Oh no, Yoko

A collection of Yoko Ono's work is showing at The Serpentine Gallery. Joanne Matthews found TO THE LIGHT too light

Joanne Matthews, 11 August 2012

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I was aware of Yoko Ono's performance art, particularly her seminal 'Cut Piece', and, of course, her relationship with that guy from The Beatles and their pledges for world peace. I was not surprised to find that the exhibition of her work, TO THE LIGHT, is spacious and serene. The small collection at The Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park is a mix of video, objects and photography. It presents overarching themes of universal and personal peace and draws attention to the observer and observed.

TO THE LIGHT is sure to attract tourists, considering Ono's international appeal, the Hyde Park location and what with it being part of the London 2012 festival. When entering The Serpentine Gallery bookshop, John Lennon's 'Imagine' is playing in the background, and there is a video of Ono being photographed by a crowd of paparazzi. I found the inclusion of these two elements of celebrity rather unusual: not a conventional thing for a gallery to do. It had an air of "Do you know who I am?" about it. I wondered if the Gallery or Ono decided to include these elements.

On entering the gallery space, you are first greeted with three mounds of earth from three separate unknown countries, surrounded by war helmets from Cambodia and a small poster reading, "War is over". The soil is all the same, showing that these potentially warring countries are the same underneath and share this Earth. This simple representation did not inspire any new feelings for me about war and peace. The image was like that of somebody making a peace sign, offering no alternatives other than the holy and idealistic "love thy neighbour".

These activities felt meaningless, somewhere along the lines of a television advert selling hope

Throughout the exhibition there are a series of objects on scruffy perspex plinths of varying heights: an apple; a white ladder; a stethoscope; a clock with a sign that reads "eternal time"; and articles of clothing painted silver. These objects, mostly placed in straight lines one after the other, at a glance they seem to have no connection to one another; they look like odd decorations. On closer inspection, they could represent time passing: the apple is starting to rot, the clock is stopped and the ladder is forever leading up to the ceiling.

In one of the rooms the artist invites the visitor to write on a piece of paper in response to the question, "Where do you go from here?" The paper is placed in a jar with a collection of other visitors' responses. This writing is encouraged again, outside of the gallery where five wishing trees are placed for people to write down their wishes. These activities require the observer to take a moment to think and reflect and as the exhibition goes on the paper will accumulate and the next stage of the artwork will be built. Although the wishing tree look rather sweet when covered in paper, I couldn't help but cringe at the clichéd, glossy line that Ono has written next to the artwork: "keep wishing". These activities felt meaningless, somewhere along the lines of a television advert selling hope.

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A wall of films in the next room is made up of six large screens scattered across one wall simultaneously playing a selection of films from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Three of the videos focus on the body. 'Fly', 1970, shows a fly landing on parts of a naked female body and 'Film No 4 (Bottoms)', 1967, is a series of slowed down bums walking. 'Freedom', 1970, is of a women trying to take her bra off but not succeeding. The footage is slowed down and these delicate bodies are comical and pleasing to watch. The films are stylistically sexy but do not eroticize the naked female body. The film 'Freedom' uses the bra as a symbol of a barrier to female emancipation: the bra as a restrictive item of clothing used to shape breasts into an acceptable form and as a tantalizing obstruction between viewer and the reveal of the much-objectified naked breasts.

In the same room, 'Amaze', originally made in 1970, is a small, see-through perspex cube with a series of corridors running through it. The visitor walks through the maze in full view of others in the gallery. My fellow gallery-goers were enjoying the activity of being granted agency to let go of the usual gallery restrictions, being instructed to take off their shoes and be seen walking around. Inside the maze it felt quiet and I walked into walls that I couldn't see. I can see the intention of the work: to have the visitor be both observer and the observed. The see-through maze could be a visual representation of the barriers we create both mentally and physically. However, the work was too simplistic, and placed in the already calm and clear gallery environment, did not have much of an effect on me. It would perhaps be better suited in another location, outside of the gallery space, to have a more dynamic impact on the individual.

'Cut Piece' emphasizes the reciprocal way in which viewers and subjects become objects for each other and demonstrates how viewing without responsibility has the potential to harm or even destroy the object of perception

To compliment this room, Ono has a number of framed white pieces of paper with black writing on, in the form of poetry and advice, with inscriptions such as "Love everything in the room/let all things shine without fear". These lines seem clichéd, and perhaps indicate a search for inner mental peace. Are these notes to the artist herself? Or does the artist feel she is an agent of inner peace and wants to spread this unto others?

One of Ono's seminal performance works is 'Cut Piece'. Originally performed in the 1960s and re-performed in 2003, both adaptations are shown on film in the exhibition. In this piece, Ono sat on the stage and invited the audience to approach her and cut away at her clothing. Ono presents a situation in which the viewer is implicated in the potentially aggressive act of unveiling the female body, which has served historically as an anonymous subject for classical art. 'Cut Piece' emphasizes the reciprocal way in which viewers and subjects become objects for each other and demonstrates how viewing without responsibility has the potential to harm or even destroy the object of perception.

In the 60s performance, Ono looks nervous and vulnerable. There is a man that returns a number of times and at the end of the video he cuts off her bra straps and slip. Ono sits there holding her clothes so that her breasts are not revealed. This is the only time that she moves throughout the performance; before the man cuts her underclothes off she moves her arm up slightly as if to stop him. There is something quite sinister in her slight movement and then return.

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In the second manifestation of 'Cut Piece' in 2003, the performance takes on a completely different meaning. Although the viewer is still implicated in some way, the relationship between the artist and audience has changed. Ono has become a celebrity, a well-known person who is no longer on the fringe. The audience flocked to the artist at Carnegie Hall in New York with many of them delivering her messages and kisses. This performance portrayed Yoko Ono as the almighty artist with parallels to a religious gathering.

I was reminded of the Marina Abramović exhibition in 2010, The Artist is Present, at MoMA in New York, portrayed in Matthew Akers' documentary film. The artist sat in a chair in the main gallery for the duration of the exhibition and invited visitors to sit with her face to face. This was reworking her piece with her long-term collaborator, Uly, in which they would stare at one another for long periods of time. The Artist is Present grew in popularity as the exhibition went on over time with queues out the door. People cried when they sat with her. Abramović gained a divine, rock star status.

There are interesting parallels between both Abramović and Ono's shift from a performance artist making radical work in the '60s to a significant celebrity figure that people send up as the divine artist. The performance pieces, so very rarely performed become a must-see experience, and indeed, a tourist attraction.

On exiting the gallery there is a piece of dirty canvas on the floor entitled 'Painting to be stepped on', a light and comical way to end the collection. With the exception of 'Cut Piece', I feel that this final canvas sums up the feeling of the entire exhibition: subtle and reflective but rather disposable and low impact.

TO THE LIGHT is at The Serpentine Gallery until 9 September. Entrance is free.

Photos are used with permission.

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Joanne Matthews

Joanne is an artist, collaborator, facilitator and marketer in the arty world

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