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 20012012 and Three Mounds 19992012. 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 20012012 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 19645 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.

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