YES YOKO ONO, an art retrospective which opened last Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, is a command, a gesture and an invitation from a feminist in her most pure and powerful mode. Coming out of the Fluxus movement in the sixties and never didactic, angry or political, Ono pioneered methods of conceptual art through the progression of medium, idea, and especially spirit.
Her work transcends historical significance by speaking to the innate human condition. One of her most celebrated pieces, “Play It By Trust,” is a series of all-white chessboards and, after a few moves in the interactive piece-the common person is allowed to touch it-the rest of the game takes place inside the mind. In the eighties, she sent a piece to different world leaders including Ronald Reagan and she is a strong evoker of the primacy of language in her art. In “Painting in Three Stanzas,” (1962) the viewer is invited to construct the painting from the verbal instructions that are given in the calligraphy, which was done by Ono’s first husband-thus taking the authorship out of the process.
Born to an aristocratic family, Yoko Ono’s early training in Japan was in music and her future husband, John Lennon, said that she has a “16-track voice.” Her musical experience gave her a language that translated into all forms of visual art and, just as good music is not specific to a culture or history, Ono’s art is not for an American or an Asian-it is for a world citizen. Speaking at a press conference at MoCA on how she balanced the Western paradigm of art functioning for the individual to the Eastern perspective of approaching art as communitarian supply, Ono stated that in the West an artist attempts to “make something unique,” while the Eastern artist is “communing with the universe” at large.
Embedded in all her work is the idea of balance. “Half-A-Room” (1967) is an “autobiographical” piece incorporating altered ready-made furniture. At a first glance, it calls to mind Dada-esque images of Duchamp’s reaction to pretentious ideas of “high art.” She took objects from her dank London apartment, cut them all in half and painted them white. She was inspired when she woke up one morning and her lover was not there in bed beside her-“Half” then speaks to the Eastern cultural asset of duality, yet it utilizes Western objects. “Somebody said I should also put half a person in the show,” she said, “but we are halves already.”
Humor and deep lighting pervade the entire show and the sky appears as one of Ono’s favorite metaphors, representing infinite possibility. Moreover, her performance pieces prod through boundaries and offer more leeway, rising above artistic limits. Her “Cut Piece,” displayed here as a film, communicates vulnerability through a looming female perspective. Ono sits on the floor and the audience is asked to use the scissors lying beside her to cut away the black blouse and dress adorning her. Motionless yet uneasy, she sits like a quiet sage allowing the universe to take its course. At this point she had not even met John Lennon and this piece now seems prophetic on how the media and American culture would respond to this powerfully subtle Asian woman apparently “stealing” John Lennon away from his boy’s club by simply falling in love with him.
Another performance piece was done in collaboration with Lennon. Following their marriage in March of 1969, the public was in their face so much that they decided to publicize their honeymoon. They called it “Bed In for Peace.” The press called it a press conference, yet it is arguably one of the most public, interactive, far-reaching performance pieces in art history.
In light of contemporary events, Ono’s works become more relevant at each stop along the exhibition tour. This weekend, the “sniper(s)” was allegedly caught, military troops are about to advance into Iraq for a preemptive U.S. strike and peace demonstrations took place in most major cities around the world on Saturday. Peace is on the brink of failure and Yoko Ono can be a pacifying catalyst of positive energy.
“While we are arguing that the war industry will win, it is important to keep the peace industry moving,” she explained. Recalling an excerpt from a book that stated, “in the 20th Century, 60 million civilians and 40 million soldiers were killed” in war, she added: “We need to keep being creative [and] give the metronome back to society.”
In her early compilation volume, Grapefruit, she instructs to “steal all of the clocks and watches in the world. Destroy them.” Her piece “Eternal Time” (1965) is a battery-run gilded clock with only a second hand and hanging from the plexiglas pedestal is a stethoscope-the work speaks to the idea of natural rhythms. When asked how she interpreted the art of hip hop culture, she declared it to be a positive reaction to civil rights. “People are angry,” she said, “[and] art is that kind of energy. If it sits, anger kills.”
An interactive prayer for world peace, “Wish Tree” (1996/2001) is a living tree in a container with wish tags on strings. She asks the viewer to write a wish on a tag and hang it on the tree and this work has drawn in thousands of participants in each separate installation. Currently considering to make a massive piece compiling all the wishes, she announced at MoCA that she “hope[s] one day you’ll join us and the world will be as one.” Though these are Lennon’s words, Yoko Ono has the encompassing love of a wise grandmother and the macho tact of the best CEO to effectively work within society to make a change.
“We are alchemists of the finest kind,” she added. “Humans have the potentiality to be the finest race.” Yoko’s work muses on the idea that positive energy will produce positive results. When her work is interpreted as a “one liner” in that it is simple, one misses the point-the power lies in its ability to present itself in a welcoming fashion that does more to ask hard questions of the viewer than present any sort of naOve feminine optimism. To feel the power of her art, one must first open up to the possibility that it might really work.
YES YOKO ONO runs through January 26 at MoCA, 770 N.E. 125th St. North Miami. Call 305-893-6211 for more info.
Alex Saleeby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org