Yoko Ono is a famous person: artist, author, composer, widow of John Lennon and a star.
Her exhibition “To the Light,” at the Serpentine Gallery in London, will probably attract far more visitors than you might expect for a mini-retrospective by a 79-year-old pioneer of conceptual art.
Why? Ono isn’t a very important artist and the Serpentine show is slight. On the other hand, she can’t be denied her place in history. The day in 1966 when Ono met Lennon the link between popular music and the artistic avant-garde was made. She became a rock performer and he turned into a collaborator in her performances and films. Since then many others, from David Bowie to Lady Gaga, have blended pop and cutting-edge art.
On June 19, she held a public conversation with the art critic Waldemar Januszczak at the Serpentine Pavilion. As Ono sat under the canopy designed by Herzog, de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, her charisma and grace were on display.
It was easy to see what made her one of the emblematic personalities of a certain time, let’s call it the age of the Beatles. If you love that period, you probably love her too.
Step inside the exhibition, however, and there’s much less on show. Elusive is a good word to describe her art. There are a few celebrated sights, such as the moving images of naked male and female posteriors -- some hairy, some smooth -- walking on the spot (“Film No. 4 (Bottoms),” 1967), and Ono and Lennon in bed together (“Bed In,” 1969).
Another looks intriguingly familiar. “Apple” (1966) is a green apple sitting on a plastic plinth. Two years later, probably not coincidentally, the Beatles founded Apple Records, with a green Granny Smith as its logo.
Ono’s art is more about words and actions than objects and images. As Ono told Januszczak, she has never really made things; she is a conceptual artist. A lot of her work consists of instructions. Take “Footsteps I”: “Walk through the museum with a map of the room. Rubber stamp the map with where your feet carried you. Send the map of your footsteps to a friend.”
The various versions of “A Box of Smile,” (1967), consist of receptacles containing a mirror. “Look in the box and tell yourself, it’s not so bad. You’re still alive.”
What does that remind you of? How about Paul Wilson’s “Little Book of Calm”? “When you’re feeling under pressure, do something different. Roll up your sleeves or eat an orange.”
The resemblance isn’t accidental. Wilson is a teacher of meditation, drawing on the traditions of yoga and Buddhism. I suspect Ono’s sensibility has a lot to do with the koans of Zen Buddhism: questions or statements leading to enlightenment (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”)
If you don’t share Ono’s view of things, you’ll probably find her art merely whimsical and/or naive. After all, the rational response to, for example, her faded poster that reads “War Is Over (if you want it)” (1969-2012) would be “in practice, international conflict is a bit more complicated than that,” wouldn’t it?
There’s an echo, of course, in “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for.”
Through her influence on Lennon, Ono has had a much broader impact than any other conceptual artist. That’s quite a thought.
“To the Light” is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, through Sept. 9. Information: http://www.serpentinegallery.org/.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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