Yes Yoko Ono

AYes Yoko Onolexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks
Japan Society / Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ($39.95)

by Gary Gach

Trying to pin down Yoko Ono can be like infiltrating North Korea using Boy Scouts for Phalangists. To some, she stole John Lennon away from the Beatles (a stereotypical, entrenched definition of women in terms of men). For others, she's a central figure of 20th-century art(s), a child of Duchamp (who walked away from art to play chess.) The lineage comes to the fore in her white chess piece: two chairs, a table, board, squares, and pieces all in white. Think about it: The more you advance your pieces ahead into your opponent's field, how do you know who's who?

Ono calls this instance of zen vaudeville Play It By Trust. Besides a set for two people, "Yes" exhibits a larger version, with a row of ten white chess sets on a conference table. The bigger version asks us to imagine which heads of state, religious leaders, captains of industry, pop superstars, family and friends might gather at such a summit. The operative word is imagine. Here's an art of the conceptual rather than the retinal, yet that can also make us see.

While you may not catch the exhibition itself, this interactive catalogue makes the work all the more conceptual—which is part of the process. Interactive here can mean it's happening in your mind. Early in her career, Ono worked in a form we now call instructional (or, as she says, "instructural"); for example, in 1955 she created a piece entitled One: "Light a match and watch it." Interestingly, the piece consists of both the instruction and any performance of it.

Any performance plays off a balance between audience and actor, so at some level, all reviews are performative and conceptual: as Zuni tribal elder Joseph Peynetsa told anthropologist Dennis Tedlock, "If someone tells you a story, you can just imagine it." Consider your own imagination as I describe Corner Painting. The catalogue shows a blank canvas in a gold frame, angled to fit within a corner. By asking us to change our position, this art doesn't necessarily change our life, but changes how we view it.

This may seem facile, but as Thelonious Monk said, "Simple ain't easy." Witness Ono's billboard art—an attempt to free commercial art from its nexus of commodities, cash, and craving—such as the famous billboard of 1969, revived for the travelling show, advertising WAR IS OVER (if you want it): no less timely today in its warning that violence can be internalized, and in its invitation to liberation therefrom.

If an "art book" format for all this is conceptual, it's also persistently sculptural (engaging the reader bodily with its heft), multimedia (mixing photos and stills, captions and text, plus a CD of Ono's visceral vocalise), and mind—opening-we draw a new world just by turning a page. There's an echo again of Duchamp, who created a portable museum of miniatures and photos of his work in a suitcase.

Yoko Ono - LadderCeiling Painting (YES Painting)
Yoko Ono, 1966
Text on paper, glass, metal frame, metal chain, painting ladder
Collection of the artist
Photo by Oded Lobl

There might be a certain irony in noting Ono's progression from sheer ephemerality to tactile and utter thingness—a conceptual artist who now works in bronze. But even at its most solid, her work is never quite what it seems. A more interesting avenue of interpretation is how her work has only grown in meaning as it's recontextualized through historical change.

It's worth noting, too, how "Yes" makes an ideal sequel to Alexandra Munroe's previous exhibition/catalogue, Scream Against the Sky. Titled after a work by Ono, it was a seminal survey of the avant-garde emerging out of the postwar rubble of Japan-action art, bizarre media, conceptual art, butoh, etc. If America was destined for Modernity, then Postmodernity seemed Japan's fate—though it took half a century to take such stock of our former opponent. It's perfect then for Munroe (adroitly assisted by Fluxus curator John Hendricks) to focus on Ono after forty-years work.

While the exhibitions unfold with the invisible logic of poetry, the catalogue reflects its own rigor. Munroe begins with an incisive, insightful survey that furnishes a framework necessarily pliant and permeable, as no life is ever as orderly and logical as any chronological display. It ends with 30 pages of Ono's texts, plus a chronology and bibliography. In between, the book is organized by categories: scores and instructions, early objects, events and performances, advertisements, films and video, music, and current projects-a strategy inevitably provisional given the hybrid nature inherent in so much of Ono's work (East/West, old/new, nature/artifice, idea/thing, etc.).

Rilke once complained that avant-garde arts "copulate and copulate but never conceive." What might he have thought of Ono's conceptions (or of today's world)? Faced with art's branching into myriad byways—many quite arcane, incoherent, and doomful—plus current prospects of a war that doesn't look likely to be won in our lifetimes, it's a tonic to immerse ourselves in the positivity, universality, and radical vision of Ono's art. Yes limns a classical avant-garde, no paradox: love is all there is.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002