An exhibition showcasing five decades of Yoko Ono’s work downplays her dark side in favour of more uplifting, regenerative themes, finds Helena Reckitt

June 21, 2012

Credit: Skyladders 2007


Serpentine Gallery, London, until 9 September

Exhibited in New York in 1961, Yoko Ono’s Painting to be Stepped On was exactly that: a torn canvas on the floor accompanied by a text inviting visitors to walk on it.

The seemingly hostile act it requested was, in fact, anything but. By following the artist’s instructions, visitors activated and realised the work’s meaning. George Maciunas, founder of the nascent Fluxus movement and initiator of Ono’s New York show, was quick to recognise her significance.

He was especially excited by the instructional nature of Ono’s art, with its implicit challenge to traditional aesthetic values of skill, materiality and authorship. The radicalism admired by Maciunas became even more apparent when she dispensed with paintings altogether, hanging sheets of handwritten instructions for an exhibition in Tokyo the following year.

This was a historically significant move that prefigured conceptual art’s shift in emphasis from material object to dematerialised idea by five years. Yet compared with the dour, affectless tone of much conceptual art, Ono’s work courted lightness and lyricism, sentiment and wonder. The instructions in her 1964 book Grapefruit conjure up possible - as well as impossible - situations. Whether the reader literally executed her directions, or carried them out mentally, is beside the point. “Put One Memory into one half of your head/Shut it off and forget it/Let the other half of the brain long for it”; “Think of a piece you lost/Look for it in your closet.”

Some instructions read like party games. Conversation Piece (or Crutch Piece) (1962) exhorts readers to bandage a body part and invent a story about it. The occasional use of qualifiers like “may, can, might not” softens the scripts’ didacticism, while the impracticality of enacting many tasks tempers them with humour.

Ono’s word scores could be darker, too, capturing the violence within the everyday. Film No. 5 (Rape, or Chase) (1969) instructs a cameraman to “chase a girl on a street with a camera persistently until he corners her in an alley, and, if possible, until she is in a falling position”. In another disturbing work, Cut Piece (1964), Ono’s directions were executed almost too literally. As she kneeled calmly on stage, audience members used scissors to cut away her clothes. Although it was first presented in Tokyo, when it was shown in New York and London, Ono’s inertia became paradoxically provocative, bringing to the fore the audience’s fears and fantasies about Eastern femininity, self-sacrifice and passivity. At the Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966, violence erupted and the organisers had to call in security.

She established herself in avant-garde circles in Tokyo and New York, where she frequently worked alongside her first two husbands, the composer Toshi Ichyanagi and the film producer Anthony Cox, as well as her friend John Cage, the composer. In 1966, Ono moved to London, prompted partly by her desire to be recognised as an artist in her own right and not in relation to prominent men - an ambition made all but impossible by subsequent events.

At the opening of her solo show at the Indica Gallery, London, she met John Lennon. Indifferent to the Beatle’s celebrity status, Ono responded to his request to execute her Painting to Hammer a Nail (1966) by saying she would charge him five shillings. “I’ll bang in an imaginary nail,” Lennon replied, “and I’ll pay you an imaginary five shillings.” Another anecdote has him climbing a ladder in the gallery where a microscope allowed him to read a tiny word on the ceiling. The word was “YES”. Had it been “NO”, Lennon later claimed, he would have left.

Ono and Lennon immediately became an item and in 1968 released Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, with its controversial cover of them naked. Married in 1969, they famously celebrated their honeymoon with a Bed-In For Peace at hotels in Amsterdam and Montreal. They also co-opted the media for pacifist and artistic ends with the 1969 billboard campaign “War Is Over! If You Want It”.

They collaborated on films, too. Fly (1970), an avatar Ono assumed during Fluxus days and the title she gave to several works, was co-directed by Lennon and depicts flies traversing a naked woman’s supine body.

In a yet more unsettling meditation on vulnerability and intrusion, they had also realised Ono’s Rape piece the year before. Colluding with the sister of a young Viennese actress who was working illegally in London, they hired a cameraman and sound technician to pursue the actress on the street - where she is almost run over - and into her flat, where she finally breaks down. Rape’s ethically murky evocation of voyeurism is exacerbated by the cameraman’s silence in the face of the woman’s distress.

Ono continued to work independently during her years with Lennon, recording albums with The Plastic Ono Band that evoked primal scream therapy, exorcism and shamanic release. These uncompromising works did nothing to ingratiate her with Beatles fans, who blamed her for stealing Lennon away from his musical roots and accelerating the Beatles’ demise.

Lennon’s murder in 1980 - on the night the couple finished recording what became one of her biggest hits, Walking on Thin Ice - forced the already media-bruised Ono to retreat further. Writing in 1989 on the eve of an exhibition of her 1960s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, critic Carlo McCormick noted that she had long since stopped making art, and that her potent legacy “has not been well tended”.

But the Whitney show marked a turning point for Ono. Her decision to make new pieces for the exhibition by casting modest early works - see-through mesh paintings, translucent glass sculptures - in bronze, as a means to free herself from the past, seemed to have worked. A creative resurgence followed, accompanied by widespread critical recognition of her defining role in Fluxus, proto-conceptualism, feminist art and the exchange between Eastern and Western avant-gardes. The Japan Society’s wittily titled 2000 retrospective, Yes Yoko Ono, which evoked the polarised responses provoked by the artist and her work, further strengthened her reputation. Yet the exhibition didn’t travel to the UK and London audiences have had few chances to take stock of her oeuvre.

The new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, organised as part of the London 2012 Festival alongside the Olympic Games, remedies this situation. Rather than presenting a comprehensive survey, Yoko Ono: TO THE LIGHT unites selected works made over five decades in a series of multimedia installations. Underscoring the cyclical nature of Ono’s art, with its Zen-like embrace of regeneration, the exhibition stages a dialogue between destruction and growth. One gallery combines a work made from mounds of earth, each taken from a different war zone, with Second World War helmets suspended upside down and filled with jigsaw puzzles depicting the sky. Overall, the exhibition downplays Ono’s darker themes in favour of pieces that have “the strongest vibration to take us to the light”. A recent project, #smilesfilm, combines pictures of gallery visitors with smiling faces found online. Of Ono’s more challenging works, Rape is not included, although Cut Piece and Fly are.

From her instruction pieces to her sonic experiments and her assaults on conventional morality, Ono has always taken risks. The risk here is whether the radicalism of her art - only recently fully acknowledged - will survive the blandly uplifting, inclusive rhetoric of the Olympics, which, in this context, it comes rather too close to resembling.

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