Sunday, August 26, 2012

'Yoko Ono: To the Light' at the Serpentine Gallery, 25th August 2012

Yoko Ono
I've always had a soft spot for Yoko Ono; "the woman that split up the Beatles".  People arguing that she rode the coat-tails of John to fame and fortune seem to ignore the obvious and genuine love between them.  In the sixties Ono stood in opposition to the staid and institutional artistic establishment.  Her art, working within the Fluxus aesthetic, seems designed to be ephemeral, composed of whatever materials are to hand, and in Ono's case, to re-contextualise mundane objects and our environment.  

This exhibition gives us a retrospective of her work through the years, covering the mid-60s to the modern day.  Placing it in the halls of the Serpentine Gallery seems to reposition Ono firmly within the artistic world, an attempt to transform her into a valued artist in her own right.  

'Helmets' 2001/2012
We begin and see a room full of WW2 army helmets dangling from the ceiling.  Looking inside them reveals they're full of jigsaw pieces showing the sky.  Behind them are three mounds of dirt, each apparently from a different country at war.  The message seems fairly clear here, national borders are thought constructions, consensual agreements amongst humanity that are taken so seriously that people will gladly die for them.   The helmets reinforce this lack of division between people, all soldiers, no matter which country they fight for still look up to the same blue sky.  Sitting unheralded behind all this is a burnt, tattered and torn 'War is Over, If You Want It' poster.  It looks its age, far from the elegant black and white design we're familiar with.  The scars upon this poster symbolise the battering this philosophy has taken in the last 40-odd years.  It's important that even through the stains and tears, this message is still visible, as accurate as ever.  It may have taken some knocks along the way, but the core of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's message of peace is still as relevant as it ever was.

One of the primary aims of this exhibition seems to be to try and make people question their space, to examine what the architecture and objects around them mean.  In terms of modern art, the recontextualising of a common object seems almost a bit too obvious. After all, Duchamp's 'Fountain' is approaching its centenary, but Ono is consistently throughout theis exhibition in attempts to 'open our eyes'.  Signs on the floor inform us that "This is the ceiling" and when you look up, you see "This is the floor" written above.  Around the room handwritten graffiti tells us "This room is bright blue" and "This room gets as wide as the ocean at the other end".  Ono is encouraging us to alter our perspective, to question the common consensus and create our own world.

Still from 'Fly' 1970
The notion of your creating your own artistic world from the mundane runs through the video work here.  Much of this looks at the human body, be it her 'Film No. 4' (1966) which shows us a series of buttocks or the excellent 'Fly' (1970) which shows a fly wandering in closeup over a nude female body.  I was particularly taken with 'Fly', which I saw as a nice combination of repulsion and intimacy.  We see a fly perched on a nipple and wandering through pubic hair.  The initial reaction is disgust, but the shots are held for so long that we see the fly as something gentle and vulnerable, dwarfed by the human landscape it finds itself on.

Video exhibits at the Serpentine,
The most famous films on display are two 'Cut Pieces'.  In these films, exhibited facing each other we see Ono in 1965 and 2003 undergoing the same artistic process.  The concept is that Ono sits on stage motionless while members of the audience walk up to her and cut a piece of her clothing from her body.  She remains passive as her clothes fall away into a pile of rags.  Watching both the '65 and '03 versions is an interesting juxtaposition.  Even though the act is the same, age gives it a different meaning.  The younger Ono seems vulnerable and innocent.  At this stage in her life Ono had yet to endure the slings and arrows that moronic Beatles fans would hurl at her, and you look at her with no small amount of pity knowing what she is to endure.  In contrast, the '03 performance shows a woman entirely in control of events and her own image.  She sits regally, as people (who seem a little nervous) stand up and gingerly cut pieces from her.  The more her body is revealed, the more power she seems to gain.  "This is me, take it or leave it", is what the message has morphed into.  It's the performance of a woman who has come to terms with her life story and public image.

Amaze (1971)
The largest piece in here is 'Amaze' (1971), a maze of perspex walls.  At the centre is a kind of font that shows the reflection of the ceiling above.  The water is tactile, drops are splashed around the inner sanctum, a kinetic disturbance within the static architecture.  Making your way through the maze is difficult, and although I managed it without injury it seems very easy to bonk your head on an invisible wall.

Film No. 4 (1966)
Even though I made it through the maze without incident, afterwards I managed to bonk my head against a wall that was as invisible, yet much more dispiriting.  After viewing the entire collection, I'd drawn the conclusion that Ono is encouraging her audience to reconsider the spaces and objects around them as poetic and artistic objects.  So I stood in a room looking at large sheets of translucent rice paper covering the windows.  They hung down in large strips, and in two of them holes had been torn allowing us to see the lush park outside. 

A piece of art that I apparently damaged.
"Ah", I thought, "I get it.  Underneath this blank, disposable canvas lies a beautiful world, and if we make a small effort, it can be revealed to us."  So I reached up, and tore a hole through the paper to view the park outside.  Immediately a security guard ran up to me and angrily asked me what the hell I was doing.  "I-I thought I was supposed to do this!" was my surprised answer.  I pointed to a similar hole not far from mine.  "That's part of the art",  I pointed to another hole.  "That was an accident".  People were looking by this point.  I slinked away, red-faced and embarrassed.

This embarrassment was soon replaced by indignation, and the more I thought about it, the more the incident began to colour the whole experience.   This art when first exhibited in the 60s was alive and exciting.  Looking at videos of Ono's famous 1966 Indica exhibition we see people interacting and handling the exhibits.  There is no cultural capital attached to these works, they exist to perpetuate ideas and concepts.  Fast forward to 2012: these same pieces of art are on display and they're no longer alive in this way.  They're artefacts, preserved in aspic, pieces of nostalgia for a different time.  

'Ceiling Painting' 1966 (when I saw it there was a cord in place)
The best example of this is 'Ceiling Painting' (1966), described by John Lennon thusly:
"There was a ladder that led up to a painting that was hung on the ceiling. It looked like a blank canvas with a chain with a spyglass hanging on the end of it,. I climbed the ladder and looked through the glass and in tiny letters it says YES. So it was positive. I felt relieved. It didn't say no, or fuck you or something, it said yes." 
If you squint it still says 'Yes' on the ceiling, but that's about as far as you're going to get.  There's a rope barring anyone from actually climbing the stepladder.  What was once a dynamic piece of art with a positive message has been neutered.  What is the point of this if we can't interact with it as intended?  The rope barring anyone from climbing the ladder has now effectively become part of the piece.  The message in 2012 is a resounding 'NO!'.

Similarly symbolic of the loss of vitality is a clock sealed in a perspex box; 'Eternal Time' (1965).  A stethoscope hangs in front of it, and I'd guess the intention is for us to wear the stethoscope, and listen to the clock ticking away.  Under the watchful eyes of the Serpentine security team I didn't dare touch the thing, not that I would have heard anything if I had.  The clock probably stopped sometime in the early 1970s.

It's intensely frustrating to be told you can't do something, and these imposed boundaries warp the intentions of the exhibition.  To use an over-worked phrase, Ono encourages us throughout this exhibition to 'think outside the box'.  Yet when we do we find ourself in yet another box, another set of boundaries.  Midway through this exhibition I was having a wonderful time appreciating the humour and freedom, but by the end I'd been quite forcefully shown that this was an elaborate illusion.  

In the end it feels you're seeing the mummified husks of Ono's art rather than a living breathing collection.  It's a sobering reminder than no matter how experimental and avant garde something is, it will eventually become frozen, static and absorbed into the art establishment.  

Yoko Ono: Into the Light finishes on the 9th of September 2o12

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