Yoko Ono at the Serpentine Gallery, London

by Matthew Steinbrecher, August 2012

Now in her eighties, Yoko Ono creates work that remains as quietly forceful as ever. While many of her works responded to the disputed politics of Vietnam War-era America, others were deeply embedded in the biography of the artist. At Ono’s new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park, visitors are able to experience a wide range of works created over the last fifty-one years. Spanning a wide range of media, these works exist in a space between heavy-handed content, lightness of touch, the language of the readymade and a sincere trust in the viewer.

Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is greeted by three identical mounds of earth, labeled “Country A,” “Country B” and “Country C.” Hung directly behind is one of Ono’s “WAR IS OVER” posters, originally created with John Lennon in the 1960s. But this poster is tattered and burnt, a documentation of existing in a state of constant war, one that seems to never end. On either side of the room, army helmets hang upside down, each containing puzzle pieces that, when put together, show a clear blue sky, a call for possible calm in the midst of crisis. The audience is invited to take a piece with them.

This reliance on the viewer is emphasized with two video monitors playing documentation of one of Ono’s most famed performances, Cut Piece. This performance invited audience members to approach Ono, submissive and mute, with a pair of scissors. Showing the piece first being performed in 1965, in black and white Ono sits kneeling on the floor. One by one, viewers approach the artist, and cut a piece of her clothing, then retreat. The silence is filled with anxiety, and it is not long before the clothing is shed at the hand of the audience. A young man approaches her, and cuts away at her shirt, revealing the lingerie. Ono looks away, visibly uncomfortable and nervous. The man smiles, and cuts away the straps of her lingerie. With wet eyes, Ono holds up what is left to cover herself, and the video ends.

The second monitor showing Cut Piece, facing the first on the opposite wall, is a recreation of the original performance in 2003. Shot in color, Ono, older now with shorter hair and wearing blue sunglasses, sits in a chair on stage. In this version, people are much less skeptical about approaching her. The cuts are swift, and eager. Later in the video, when Ono is in her black bra and skirt, a couple approaches. Grinning, the girl cuts a piece, and gives it to the man. He divides the piece, gives one to the girl and keeps one for himself. They kiss, and the audience laughs. Ono stares straight ahead. Others approach her shyly and smile, as if to kindly thank her. In this video, the artist does not appear so much as a victim, but more as an authority. Seen facing each other, the performances with a four-decade gap between them show an artist in very different stages of her life, shedding submission with age.

As the viewer reaches the final rooms of the show, one of the most ephemeral works empties the room of objects. Titled A Blue Room Event, phrases are written on the wall in a casual scrawl, describing the room the visitor inhabits. Instructing the visitor to “Stay until the room is blue,” “This room slowly evaporates every day.” It’s easy to miss, but on the floor the artist has written, “This is the ceiling,” and the opposite phrase appears directly above on the ceiling. A bit of reality is injected into this space with Sky TV, a video showing a live recording of the sky outside the gallery. Both real and unreal, this room uses the most meager means to investigate the ways in which physical space is affected by mental processes.

At the end of the show, visitors are invited to have their photo taken to contribute to Ono’s #smilesfilm project, an ongoing archive of pictures of smiling people. Smiling, one leaves the gallery to find the many Wish Tree pieces situated around the entrance. This small act of sharing concludes a thoughtful and demanding show.

Yoko Ono: To The Light
19 June–9 September, 2012
Serpentine Gallery