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Can We Ever Really Know Yoko Ono?

A new VAG exhibition separates the artist from the mythology, at least a little.

Dorothy Woodend 14 Oct 2021 |

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

It’s hard to look at Yoko Ono’s creative work without the clouding strangeness of celebrity getting in the way. A fog bank of notoriety that occludes a clear picture, if you will.

Growing Freedom: The Instructions of Yoko Ono and The Art of John and Yoko, a new exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, follows the artist from her early performance work through various collaborations with husband and creative partner John Lennon, and then comes full circle to her recent activist work.

The opacity of Ono’s persona (the big hats, the huge dark glasses) has always made her seem hidden and remote, a quality not helped by the media storm that has attended large portions of her life. Who in their right mind wouldn’t run from that level of paparazzi-style attention?

So, does the Vancouver exhibition offer elucidation on the actual person as well as her work? The quick answer is: sort of.

Of all the films, installations and documentation on display, it’s Ono’s earliest stuff that remains the most striking. Seemingly simple works like Mend Piece and Painting to Hammer a Nail, both from 1966, require the participation of the viewer to complete the circuit of the work. In Mend Piece, people are offered a table full of broken crockery and the chance to put it back together with bits of string, glue and other kinds of joinery. The results, both sad and hilarious, are then displayed in the gallery.

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Yoko Ono's Mend Piece offered broken crockery and the chance to put it back together with bits of string, glue and other kinds of joinery.

As exhibition co-curator Cheryl Sim says, performance art that requires a degree of audience interaction is commonplace now, but in the late 1950s and early ’60s it was seen as fairly radical.

In the first decade of her career, Ono ping-ponged between Tokyo, New York and London, moving between film, performance art and multimedia installations and breaking down not only the divisions between creative disciplines, but also the rigid separation of artist and spectator as doer and looker.

Her early instruction pieces are just what they sound like, starting with some directive text, like: “Keep laughing for a week,” or “Watch the sun until it becomes square.” Participatory in nature, they are fleeting and ephemeral but also grounded in bodily stuff. Film No. 4, for example, features a selection of naked bums, shot from behind and jiggling away in jaunty fashion like so much human pudding.

Another of Ono’s early performance works, Bag Piece, involves two people covering themselves from head to toe in giant fabric sacks and having a conversation, the idea being that if all identifying markers of race, gender and appearance disappeared, a more genuine exchange could happen. That it actually looks like lots of fun is a happy byproduct.

A sense of humour and whimsy infuses these works with the idea that art can be liberated from the solidity of paint and canvas and exist purely in experience. But there is often a deeper, more destabilizing intent at work.

Ono did not have an easy start in life. After surviving the fire-bombing of Tokyo during the Second World War, her family almost starved in the war’s aftermath. A series of bad marriages, bouts of depression, a period of institutionalization and a vicious custody battle followed: through it all Ono kept making work.

One of her early seminal performances, Cut Piece, originally performed in Japan in 1964 and then in New York in 1965, brings all of this struggle home. Even decades later, the work has visceral impact that feels like a punch in the gut. In the film documentation of the New York event, Ono sits on stage dressed in a dark sweater, skirt and patterned tights as men and women enter, pick up a pair of scissors and cut off hunks of fabric from her clothes.

Eventually, she is reduced to covering her naked body with her arms after her bra straps are cut by a loathsome frat boy-type. Throughout she remains largely impassive, only the flicker of an eyelid or a veiled expression indicating what her underlying emotional state might be.

As Sim explains, Ono was wearing her best outfit and the performance represents a kind of sacrifice. It is both simultaneously courageous and vulnerable, voyeuristic and yet somehow noble.

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In the seminal performance Cut Piece, Ono sits on a stage dressed in a dark sweater, skirt and patterned tights as a cast of men and women cut off fabric from her clothes. Carnegie Recital Hall, New York City, March 21, 1965. Photo by Minoru Niizuma, copyright Yoko Ono.

The other thing that makes it difficult to properly see Ono is the looming figure of John Lennon and the Beatles. The industry that is the band and its music is still a juggernaut, as the recent tizzy over Peter Jackson’s new documentary makes clear. For a good portion of people, Ono is still the woman who broke up the Beatles.

In an interview with the BBC earlier this week, Paul McCartney was still implicating Ono: “The point of it really was that John was making a new life with Yoko and he wanted... to lie in bed for a week in Amsterdam for peace. You couldn’t argue with that.”

But it was Ono’s work as an artist, not as a woman, that initially attracted Lennon.

Co-curator Sim recounts the story of the two meeting at the Indica Gallery in London in 1966, when Lennon was afforded an early tour of Ono’s show. One of the works, Ceiling Painting, consisted of a ladder, magnifying glass and painting affixed to the ceiling, and participants were invited to climb the ladder and look at the painting with the magnifying glass in order to see a tiny word written on the canvas. The word was “yes.”

A lesser-known part of this meet-cute episode involved Lennon wanting to hammer a nail into the Hammer a Nail painting. Ono demurred, until he offered her five imaginary shillings to hammer in an imaginary nail. And with that gesture, love blossomed.

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Bed-in for Peace, Montreal, 1969. Photo by Ivor Sharp, copyright Yoko Ono.

The rest of Growing Freedom features much of Ono’s collaborative work with Lennon, from the Bed-in for Peace to the public displays of WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It).

The pursuit of world peace might seem quaint at the moment, but at the time the couple was serious in their intent, travelling the world and talking up the idea with world leaders. Former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau was a particular favourite, and the affection seemed mutual.

But Bed-in for Peace in particular feels overly familiar. Anyone who’s had even the barest contact with the famous piece, from journalists to hotel workers, offer up their reminiscences in a series of film and audio installations in the exhibit. It’s sweet, but the noxious fumes of prurient attention, of people wanting access to fame for its own sake, start to creep in.

Ono’s later work feels like a return to her roots, things both simpler and more universal as well as interactive. Gallery attendees are invited to participate with certain works, writing down their feelings about their mothers and sticking them on the wall in My Mommy Is Beautiful, for example. In another work entitled Arising, women are invited to submit stories of the violence perpetuated against them, as well as an image of their eyes.

The last section of the show, Water Event, is dedicated to Ono’s collaborations around the idea of water. The project entails different artists creating a vessel that can contain water. Since the work’s debut in 1971, more than 120 artists have participated. In this most recent version, Ono asked to work with Indigenous creators. At the preview, Musqueam artist Debra Sparrow talked about her early introduction to Ono as well as her interpretation of the project’s intent.

That sexism and racism have played a large role in taking away Ono’s significant contributions to the art world isn’t up for much debate. If Growing Freedom does one thing, it is to reiterate Ono’s impact on contemporary practice, to separate the artist from the mythology that has grown up around her. To give her back the freedom from the glass cage that fame at such a dizzying, almost obliterating scale, has stolen away.

'Growing Freedom: The Instructions of Yoko Ono' and 'The Art of John and Yoko' is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 1, 2022.  [Tyee]

Read more: Art

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