For an artist who has devoted her career to peace, love and understanding, Yoko Ono’s press call at the Museum of Contemporary Art was unpleasantly regimented. Journalists and photographers were herded from room to room like errant sheep, and it was made clear that questions about John Lennon would not be welcome. The only problem was Yoko herself, who apparently had not read the script.
This corporatised approach is a bad move for the MCA, which seemed, until recently, to be growing more user-friendly. It’s a reminder of the snobbery that prevails in so many parts of the international art scene, and is particularly ill-suited to a nation that prides itself – rightly or wrongly – on its democratic outlook.
Perhaps it was merely a case of being over-awed by Yoko Ono’s reputation. Wearing the hat and wraparound shades that have become her trademark in later life, the 80-year-old artist bounced around like a five-year-old at her own birthday party, saying lots of bizarre things in the most natural manner. The good news is that we will have created heaven on earth by 2050. It was also pleasing to learn that scientists have discovered there are billions of planets just like ours.
Ono was full of compassion for males, whom she now realises have had their share of suffering, alongside women. She also announced that we are all activists today, which would have been reassuring for wellknown activists such as NSW Arts Minister, George Souris. Showing an acute appreciation of the local political climate, she expressed confidence that Australia could lead the world in changing retrograde attitudes.
Another great activist, Tony Abbott, might take heart from one of Ono’s earlier declarations. In 1971 she wrote that “childcare is the most important issue for the future of our generation.” This may be seen as an early anticipation of the government’s generous paid parental leave scheme.
It seemed that any mention of John Lennon was not a sore spot for Ono. Nor should it be, as it is now 33 years since the former Beatle departed. She may owe a good deal of her fame and/or notoriety to that marriage, but Ono was a recognised artist before she met Lennon, and has experienced a surge of institutional recognition over the past decade. The MCA survey is but one of a succession of shows being held to celebrate Ono’s 80th birthday. Earlier this year I saw a retrospective at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark.
Although one shouldn’t underestimate the effort that any exhibition requires, the great asset of Ono’s work is that it is largely conceptual – consisting of ideas and instructions that may be reinterpreted like musical scores. This means key installations can be reconstructed for different venues, with no sense that the ineluctable ‘aura’ of a work has been lost.
An installation called Play it by trust, which consists of a chess board with only white pieces, was first presented in 1966. It has been recreated numerous times, but in Sydney it has a brand new design based on the Opera House. The idea is that the players gradually lose track of who owns which piece, allowing a ceasefire to be declared. One wonders if two chess grandmasters would still be able to play the game to the end.
Other large, interactive installations such as Wish Tree, My Mommy is Beautiful, and Imagine Map Peace, invite audience members to help ‘complete’ the work. In the first, one may write a wish on a slip of paper and attach it to the limbs of a small gum tree. The second asks viewers to write something about their mother or leave a memento. The final gives us the chance to stamp the word “peace” on our chosen part of the world map.
These pieces have been created many times over, and have a feeling of familiarity. Ono attempts to touch the viewer’s heart, making us reflect on our own families or the state of the world. It’s part of the old mantra that responsibility for change begins with the individual consciousness.
As curator Rachel Kent notes, this brings Ono in line with current ‘cutting-edge’ fascinations such as Tino Sehgal’s constructed social situations, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s cooking projects. Ono is not only fairy godmother to these new generation Conceptualists, but an active contributor to an art world that was previously indifferent to her charms.
Whatever Ono creates today, in the realms of visual art or music, is guaranteed a warm reception. When she was making her first instruction pieces and performance events in the 1960s, she struggled to achieve the recognition she deserved. Although she made a major contribution to George Maciunas’s activities with the Fluxus group, she receives little attention in the standard histories of this movement. One can only assume that Ono’s connection with John Lennon, which made her a target for the tabloids, also damaged her avant-garde credibility.
Once again, it seems that her moment has arrived, because today’s contemporary art scene is besotted with fame and cheap publicity. Figures such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and Jeff Koons might as well be the inventions of advertising agencies, with their art being merely an accessory to their public profiles. The Frankenstein creations of a decadent industry, they are to the visual arts what the Spice Girls were to popular music.
Ono, for all her eccentricities, is the real deal. She was a ground-breaking artist at a time when there was still ground to break. Many of her works anticipate radical pieces by figures of the next generation. Her performance called Cut Piece, for instance, which dates from 1964, prefigures some of the extreme early works of Marina Abramovic.
In Rhythm 0 (1974), Abramovic stood in a gallery surrounded by dangerous implements and allowed herself to be menaced by anybody who wandered in off the street. Cut Piece is a less hair-raising affair, in which members of an audience are brought on stage, one at a time, to cut away the performer’s clothes with scissors. It still puts the artist in a position of vulnerability, but the action is as structured as a string quartet compared to the potential for random violence in Rhythm 0.
A preference for clearly defined structure is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Ono’s work. It may be a legacy of a rigorous musical education and further studies in philosophy. She has been an iconoclast, but an unusually disciplined one. Even a ‘scream’ piece of 1961 came with instructions that divided the action into three sections.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of Ono’s formalism is Film No. 4 (Bottoms) (1966-67), her famous movie that exists in both five and eighty-minute versions, featuring nothing but bare bottoms in apparent walking motion. In theory this should be erotic, but after a few minutes the procession becomes almost an industrial exercise. The tight framing on the anonymous subjects’ buttocks has more in common with Mondrian than with Russ Meyer.
The contradictory side to Ono’s temperament is revealed by the way so many of her written instructions describe nonsensical, impossible acts. They are poetic rather than pragmatic, being often compared with Japanese haiku. What can’t be done in reality is always possible in the mind.
Ono’s cinematic masterpiece may be Fly (1970), which shows a fly in close-up as it crawls across the body of a naked woman, exploring the rises and falls of the human landscape, occasionally pausing to rub its legs together reflectively. Watch it and try not to squirm.
There is much talk in every Yoko Ono catalogue about the artist’s status as an “outsider”. The story goes that her privileged childhood, divided between Japan and the United States made her a misfit in both cultures. Later she faced the problem of being a Japanese woman in a New York art scene dominated by macho white males.
There is obviously truth in these scenarios, but it has been a very long time since Ono has been anything but an insider. Today she is a grade-A celebrity, and seems to exist within that bubble of unreality that separates the rich and famous from everybody else. It’s touching she is still waving the banner for those political issues that were flashpoints in the sixties, namely world peace and women’s liberation. There may be a long way to go in both areas, although the nature of war, and of women’s place in society, have become complicated in ways the sixties could not have anticipated.
War is Over (if you want it), is as idealistic a slogan today as it was in 1969, when John and Yoko paid for these words to be emblazoned on billboards around the world. The big question is whether we are amenable to such utopian sentiments any more. Many young people are far more concerned with their careers and lifestyles than with changing the world. One suspects this exhibition will provoke equal degrees of nostalgic and skepticism, but not inspire visitors to become politicised. Nevertheless, in our minds we are free to imagine a better world, or travel to the moon. For this youthful elderly artist a simple act of imagination will always be the most potent of revolutionary gestures.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 30 November, 2013