, like break the window. It’s terrible, because they’re violating my rights. If someone breaks a window, they’re committing a crime.”

He added, “The exhibition is supposed to be about character assassination. It’s philosophical and metaphorical.”

He said he had not yet decided whether to take down the exhibition’s title, saying he first needed to speak to representatives of the building’s owner.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, speaking to reporters at 1 Police Plaza around noon, said, “I am not certain he has been arrested,” then added, “He put up signs indicating the assassination of Senator Clinton and Barack Obama. And we notified the Secret Service. This individual is being spoken to. He apparently made statements that had to with their reputation. This is all under investigation.”

Asked whether the artwork was being seen as dangerous, Mr. Kelly said: “Obviously, it sounds totally inappropriate. We need more information as to what the purpose of it was. As I say, apparently he made some statements that he was referring to their reputations … don’t know, we will have to get more information. But he is being questioned now by our detectives and the Secret Service.”

Mr. Kelly was also asked why the artist would be questioned at all. “Why would we question him?” he responded. “Well, we want to determine what his motives are. Obviously they could be interpreted as advocating harm to protectees; both of the senators, of course, are now being provided Secret Service protection, that’s why the Secret Service was interested; both of them are federal employees, so, ah, of course it is a concern to federal authorities as it is to ourselves. Our lawyers are researching it and will determine if there are any violations of law; right now he is being questioned.”

(In fact, when Mr. Kelly spoke, Mr. Arboleda had already been released from custody a short while earlier.)

Special Agent Eric P. Zahren, a spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington, emphasized in a telephone interview that the agency did not seek to shut down the show.

“We did not shut down that exhibit or request that anybody else shut it down,” Agent Zahren said. “This was brought to our attention, we went out there and had a conversation with the individual, but we did not shut it down.”

According to Mr. Arboleda’s Web sites, he was born in Boston in 1981 and lives in New York City. His family moved to MedellĂ­n, Colombia, shortly after he was born, and lived there until 1992. He holds a master’s degree in architecture from the Catholic University of America and has been trained in photography, painting, fashion design and graphic design. His first solo show, “The New Vitruvians,” was presented at Tribeca Issey Miyake in 2007.

Assassination has been the subject of many cultural products, including even a Stephen Sondheim musical, “Assassins.” But in the post-9/11 context, recent comments touching on assassination during this political season — including references by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton — have hit a nerve, and have been followed by apologies.

The safety of Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee, has been an issue. When he was assigned Secret Service coverage in May 2007, it was the earliest point in a campaign that a candidate had been given protection. In February, Jeff Zeleny of The Times wrote a Political Memo on the “hushed worry” on the minds of many Obama supporters; it mentioned how his wife, Michelle Obama, had voiced concerns about his safety.

“Checkpoint,” a 2004 novel by Nicholson Baker, purported to plumb the thoughts of a would-be presidential assassin. In 2006, a British digital-television station commissioned a 90-minute film, “Death of a President,” about the aftermath of a fictional assassination of President Bush by a sniper.

SpaceBy 10 a.m., the installation was completely covered with brown paper and blue tape.