Yoko Ono - is her art any good?
By Alastair Sooke
Last Updated: 8:05AM GMT 13 Jan 2009
Yoko Ono has a good claim to being the most despised woman of modern times. For decades, she has been caricatured as the wicked witch of rock and roll who broke up the Beatles and stole away John Lennon. Today, at 75, she still lives in the splendid Upper West Side apartment that they shared in New York's gothic Dakota Building, outside of which Lennon was shot in 1980.
But, long before she met the most gifted member of the Fab Four in London's Indica Gallery in 1966, Ono was an artist in New York, fraternising with avant-garde creative types such as the composer John Cage (she was part of the Fluxus movement of artists), and hosting concerts attended by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp in her loft in downtown Manhattan.
A new retrospective, Yoko Ono: Between the Sky and My Head, which opened recently at the Baltic art gallery in Gateshead, features 50 pieces stretching back to 1961, and attempts to make the case that she was a pioneering figure in the development of conceptual and performance art who deserves to be remembered as a radical practitioner in her own right, and not simply as the wife of a Beatle. Lennon was convinced that his Japanese wife was a trailblazing genius; Baltic's curators take this as gospel fact.
Looking around the exhibition, though, it's hard not to reflect that Lennon's praise was surely the by-product of his infatuation, rather than an objective measure of Ono's artistic worth. As an artist, Ono undoubtedly has her moments; but, for the most part, her work is muddled by the kind of whimsical freethinking that is a hangover of the Sixties and Seventies, and which today seems fey, pretentious, out of touch and out of date. "Imagine Peace" screams a billboard that dominates Baltic's vast north facade, overlooking the River Tyne, serving as a come-on and mantra for Ono's show (and entire oeuvre). Sure, who wouldn't give their right hand in exchange for everlasting global harmony? But try sticking a poster with that slogan in Gaza City at the moment, and see how far it gets you.
Underneath the hippy claptrap, there is a talented artist who occasionally muscles her way to the forefront, but whether you can be bothered to hang around for those moments is another matter.
Let's start with the good. The strongest work in the show is Cut Piece, a performance presented here in two incarnations: a film of Ono performing the piece at the Carnegie Hall in New York in 1965, and a film of another performance of the same work nearly four decades later in a Paris theatre. In both cases, Ono sits on stage against a black backdrop. Throughout, she is silent, immobile and impassive, like a piece of ancient Egyptian funerary sculpture, while members of the audience take it in turns to approach her and cut at her clothing with a worryingly large pair of tailor's shears.
The films are compelling and disturbing at the same time, and somehow voyeuristic, as though the performance is a sublimated representation of some awful scene of rape or domestic abuse. It is upsetting to see more bullish male audience members hack away at the silk straps and delicate gauze of Ono's underclothes with breathy gusto.
Cut Piece, which dates from 1964, chimes with contemporary feminist thinking, of course, asking us to reflect on the subjugation of women. But, more importantly (and this is why the piece has lasted), it forces us to confront the capacity for violence within ourselves, bringing us face-to-face with primal, semi-bestial urges that we might like to excise from definitions of what it means to be human. Those men and women wielding the shears: they are you, and me.
Fly, a video work from 1970, is similarly unforgettable. Over six screens and 25 minutes, a camera records in close-up the movements of a tiny black housefly as it crawls and prances across the body of a naked woman. Again, the woman is noticeably passive; again, the piece has feminist overtones: it was supposedly inspired by Ono's memory of a man comically unable to stop himself ogling a woman's breasts, and it presents the female form, with its fleshy hillocks and ravines, as a landscape, a patriarchal conceit that has come naturally to male writers and artists since way back when.
But the work also has unsettling associations that, as in Cut Piece, by implication incriminate the viewer. Why does the woman not swat at the fly? Is she a corpse? And, if I enjoy watching the film, does that make me a peeping tom? Fly is a critique (and parody) of male sexual desire.
Ono made most of her best work during the Sixties and Seventies. Some of the later stuff, by comparison, feels slight. We're All Water, from 2006, consists of 118 glass bottles sitting side by side on a long shelf. Each bottle is two-thirds full of water and has been labelled, almost at random, with the name of someone famous, from Sid Vicious to Hitler to Virginia Woolf (her surname is misspelt) to Ono herself.
A piece like this lives or dies on the strength of the concept behind it; making art out of the truism that, after death, we are all the same feels hackneyed and banal, and wilfully ignores the interesting and complex thing about human identity, which is that we are all unique. Other than the fact that two thirds of their body mass consisted of water, in what ways were the frontman of the Sex Pistols and the pre-eminent writer of the Bloomsbury set similar? This is the equivalent of making art that says: hey, humans share 60 per cent of their DNA with fruit flies. Whatever.
Play It By Trust, a giant chess set made using sleek Carrara marble (the material of Michelangelo's David) last year, is another example of Ono's recent folly. The piece is a version of a set she showed in London back in '66; the gimmick is that all the chessmen are white, so that the set is effectively unplayable. The pacifist message is clear: make love, not war. But reprising this neat if one-trick idea in expensive Italian marble is an extravagance. The forms of the chessmen are visually alluring and tactile, of course, but to what end? I couldn't help but feel that this sculptural work was a kind of con.
"I don't think the poor bastard will get recognition until she's dead," John Lennon once said of his wife.
I'm not so sure she'll get it even then. Except for a handful of examples where Ono has struck artistic gold, the work on show at Baltic feels slender and slight, and too muted and tasteful to really stake a claim to longevity.
Lennon also called Ono "the most famous unknown artist in the world: everybody knows who she is, but nobody knows what she does". I suspect that this isn't about to change.
'Yoko Ono: Between the Sky and My Head' is at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (0191 478 1810), until March 15.
Labels: Yoko Ono