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I’m a bit late in writing this up, but couldn’t let it go without a post (Yes, I actually like Yoko Ono).
About a week ago I took the train down to Newcastle to see the city and visit the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to see the Yoko Ono retrospective.
I should start by saying that the Baltic is a fantastic gallery. Converted from a flour mill, there are lots of wide gallery spaces and a fantastic high ceilinged atrium on the top floor.
Before I get to talking about the exhibition, two caveats:
2) Yoko Ono’s aesthetic is a bit twee and occasionally painfully earnest. I like it. Some of the artworks seem politically naive in 60s, long haired hippy sense. But they are from the 60s, so you can take it in the spirit of the decade.
That is why my favourite works were the earlier ones. The early 60s short poetry pieces like ‘Paintings’, ‘Play it by Trust’ the giant chess set with only white pieces (1966) “Chess set for playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are”, ‘Cut Piece’ (1965) and ‘Amaze’ (1971).
‘Cut Piece’ is a performance work filmed originally in 1965 and then again more recently where Ono sits on a stage and invites the audience to cut at her clothes with scissors. ‘Amaze’ is a clear perspex maze.
The more recent work was generally less interesting, but had some highlights. ‘Wish Tree’ is a fairly literal interpretation of the Shinto ritual where people tie strips of paper to branches to send prayers and wishes to the Kami within trees.
Here are some I saw visiting Japan a few years ago – in Tokyo:
I took note of some of the more interesting wishes:
“GANSTA [sic] 4 LIFE”
“I want a pony and a stable please”
“I wish I can get a 2nd upper in my law degree”
This one was funny:
The text reads: “I wish Patrick-wolf-boy would fall in love with me please x.”
Like Ono’s contribution to the LOVE exhibition I saw last year, the strength of these participatory works is in finding a concept engaging enough to actually get people writing heartfelt, sarcastic and occasionally absurd comments on little tags for the general public to read. There were two other similar set ups: ‘My Mommy is Beautiful’ (blank canvases for messages of love to mothers) and ‘We are all Water’. ‘We are all Water’ is a series of glass jars filled with water and labelled with the names of historical figures (Gertrude Stein sits beside Groucho Marx and 50 cents [sic]) with a final blank jar with cards for visitors to write a name on.
A more interesting recent piece was ‘Helmet’, a development of one of her short poem works ‘A piece of sky’:
Take a piece of sky.
Know that we are
all part of each other.
‘Helmet’ is a small room full of upturned German World War II era helmets suspended from the ceiling, each full of jigsaw puzzle pieces like this:
Visitors are invited to take a piece of sky. I like ‘Helmet’ because it was visually striking, and representing war accountability with hundreds of puzzle pieces that individual people hold is neat (I did warn you all it was going to be twee* at the start).
*Apologies for the recent overuse of the word ‘twee’ – Unfortunately both a indie pop genre and an appropriate adjective here.
On Friday I went back to the National Gallery to have a closer look at LOVE – a touring exhibition curated in partnership with Bristol’s Museums, Galleries & Archives and Tyne & Wear Museums. I went quickly through on Wednesday, but wanted to have a proper look at it all (and take up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hang something on the National Gallery’s esteemed walls).
I really enjoy small thematic exhibitions when they are well done. Working at a gallery earlier this year I found that exhibitions with a theme were generally the most popular and the most fun to work at. While you can get tired of an single exhibiting artist’s ‘rugged rural aesthetic’ surprisingly quickly, when you have a collection of works by multiple artists there is always something exciting to find.
LOVE only takes up about three rooms of the gallery, but includes a huge range of styles, eras and subjects. It covers themes of religious devotion, romantic love, parental love, desire and charity. There are works from major artists including Goya, Vermeer, Chagall, Raphael, Turner, plus contributions from some modern artists: David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Yoko Ono.
I wasn’t aware that Ono was taken at all seriously as an artist until I saw that she had a piece in the Sydney Biennale this year (not that being included in the Sydney Biennale is a definitive mark of being taken seriously as an artist). I suppose this is just unfair skepticism about the value of performance art on my part, and distrust of incidental celebrity. Her work in the Biennale was a telephone (attached to a nondescript wall) which she planned to call at various (undisclosed) times during festival. I didn’t hear it ring.
In LOVE Yoko Ono’s contribution was Secret Piece III – (from the catalogue):
“A new conceptual work of art, conceived by Yoko Ono, will develop as the exhibition takes place, one that encourages contemplation on the visual articulation of love. Secret Piece III invites each visitor to contribute an image of, or a message for, a loved one to a blank canvas… The personal, subjective visions that make up its whole are a sign of life in the twenty-first century, for place and time have always shaped works of art and their means of communication.”
Some of the contributions were quite funny:
I love me.*
I love scientology this much: [with a accompanying tiny double sided arrow.]
I used to love you. Now I love my friends.
SCOTLAND: MY LOVE, MY HEART.
It’s irritating that I’m doing this because Yoko Bloody Ono has told us to… but I can’t help it because, Quentin, I love you so much.
Other messages were quite sincere:
I LOVE YOU! Dear someone who I meet someday. LOVE & PEACE. It’s all about the world.
I wish I loved you enough to tell you everything.
The dance floor is never the same without you.
I feel more like me when you’re there, than when you’re not.
My sweet grandma. I love you and miss you so very much, I am eating lots of chocolate because the little Indian lady at the corner shop reminds me of you.
All these lyrics. Moments between us. Shadows on the blinds, mixed together with your taste. This is how I love you right now.
Now I don’t think I’m really excited enough about conceptual art to write anything particularly profound about it. But I have one opinion. If your artwork is nothing but an idea, it really should be an idea that people engage with.
If people look at The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and think ‘that shark is looking a bit fishy’, the artwork isn’t too successful.
I really liked Secret Piece III. People were obviously enjoying engaging with it, and the things people had to say about love were an interesting contribution to an exhibition that showcased many different types of emotion.
But what did I write on the love wall?
On behalf of Lydia and Pete (who are probably still skulking around AGNSW waiting for Yoko’s call):
*Other ‘I love [blank]’ comments: dogs, cats, my cat, ‘Marco the string zebra’, shoes, cheese blend and ‘be bop’.