The instructions of Yoko Ono.
The art of John and Yoko.
April 25 – September 15, 2019
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, June 2019
Yoko Ono is a maverick and a visionary and an empowering early feminist (not necessarily in that order) and the full radiant promise of her work can still be felt in this engaging exhibition at Fondation Phi. From her early days in the 1950s in Tokyo and later in Manhattan where her loft on Chambers Street was a legendary meeting place of the avant-garde, her transgressive practice as a pioneer of conceptual art has enjoyed a coruscating arc as she has executed frankly radical work in art and music from those times through today.
Already, by the end of the 1960s, Ono had established herself as an artist entirely driven, unafraid and unapologetic in her mien. When Ono started to record in the 1960s, the music was profound and interrogatory even then, as evidenced in her two operas and associations with John Cage, La Monte Young and jazzman Ornette Coleman. She worked with Coleman on Emotion modulation as a featured performer in the section entitled “Aos”, improvising the frenzied exclamations of a woman in the throes of sexual ecstasy.
Through her instruction pieces and performances over the years she has opened an unusual empathic compact with her viewers as well as her fellow artists, inviting them to be more than reference poles but impassioned players in her meticulously rendered and instructive mise-en-scene. She also marries Eastern and Western cultures in her own being and the yin and yang beatitudes of this entanglement come through in all her work like signal beacons of desire and need.
The present exhibition is a welcome and worthy sequel to her MOMA retrospective of 2015 (May 17-September 7) and is mounted in both of the Foundation’s buildings. The first part includes many of her most compelling "instructional pieces," of the early 1960s. In these works, the viewer is given instructions to follow and, once followed, they effectively complete her work. It’s worth noting that Ono’s idea that the work of art is to be completed by the audience as dialogical partner has precursors in music. Consider John Cage's experimental "Four minutes, thirty-three seconds" (1952), a work in which all the ambient noises in the room generated by the audience in that time period define the work.
Selected highlights include:
"Painting to Hammer a Nail" (1966-2019) consists of a canvas on a wood panel. Connected to the canvas is a hammer hanging from a chain. Nearby is a jar of nails. The artist’s instructions for the work ask the viewer to hammer a nail into the panel. First exhibited in 1966 in a gallery in London, the work was considered complete when the surface was entirely covered in nails, as in a tribal witchdoctor’s nkisi nkonde medicine sculpture. Yielding authorship, if not authority, to the engaged audience was as radical then as it is now. This deliberate evacuation of ego is an oft-overlooked hallmark of Ono’s simple, selfless stoicism.
The frankly harrowing "Cut Piece" (1964) is another radical work and one of the artist's edgiest and most memorable. In the film of the event, Ono knelt on the stage holding a pair of scissors. She invited audience members to cut pieces of her clothing off using the scissors. The artist remained mute until virtually everything was removed. The discomfort level increased as the work unfolded and her clothes were cut away. The sense of violation of the private body now made nude and public was both painful to witness and prophetic in terms of performativity.
According to Ono, her original intention was to endow the Buddhist subtext with a feminist edge: women are forced to sacrifice everything. Notably, Ono's "Cut Piece" was the first performance piece to focus on the premise of sexual violence in public spectacle. This work alone establishes Ono as a peer and fellow-traveller of feminist artists Joan Jonas and Carolee Schneemann.
"Ceiling Painting/ YES Painting" (1966-2019) is an exceptional instructional piece. A white ladder in the centre of the room leads up to a framed glass panel on the ceiling where close examination reveals the word "YES", written on a tiny piece of paper. Ono conceived this work as an expression of pain en route to spiritual transformation. Her future partner, John Lennon, was understandably seduced by the positive energy of the work.
"Water Event" (1971/2016/2019) features artworks by a number of contemporary Canadian artists selected by quorum, including Marigold Santos, Shelley Niro, Lani Maestro, Katherine Melançon, Celia Perrin Sidarous, Dominique Blain, Brendan Fernandes, Bill Burns, Geoffrey Farmer, Mathieu Beausejour, Juan Ortiz- Apuy, and David Tomas. All these artists contributed works that added further gravitas and lustre to the proceedings.
"Wish Tree" (1996/2019) is one of the most recognizable of the instructional pieces. Ono asks visitors to write down their wishes on cards, and then hang them on a tree. Like other major works by Ono, Wish Tree is a profoundly interactive work of art. Ono finesses a framework in which the viewer partakes in a covenant, a sacred trust. According to the artist, a childhood memory of attaching written wishes to branches of a tree in a temple garden provided here with the inspiration for this work. “Instructions: Make a wish. Write it down on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around a branch of a Wish Tree. Ask your friends to do the same. Keep wishing until the branches are covered with wishes.”
Acclaimed Montreal-based artist Lorna Bauer was asked to take the photos for the work "Horizontal Memories" (1997/2019) under Ono’s instruction. She took terrifically candid portraits of people in and around Montreal – from Old Montreal to the Jean Talon Market and Parc La Fontaine and elsewhere. The images were then printed on vinyl and placed on the floor for visitors to walk on. These photographs have a documentary ethos and something more: an innate honesty and humanity that one expects Ono would care for. They certainly amplify the wider humanistic current at work here.
The second part of the exhibition, entitled The art of John and Yoko, surveyed a number of collaborative art projects for peace undertaken by the couple. When Ono first met John Lennon at one of her shows in the fall of 1966, she had never heard of the Beatles (this was at the venue of the aforementioned Ceiling Painting/ YES Painting).Their loving relationship and collaboration would become famous with the Amsterdam Bed-In, Toronto Stop Off and the Montreal Bed-In at the Queen Elizabeth hotel, an event which all Montrealers of a certain age remember well and which was covered widely in local media. Ono has said that the intention of the Bed-Ins was simply to communicate the idea of and necessity for Peace and this they surely did. The happenings still resonate as a clarion cry for empathy and understanding.
This exhibition certainly succeeds in its stated goal to foreground Yoko Ono’s considerable influence on and role in contemporary art practices. The presiding Buddhist spirit of her endeavour was felt everywhere here. Curators Gunnar B. Kvaran and Cheryl Sim deserve kudos for mounting an exemplary exhibition of the artist’s work. Mention should also be made of Caroline Andrieux, visionary founder and director of Darling Foundry and a gifted curator, who was invited to curate a compelling exhibition inside the exhibition, entitled Of a Grapefruit.
A fellow maverick in another medium, Russian cineaste Andrei Tarkovsky, (in Sculpting in Time), said (and this is true, I think, of Ono’s intention and achievement):
“When a link is established between the work and its beholder, the latter experiences a sublime, purging trauma. Within that aura which unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognize and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions.”
Establishing just such a link is at the heart of Ono’s humanistic project. It is no exaggeration to suggest that this sublime, purging trauma was experienced widely in seeing the works in this show. Everything here points directly -- beyond all artifice -- to where the heart is. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.