Yoko Ono Breaks Free With Major London Exhibition – Review

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono is one of the best known figures to come out of the 1960’s Fluxus movement. It was a group made up of musicians, including John Cage, poets, artists and hippies. At 79 she is still a force to be reckoned with. Her work is still energetic and vibrant.  Ono’s new Serpentine Gallery exhibition remains true to her Fluxus roots, but it has evolved using new technology with an optimistic outlook.

In her long and productive career, she has embraced a wide variety of media, breaching traditional boundaries and creating new forms of artistic expression. A pioneer of conceptual art, her work has been presented internationally in major exhibitions and performances. “TO THE LIGHT” reflects upon the enormous impact that she has had on contemporary art, exploring her influential role across a wide range of media. This exhibition includes new and existing installations, as well as films and performances.

Ono never achieved the acknowledgement or critical acclaim she deserved for her work as an artist. Her art was always overshadowed by her complex relationship with John Lennon and a reevaluation has only taken place in the last five or so years.  The Fluxus movement took its name from a Latin word meaning “to flow”. It became an international network of artists noted for blending different artistic media and disciplines and is sometimes described as intermedia. Fluxus encouraged a “do-it-yourself” aesthetic, and valued simplicity over complexity. Like Dada before it, Fluxus included a strong current of anti-commercialism and an anti-art sensibility, disparaging the conventional market-driven art world in favour of an artist-centered creative practice. As Fluxus artist Robert Filliou wrote,  ‘Fluxus differed from Dada in its richer set of aspirations, and the positive social and communitarian aspirations of Fluxus far outweighed the anti-art tendency that also marked the group. In terms of an artistic approach, Fluxus artists preferred to work with whatever materials were at hand, and either created their own work or collaborated in the creation process with their colleagues. Fluxus practise became increasingly influenced by Japanese members of the group’. Since returning to Japan in 1961, Yoko Ono had been recommending colleagues look Maciunas up if they moved to New York; by the time she had returned, in early 1965, Hi Red Center, Shigeko Kubota, Takako Saito, Mieko Shiomi and Ay-O had all started to make work for Fluxus, often of a contemplative nature.

Fluxus founder George Maciunas, a friend of Ono’s during the 1960s, admired her work and promoted it with enthusiasm. One of Ono’s well known examples is when she took a fly as her alter ego and was inspired by this for her work.  Maciunas invited Ono to join the Fluxus group, but she declined because she wanted to remain an independent artist. John Cage was one of the most important influences on Ono’s performance art. It was her relationship to Ichiyanagi Toshi, who was a pupil of John Cage’s legendary class of Experimental Composition at the New School, that would introduce her to the unconventional avant-garde, neo-Dadaism of John Cage and his protégés in New York City.

Ono was an explorer of conceptual art and performance art. An example of her performance art is “Cut Piece” (this instance of performance art is also known as a “happening”), first performed in 1964 at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo. Cut Piece had one destructive verb as its instruction: “Cut.” Ono executed the performance in Tokyo by walking on stage and casually kneeling on the floor in a draped garment. Audience members were requested to come on stage and begin cutting until she was naked. Ono performed this piece again in London and other venues, garnering drastically different attention depending on the audience. In Japan, the audience was typically shy and cautious, while London participators were a bit more zealous.

An example of her conceptual art includes her book of instructions called Grapefruit. First published in 1964, the book includes surreal, Zen-like instructions that are to be completed in the mind of the reader, for example: “Hide and seek Piece: Hide until everybody goes home. Hide until everybody forgets about you. Hide until everybody dies.” An example of Heuristic art, Grapefruit was published several times, most widely distributed by Simon and Schuster in 1971, and reprinted by them again in 2000. Many of the scenarios in the book would be enacted as performance pieces throughout Ono’s career and have formed the basis for her art exhibitions, including one highly publicized show at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, that was nearly closed when besieged by excited Beatle fans who broke several of the art pieces and flooded the toilets. In addition to conceptual art, Ono has also created participatory art, including her 1996 project entitled “Wish Tree” in Japan.

The exhibition is not a traditional survey. It is not in a chronological order and it was not billed as a retrospective. It does however contain pieces from all of her important periods of work. There is a startling resonance to this beautifully displayed exhibition. The white on white gallery provides floods of light through the windows some covered in rice paper, which resemble Japanese screens. Has Ono had a profound influence on a younger generation of artists ? It is unlikely that this has happened directly. But to look at the work this 80 year old artist, she is still creating something relevant and fresh. Just returning from Basel I have seen hundreds of installation pieces, video art and conceptual works. Does this look better? I have to say it probley does.


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