Eds. note, July 13, 2015:
“Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971” (through Sept. 7), the Japanese-born artist’s survey exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, examines a crucial time at the start of Ono’s career, in which her defiance of traditional mediums and distinct sense of play helped catapult her toward worldwide notoriety. The 11 years covered in the exhibition span Ono’s early works, up to the date of her MoMA “debut”—a fictitious “one woman show” that she had advertised in newspapers and that supposedly centered on a swarm of perfumed flies released on museum grounds. By tracing her evolution from Fluxus to fame, “One Woman Show” credits Ono’s individual efforts as a visual artist while recontextualizing her infamous partnership with John Lennon.
In our February 2002 Issue, critic J.W. Mahoney delved into Ono’s evasion of artistic categories through the lens of the works selected for her touring retrospective, “Yes Yoko Ono.” Considering the intellectual and conceptual nuances of her work, he examines the mind of an artist whose most abiding motif lies in her open invitation to undertake acts of imagination.
“Transmodern Yoko” by J.W. Mahoney
A retrospective organized by New York’s Japan Society Gallery, now touring, maps out Yoko Ono’s 40-year oeuvre of conceptual instruction pieces, objects, installations, performances, films, music and more.
“Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” – Lawrence Weiner, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” 1969
“At the time I don’t think the public liked Yoko very much. . . . It may have been because of the press, but I also think because of the avantgarde stuff. The public just didn’t understand it, and I tend to find that if you don’t understand something you’re likely to be prejudiced against it.” -Neil Aspinall, The Beatles Anthology, 2000
In the third room of Yoko Ono’s retrospective exhibition at the Japan Society in New York was a small Plexiglas case containing four glass keys. The piece, dated 1966, is titled Glass Keys to Open the Skies. Rhetorically, the work represents several impossibilities at once: that an elemental openness like the sky could be further opened, that a mechanism for doing this might exist, and that a glass key could instrumentalize crossing such a threshold. For Ono, the range of questions this concept triggers is what makes the keys a work of art. What she is reaching for is mystery, not absurdity. Her pieces require a viewer’s belief that the intangible about which she speaks is more than a personal imaginative act. She wants to offer a fresh source of creative possibilities that feel poetically transpersonal; her art is not just about herself but also about her vision of a collective universe. Despite the passage of almost 40 years, Ono’s work still seems radical, beautiful and not easy to characterize. Transmodern? Only a new word may fit what she was and is trying to do.
In contrast to so much contemporary art, the glass keys carry no irony and no self-conscious criticality. According to Ono herself, writing in 1988, they are reminiscent of the times in which they were made. “The air definitely had a special glimmer then. We were breathless from the pride and joy of being alive. I remember. . . carrying a glass key to open the sky.” As plainly as these words embody an imaginative grandiosity that was a common element in ’60s counterculture, they also reflect Ono’s basic verbal theatricality. Behind this lies a broader cultural platform on which the piece stands: her traditions, both Eastern and Western. Ono’s conceptual and performative gestures are hybrids, as dependent on Beat strategies and Japanese esthetics as they are self-consciously futuristic. This hybridity is characteristic of Fluxus, the only artists’ group with which she is identified, described in the 1965 Fluxus Manifesto by George Maciunas, her friend and the movement’s founder, as “the fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children’s games, and Duchamp.”
Ono began her work as an artist in the ambience of postwar Beat culture, a fusion of Japanese Buddhism and European existentialism that was as prevalent in Japan as in New York City. Ono had the cultural background, the intentions and the survival money to step meaningfully into a life of art-making in the mid ’50s—if she was willing to abandon the traditional role of becoming a well-to-do businessman’s wife. The daughter of a wealthy banker and a mother of aristocratic birth, she spent half her childhood in America, attended an elite school in Japan, studied voice and declared her interest in composing as a teenager, and for a year was the first female student in the philosophy department at Gakushuin University, before she and her family went again to America. At Sarah Lawrence, she studied music and began writing the poetry that would soon be transformed into her first instruction pieces, before dropping out in 1955 to marry Toshi Ichiyanagi, a dedicated avant-garde pianist and a student of composer John Cage. The couple moved to Manhattan, and Ono’s downtown loft on Chambers Street became an active performance space by the early ’60s, hosting such choreographers and artists as Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, La Monte Young, Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer. (Ono and Ichiyanagi split permanently in 1963, while living in Japan.)
What gave Beat culture its gravitas was the memory of the Second World War and its aftermath, from the Holocaust to the Bomb. Ono’s own memories of having struggled to obtain food for herself and her brother during her wartime evacuation to a Japanese country village were vital, she has said, in informing her sense that existence itself is provisional and vulnerable. These feelings were reinforced by the existentialism she imbibed in her philosophy studies. According to Webster’s Third International Dictionary, existentialism holds that “human existence is not exhaustively describable or understandable in either scientific or logical terms and relies upon a phenomenological approach that emphasizes the critical analysis of borderline situations in man’s life. . .” In Ono’s emerging esthetics, existentialism gave her a philosophy that justified her address of borderline situations. And her chosen identity as an artist offered her a license to create them.
Fluxus, with Ono as a founding member, drew together in the early 1960s as an artists’ collective supporting the openness of an artist’s choice to act. The key issue was possibility. Artists were enfranchised to make anything, anywhere, with whatever means they might conceive. The most radical notion was that the concept of an art work was an art work in itself. Ono’s presence in Fluxus reflected her preexisting agreement with its principles.
A certain kind of syncopated humor is evident throughout Ono’s retrospective show, which is titled “Yes Yoko Ono,” a sly but direct affirmation of, well, whatever she affirms. The exhibition and its thorough and well-written catalogue go a long way toward establishing different, less obvious frames of reference for her life as an artist beyond her 12 years as John Lennon’s lover and wife. (The exhibition’s title also refers to the work, included in the show, which brought her to Lennon’s attention: a ladder, a suspended magnifying glass and, on a framed sheet of paper on the ceiling, the minuscule word “YES.”) Proceeding meanderingly, the exhibition and catalogue both open Like Chinese boxes, offering the unexpected.
Many of Ono’s art works are small objects, some are displayed as running films, and her recent work is often directly interactive. For example, a visitor can move stones between piles representing good memories or bad memories, or play chess using all white pieces. Play It By Trust is the name of the latter work, as well as its primary instruction.
The exhibition’s curator, Alexandra Munroe, who is also director of the Japan Society Gallery, has said that all of Ono’s pieces are interventions in some form. Indeed, her art consistently involves an interrupting of esthetic, linguistic or social conventions, which is sometimes done humorously, sometimes with a touch of violence. These interruptions are for the sake of moving across a threshold of some kind, jumping past a limit into the unknown. In Zen Buddhist practice, an abbot or a senior monk observes the monks in meditation, and should one of them begin to slump or fall asleep, he strikes the monk awake with a wooden stick. The sudden discontinuity was often poetically associated with the attaining of enlightenment. Almost all of Ono’s art, consciously or not, involves such disruptions.
The show unfolds chronologically. Ono’s earliest works are pure texts—matted and framed calligraphy. Written in Japanese on small sheets of mulberry paper (and translated on wall labels) are instructions such as:
CONCERT PIECE 2
When the curtain rises, go hide
and wait until everybody leaves you.
Come out and play.
y.o. 1963 autumn
A range of instruction pieces like these (which soon made up her first book, Grapefruit) marked the beginning of a body of conceptual discontinuities, in which Ono creates dramatic effects in a variety of ordinary contexts. In a Plexiglas case in the exhibition are her future mornings from 1962, pieces of broken glass tagged with typewritten dates and hours of days in a future that was, when the piece was made, beyond her knowledge and that of her audience: “December 18, 1989, mid-morning,” or “July 14, 1994, all day.” In a circular metal container is a spool of audiotape that records the sound of snow falling. An apple is placed on a bronze labeled Plexiglas pedestal and allowed to decompose.
All of these pieces have an essential invisible component. The tape has no player, and were it played, only incidental sounds might be heard amid the silence of the falling snow. The transformation the apple undergoes is so gradual it can’t be seen except in its eventual effects. In other cases, such as Ono’s Half-A-Room (1967), which was assembled on a large platform at the Japan Society, only half of each found object is presented: half an electric oven, half a woman’s shoe, half a chair, half a bowler hat, half a cabinet. The viewer must complete the room or shape the object by means of sheer imagination. Almost all the pieces are painted white. This is one of her more extreme interventions. As a later companion project, Ono created a series of empty Air Bottles (in collaboration with Lennon), each labeled with a missing half of the room’s objects—”half a hat,” and so on. Again, the array of questions that Ono creates in her work appears to be what matters to her, not any specific answers or interpretations.
The artist began working in film in 1966 with New York photographer Peter Moore as her cameraman for No. 1 (Match) and Eyeblink, short black-and-white movies in which striking a match and blinking were drastically slowed down. Ono’s better-known works in film and filmed performance are truly unsettling experiences when actually seen on a screen rather than isolated as film stills. The concept of her 1970 film Fly is simple: a naked woman lying on a table near a window passively endures the presence of a housefly, which casually and imperiously investigates her entire body. Her lips, her right nipple, her navel, her ear are all explored by the fly, to the continuous drone of Ono’s voice. The boundary violated here is intensely personal and plainly intimate. A fly is aggressive and unclean, but also a complex creation of nature; it is seen up close and at length, interacting with a human being like us. The film evokes irreconcilable feelings—revulsion, anxiety and wonder at the woman’s submission and self-control.
What is most surprising in the film is Ono’s voice, which not only mimics the whine of a fly in flight but also, according to Munroe, echoes the sound of the flute that punctuates every dramatic fluctuation in traditional Japanese Noh drama. Noh plays concern themselves almost exclusively with bridging the gap between visible and invisible worlds, often between ghosts and living people. The passions expressed by those on either side of the divide give Noh its dramatic force. Noh appears to be more ritual than theater, as the actors move slowly, accompanied by the notes of a flute heightening the narrative. This music, full of a sustained aural tension rather than a melody, is the clearest esthetic source for Ono’s recorded vocal work, as she herself confirms.
Ono’s famous Cut Piece perlormance, one of the works for which she is best known, seen on film in ”Yes,” was enacted several times between 1964 and 1966, in Japan, New York City and London. The artist walked onstage fully dressed, sat quietly on the floor in a Japanese woman’s proper—subservient—posture, faced the audience, and placed a pair of scissors on the stage, inviting the audience to cut away her clothes. Cut Piece, filmed when it was performed at Carnegie Hall, ended when no audience member would take up the scissors to snip away the remainder of her underwear. Some of the people who cut at her clothes were tentative, others seemed more playful or formal. One person used the scissors repeatedly before he quit the stage, taking time to consider each cut. The potential violence that the work implies in theory was carried out to only a limited degree in these actions. The moral tension throughout was the work’s most deeply unpleasant element: when does the audience refuse to participate, and when does it intervene? A dark feeling of complicity emerges even from watching the film of the event.
The exhibition turns to Ono’s collaborations with Lennon well after its midpoint. It was then that her work reached a much larger audience, and she became famous. As the exhibition illustrates in a black-and-white video, her encounter with celebrity beyond the art world began when she and Lennon occupied a bed in an Amsterdam hotel room in 1969 for a week’s worth of constant media attention. As a performance piece, the Bed-In for Peace was an experiment to see how much of their spontaneous, unscripted activity in support of a controversial social cause—world peace—could sustain the presence of news reporters, who were expecting the pajama-clad couple to, well, maybe have sex, since it was their honeymoon. Instead, they spoke forthrightly about world peace, acting politically rather than entertainingly.
At the end of the exhibition, a video monitor plays the music video for her song Walking on Thin Ice, the master tapes of which Lennon was carrying in his arms the night he died. The video comprises images of Ono walking on New York streets on a rainy day, and the music includes both her single-note shouts and a spoken narrative about a woman walking to her death on thin ice. This is a typical Japanese ghost story, told against the unfamiliar background of a rock beat. The music conveys an emotional and aural pain that isn’t precisely enjoyable. However, the song is compelling, authentic and hard to forget. Ono’s transposition of Noh performance into popular music hasn’t always been positively received. As performance, her vocal work usually offers an intrusive or challenging emotion, which isn’t what many people either expect or desire.
Her life as an avant-gardist was, of course, entirely transformed by the celebrity of Lennon. So in the 1970s, Ono became a recorded musician, a pop icon and an equal partner in an ongoing two-person performance piece. The intensities in that very public marriage were often played out esthetically, simply because both individuals were artists. They collaborated on a number of films in addition to their musical works, including the 77-minute Rape (1969), in which a young woman is targeted and pursued by the film crew, and the 20-minute Erection (1971), drawn from a yearlong sequence of still photographs by a fixed camera documenting the construction of a hotel.
In 1987, Ono returned to object-making with bronzes that revisit some of her early works. Since then she has made conceptual photographs, projections, installations, drawings and more. In the works she produced after Lennon’s death, Ono has never commented as an artist on the issue of celebrity. She sees her public image as a version of the same kind of mask every woman wears. Portrait of Nora (1992), a digitally manipulated color photograph, is a self-portrait of the artist taken from the shoulders up. Her hair is tied back and her gaze is direct, engaging the viewer with an enigmatically neutral expression. Her digitized face is an indistinct extrapolation, an approximate self. The Nora in the title refers to the main character of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. Nora’s imprisonment in an oppressive marriage suggests the plight of Everywoman, according to Ono, a universality that is underlined by the presence of an Asian woman in the title role of a Scandinavian drama. At the play’s end, Nora is self-liberated, closing the door on her previous life and stepping into an uncertain future.
Today, Ono remains political, but in much the same, self-conscious way that she has always been: as a utopian activist who believes that art itself can be a moral force. In 1998 and ’99 she exhibited, in Switzerland and in Brazil, an installation of 13 old Japanese cricket cages, each with its own label. Ono’s accompanying wall text reads, “These crickets were captured in these regions on these dates as indicated on the labels.” The cages are empty, and each date denotes a massacre or a murder: “December 13, 1937—Nanking,” “January 18, 1943—Warsaw,” “December 8, 1980—NYC.”
Caged crickets have been traditionally considered a seasonal domestic pet in Japan: In Japanese esthetics, the poignantly transitory nature of existence is called mono no aware. The sense of mono no aware in Crickets is stark indeed. The missing crickets once inside these cages were stand-ins for witnesses to great violence. But where are they? Did they die, or escape, or were they never there? Crickets may be about containing the uncontainable, or it may represent an attempt to symbolize great horror minimally and respectfully. These uncertainties radiate from the singularity of an empty cricket cage, radically altered by a text.
An emptiness that is not empty has been Ono’s most abiding motif, from her earliest instruction pieces to the paradoxes in her present work. She says she has always looked to the sky’s blue emptiness for comfort, for solace, for what Joan Rothfuss, writing in the exhibition catalogue, has identified as “timelessness, constancy and unlimited space.” And Ono has offered us keys to open it.
“Yes Yoko Ono,” curated by Alexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks, debuted at the Japan Society Gallery, New York [Oct 18, 2000-Jan 14, 2001 J and traveled to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis [Mar. JO-June 17, 2001], the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston [July 13-Sept. 16, 2001] and the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge [Oct 18, 2001-Jan. 6, 2002]. It opens this month at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto [Feb. 22-May 2] and goes on to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [June 22-Sepl 8] and other venues to be announced. It is accompanied by a 352-page catalogue by multiple authors and a music CD by Yoko Ono.