Yoko Ono, Three Mounds and Skyladders, Three Mounds 1999-2008: Three piles of earth each 80cm high with signs on the floor, handwritten text in ink on paper., Skyladders: 29 Skyladders from Liverpool Biennial 2008; each donated ladder is accompanied by a hand written note and personal wishes from its contributor. courtesy BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Copyright: Yoko Ono, Photographer: Colin Davison
Yoko Ono, ‘Between the Sky and My Head’, BALTIC Gateshead, 14 December 08 – 15 March 09, including artist talk and outdoor ‘ONOCHORD’ performance 14 December 08.
Light plays on the wall and ceiling of a small, square auditorium, looking like the patterned light that is cast by a prism, or by a crystal hung for its healing properties. Actually it is a simple chair, made from thick transparent plastic and shone through with a spotlight that is causing this effect. On stage for her artist talk, Yoko Ono declares that this object is indeed a chair, ‘but it may not be’. She wants to have a ‘good relationship with this object’ and nimbly moves it around, turning it on its side, looking at it with comical attentiveness, tapping out a rhythm on its lap. She imitates the chair’s shape with her own body, then lies down and lifts it up with her feet, making it cast new light patterns above her. Standing up again, she gazes questioningly at us, hand on hip, as if she really wants us to get it - this poetry; this physical philosophy; this opportunity to laugh; this call to pay more attention to the obvious, and to do it from absurd angles.
Later, outdoors in the cold, she spoke about love – that there isn’t enough of it, that we have to stand up for it, that we should go home and tell our families that we love them. We had all been given little white plastic torches so that we could take part in her ‘ONOCHORD’ performance. ‘I… love… you…’ - we blinked our torches in time. Behind Ono was a billboard-sized black and white banner: ‘Imagine Peace’. The immediate warmth of this gesture, the sharing of love, was surprisingly real. It felt powerful – resonating with me a week later - despite its conceptual lightness.
To witness (and participate in) Yoko Ono’s art, is experiential and a little, dare I say it, inspirational, making it difficult to ‘review’ or critique; I am drawn to sensually describe and mull over its effects. The focus on strong but simple symbols, mental events, and group activities, appeals to the part of me that loves short stories, holding hands, and staring into the sky; maybe the part that believes in massive crazy things like love.
I asked Yoko whether, in an art world that is often cynical and politically unengaged, she thought art could really change things. She replied firmly, ‘Yes. Of course’, and went on to compare the work of artists and politicians (‘artists have less red tape and bureaucracy’), indicating a belief in artistic freedom, or a less structured approach, that might somehow affect situations outside of the art world. Certainly, the ‘ONOCHORD’ performance championed the notion of a positive and loving political awareness, just as Ono’s earlier chair piece seemed to promote tactile, humorous experience over what is taken for granted or overlooked. Ono’s belief in the effectiveness of every thought and action, and through that the effectiveness of art, seemed to be confirmed in her slightly odd warning to ‘be careful: whatever you wish for will happen, for better or worse.’
Inside the gallery, similar themes are at play – political and/or feminist actions, art as mental event, participatory works, and those that demand a certain patience or sustained looking - although the presentation is calm and orderly. Three mounds of earth mourn victims of domestic and state abuse; flies crawl across a woman’s naked body on several TV screens; the seminal ‘Cut Piece 1964’ is still compelling and uncomfortable viewing; we are invited to stroke a boxed, dismembered wax figure after dipping our fingers in water. A film entitled ‘ONOCHORD (2004)’, documenting a more formal ‘I… love… you…’ presentation sheds serious light on Ono’s motivations. ‘Everyday our freedom is limited’, she says on film. She refers to 1940s Berlin, admitting that she had always judged the intellectuals of that time, wondering why they did nothing in the face of horror. Comparing that situation to the present day, from the annulling of our civil liberties to illegal wars, she understands that these things happen so fast, perhaps the intellectuals (she counts herself among them) are in fact powerless. ‘But we have to do something.’ Hence, her continuing symbolic focus on love, peace and participation, and her attempts to turn our attention to what is overlooked, be it the poetic qualities of an everyday object, or the shame of abuse.