Wish Trees 2012, photograph by Rosemary Marchant
Written by Rosemary Marchant
Until recently I had always thought of Yoko Ono as John Lennon’s wife who happened to be an artist, rather than as an interesting and influential artist in her own right. Her relationship with Lennon undoubtedly fuels people’s interest in her work and walking into the Serpentine to hear Lennon’s Imagine being played in the background emphasises this. Of course the tragedy of Lennon’s death influenced Ono’s work. But hearing the song made me begin to wonder if Yoko Ono really has been able to escape Lennon’s shadow, and if she even wants to.
Outside the entrance to the gallery, before Imagine had reaches your ears, you encounter Ono’s first piece. Appearing to prepare visitors to get involved and participate in the exhibition the Wish Trees often appear in Ono’s shows. They encourage the visitor to think of something they want, something that they don’t mind everyone else who crowds around the trees reading. It’s a strangely reflective piece to have at the entrance to a show.
Three Mounds 1999/2012, photograph by Jerry Hardman-Jones
Once through the lobby and past the documentary that softly plays Imagine you finally come to the entrance of the show. In this first space are several pieces that adequately illustrate the range of Ono’s work. It is impossible to label her as a film artist, a performance artist or an installation artist. Ono’s work explores many different mediums while focusing on one broad topic, people. In this first room we see some of her early experiments with film such as One (Match) fluxfilm 14 and Eyeblink fluxfilm 15 both 1966. These two films that show such quick actions as striking a match and blinking an eye in slow motion are flanked by the more recent installations Helmets 2001⁄2012 and Three Mounds 1999⁄2012. These two installations look at violence and war. The helmets that hang from the ceiling in front of the two videos, obviously those of soldiers, are filled with puzzle pieces that appear to fit together to create an image of a sky, possibly hinting at the idea that we are all under the same sky. This idea is continued in the mounds of soil labeled ‘Country A,’ ‘Country B,’ and ‘Country C’. The separate pieces in this room work together to link the ideas that Ono and Lennon are famous for and which Lennon wrote Imagine about. The idea of everyone being the same and all from the same world.
Helmets 2001⁄2012 and Eyeblink fluxfilm 15 1966, photograph by Jerry Hardman-Jones
There is another piece that links to Ono’s life with Lennon. John Plus Me 1971 shows the footsteps of Lennon and Ono as if they are walking to the sky. The anecdote placed with the work, as well as its position as the sole work in the room, suggests how the meaning of the work has changed for Ono since Lennon’s death.
Moving on from here through a room of sculptures, we come to a room with pencil writing and a line on the walls. The writing makes suggestions about the room such as ‘this room is blue’ which is the title of the work. This work harks back to Ono’s famous instruction pieces in which people were encouraged to scream, shout or sing at a wall. These appear more as suggestions of what to imagine rather than instructions or false statements. Such as the piece on the floor ‘this is the ceiling’. It is these types of works that I find most intriguing. I love the level of interpretation required by the visitor and the implication that there is no wrong or right answer. I was disappointed not to find many more hidden notes like these around the show as I know this has happened in the past at Ono’s shows, but perhaps I just did not find them.
This playful attitude is continued in the next room where Ono’s ongoing project Smile Film is in progress. In Smile Film Ono has taken on the impossible and idealistic task of taking a photograph of each person in the world smiling. It is a never ending project as the population grows each second and it is difficult to sense how seriously to take it. Ono has always been idealistic so perhaps she does expect to achieve her task. What is more likely is that she aims to involve enough people for the project to be widely known. She is implementing the use of social media and the impressive network of communication to aid her task. All you have to do to become a part of the film is to upload a photo of yourself to twitter with the tag #smilefilm.
Smile Film 2010
Some of the last works that you see in the show are two films that document separate performances of Cut Piece arguably one of Ono’s most famous performances in which she invites spectators to cut off pieces of her clothing. The two films are shown facing one another, emphasising the differences in the performances. Although the premise is the same in each the reaction of the participants is markedly different. The film of the 1964⁄5 performance is far shorter than the 2003 film. In the latest performance Ono is treated with more reverance than her younger self was. People appear timid and shy to cut away at her clothes, one woman dramatically declares ‘I cannot do it I cannot remove Yoko’s clothes’ before leaving the stage. The participants talk to her or kiss her and thank her. She is now a celebrity, which she was not when she first performed the piece in 1964. The contrasts between the work reflect not only Ono’s changing position in society but that of the artist in general. The artist who was once a mysterious figure in the background in forced to the foreground and has become an icon or celebrity. The recent show at MoMA The Artist is Present, by Marina Abramovic incurred day long queues of people desperate to see the artist. It is a recent phenomenon that can be very closely linked to the rising popularity of exhibition and performance art.
Cut Piece 1964
Cut piece 2003, Photograph by Ken McKay, © Yoko Ono; Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive
It is hard to work out how much the success of this exhibition relies upon the British public’s fascination with the family of an iconic British star. It also depends on whether you measure success on visitor numbers or critics’ reviews. I found areas of the show disappointing but this is probably because of where my own interests in Ono’s work lies, in her performances and instructional pieces. I enjoy seeing an artist who does not stick to one media, as I see that reflected in my own work. Overall I think that the show is a good representation of Ono’s work as an artist and not as a platform for bringing back the past.