John Lennon once described Yoko Ono as “the worlds most famous unknown artist”, adding that “everybody knows who she is but nobody knows what she does”. Forty years later, her work is undoubtedly more familiar to the world but for some there still remains an air of detachment, mystery and misunderstanding about who she is and what she represents in an artistic sense.
Ono, now 79, is a fascinating series of paradoxes. Childlike, rebellious and fiercely independent yet still most famous for her deeply impacting and very public love with Lennon, she is bound by the weight of her own lifestory. In that context, the only way to objectively view the exhibition is to attempt to put any negativity or prejudice to one side and leave any preconceptions at the door.
First, the history. Ono has been working as an artist, film-maker, poet, musician, writer, performance artist and peace activist for more than five decades. A radical pioneer, she was associated with the 1960s anti-establishment, avant-garde underground movement Fluxus, rooted in the belief that art could change society. As such, the power of ritual and a search for truth became central to her artistic practices as well as the idea that overcoming belligerence lies in our own imagination.
Yoko Ono: TO THE LIGHT is a comprehensive retrospective with new works although many of these revisit ideas conceived in the 1960s, hence much of the work is dated both then and now. This succeeds in giving it a more contemporary feel, documenting Ono’s ongoing concerns rather than being merely a chronological journey. It begins with a room of war-themed work, collectively titled PIECES OF SKY and is accompanied by the dramatic sound of a hawk screeching. THREE MOUNDS (1999/2012) is quite literally three large identical mounds of earth on the floor labelled Country A, Country B and Country C, the clear message being that in the context of war, our divisions are man-made. The infamous poster slogan WAR IS OVER (if you want it) (1969/2012), sits on the wall behind, the ever-present voice of hope, instantly recalling the infamous bed-in for peace and the mantra “Give Peace a Chance”. In the affecting HELMETS (2001/2012), upturned Second World War soldiers’ helmets hang from the ceiling, filled with jigsaw puzzle pieces of blue sky. Observing the room in totality, it hits home that the message of non-violence is every bit as relevant and necessary today as it was in the 1960s. The works are complemented by the hypnotic Eyeblink fluxfilm 15 (1966), which possesses a calm, composing purity, effectively a human clock keeping time and documenting tragedy as life moves on, to the ticking of an audible looped heartbeat.
Between 1964 and 1972, Ono made sixteen films. Her films are consciously experimental, minimal and conceptual in structure, and rely to some extent on a degree of imagination from the viewer. FLY (1970), follows the movements of a fly across the body of a naked woman lying down and seemingly asleep. The camera follows the fly in close up as it explores different parts of the woman’s body. It is only at the very end of the film that the camera draws back revealing in fact several flies which gives it an entirely different perspective and shifts the emphasis from the fly to the woman’s body. Nakedness is reprised in Film No. 4 (Bottoms) (1967) which was made in Ono’s apartment in New York using a 16mm film camera shooting at twenty-four frames per second. It shows the naked buttocks of friends that Ono filmed as they walked on the spot. Whilst now it is arguably more humorous than erotic, the effect is still potent.
Yet it is the performance film CUT PIECE (1964/1965) that is Ono’s undoubted masterpiece, managing to be both tense and vulnerable. As she kneels impassively on a stage, members of the audience are invited to cut away Ono’s clothes until she is naked. It is the unpredictability of what might happen that makes the performance so compelling. Two versions are shown here, and in the updated CUT PIECE (1964/2003), the performance is repeated albeit in a more respectful and restrained manner, the audience reverent, the subject dignified. The two films can be viewed independently or in tandem and are both ritually powerful and absorbing.
The time that has elapsed since some of these works were created is exemplified in Film No. 5 (Smile) (1968), which shows Lennon gazing at the camera before his expression slowly turns into a smile. The underlying message that the world is one and love bonds all of us emerges from Ono’s original concept in 1967 to make a film “showing the smiles of all the people in the world”. Taking the concept but moving with technology into the present day, #smilesfilm is a participatory project aimed at connecting people across the world, inviting people to upload images of their smiles to photo-sharing sites with the hashtag #smilesfilm, from which all the smiles will be collated to form “a global string of smiles covering the planet and shooting to the Universe”. The images are shown on a large screen, bringing true evolution through technological revolution.
Set at the centre of the exhibition is AMAZE (1971/2012), a perspex maze leading to a hollow black box with a mirrored base that is filled with water. It is a fascinatingly disorientating and immersive labyrinth, not least because it transforms the viewer from the observer to the observed and defies it’s own apparent simplicity.
The presence of Lennon can again be found in CEILING PAINTING (1966), the work which notoriously attracted him to Ono at her Indica Gallery show in 1966. It comprises a stepladder that leads to a tiny framed note on the ceiling. When viewing it with a dangling magnifying glass, it reveals simply the typed word “Yes”. It was this positive ethos that so impressed Lennon, being in stark contrast to so many of her contemporaries at that time. JOHN PLUS ME (1972), is a print of Lennon and Ono’s footsteps on white paper. In an accompanying note, Ono records that looking at the work nearly forty years later, she held the paper and noticed that the footsteps go from the floor towards the ceiling, realising for the first time that they were walking to the sky.
Throughout the exhibition there are a series of notes and instruction pieces which are both humorous and thought-provoking. There is also PAINTING TO BE STEPPED ON, (1961/2012), which is a piece of canvas laid on the floor to literally be walked across, and a series of works collectively titled A FAMILY ALBUM which both intrigue and disturb in equal measure.
Outside of the gallery and set amidst the natural beauty of Kensington Gardens, PLAY IT BY TRUST, (1966/2012), is a large all-white chessboard with all-white pieces. It effectively asks the question how to proceed when it is not possible to distinguish your opponent and delivers the message that in life you do not always know what is yours and what is theirs – sometimes you have to convince people of what is yours. It is a typically Ono-esque statement, using simplicity to deliver a powerful message and it is a simplicity repeated at the entrance to the gallery, where members of the public are invited to write a wish on a tag and tie it to one of the WISH TREES (1996/2012).
Whilst it may be these unrelenting messages of peace and love that irk many, it is hard to deny that Ono is a true original and that honesty permeates all of her work, only occasionally becoming cloying when it strays into seeming naivety. Yet, interestingly, this is in fact her strength, and some would say her manifesto – being aware of the beauty of mundane things, breaking down complex ideas into simple visual statements and then turning them into universal messages. To the critics out there, just ask the question that if for one day, we could live in the world Ono visualises, would the world not be a better place? As the song Imagine famously says, “above us only sky”. For the duration of this exhibition at least, we are all under a Yoko sky.
Yoko Ono: TO THE LIGHT, 19th June until 9th September, Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London, W2 3XA. www.serpentinegallery.org
Text: Matt Swain
Installation view, Yoko Ono: TO THE LIGHT
Serpentine Gallery, London
(19 June – 9 September 2012)
© 2012 Jerry Hardman-Jones