Think Positive

Timeless messages in Yoko Ono's heart

by Suzannah Tartan

To the general public, Yoko Ono is best known as the wife of John Lennon. Some may have a vague inkling that she is important for something other than the far-out records she made with her husband, but without knowing exactly what.

Yet “Yes Yoko Ono,” the current retrospective of her work on display at Art Tower Mito, emphatically proves, if Ono had never met John Lennon, if they had never consummated their romantic and artistic relationship, she would still be considered a significant artist in her own right. Spanning nearly 40 years, the exhibition never denies Ono’s partnership with Lennon. At the same time, by focusing on her early work, it details the singularity of her own artistic vision and its importance to contemporary art.

Ono’s “instruction paintings,” which are not paintings at all but conceptual poems designed to prompt the viewer into various intellectual exercises, are an important step in the history of conceptual art. Her events, such as “Cut Piece” (1964), in which audiences members literally cut the clothes from her body, are landmarks of performance art as well as early feminism. Lennon inspired her and supported her, but he did not make her. He merely introduced her to a larger audience.

Indeed, one can argue that Ono had been groomed to be an artist from the start. Born in 1923 into an aristocratic Japanese family (her mother was a Yasuda of the Yasuda zaibatsu family and her father came from a samurai lineage), Ono was schooled in traditional Japanese aesthetics and Buddhism. Her musical education was equally impressive. Having studied composition as well as opera and lieder from an early age, she had, ironically, more formal musical training than her husband.

By the time Ono settled in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, after a peripatetic youth following her banker father between the United States and Japan, Japanese aesthetics had become all the rage. The composer John Cage, whose pieces played with notions of time and space, was a particular adherent, and later a friend of Ono’s.

Through fliers, photographs and event and concert programs the exhibition documents the headiness of this era when, Ono has said, even the air seemed different. Ono (along with artist Nam Jun Paik, another Asian transplant) became involved with the Fluxus movement, a loose confederation of artists who, drawing on Dadaism, rejected the reigning orthodoxy of New York’s “high” modern-art scene, Abstract Expressionism.

The Fluxus group aimed to liberate art from the stuffiness of museums. Art, they preached, could be found anywhere and could be anything. As such, the Fluxus gang staged concerts where there was no music, exhibitions that took place only in the minds of the organizer, and generally upended the whole concept of art and where it should happen.

“Yes Yoko Ono,” originally presented by New York’s Japan Society, goes some way toward reconciling the traditional aesthetic of Ono’s childhood with the ultra-modern, avant-garde nature of her art.

Her instruction pieces, for instance, resemble nothing less than short haiku and, written in Ono’s scrawl, could be mistaken for calligraphy exercises. “The Wish Tree” (1996), a living tree upon which spectators can hang pieces of paper inscribed with their wishes, will be immediately familiar to anyone who has celebrated Tanabata in Japan.

A strong element of Buddhism, with its continual admonishments to quiet and control the mind, can also be found in her work. As you enter the exhibition spaces of Mito Art Tower, the first impression is one of space and light. Ono’s preferred mediums of crystal and Plexiglass, her preference for clean white surfaces, even the simplicity of her handwritten works, all display a clarity of purpose, as if her mind has been swept of clutter, leaving only the most essential of forms and thoughts.

“Pointedness” (1964/1966) is the height of such simplicity. A small round crystal ball, it seems to glow on its Plexiglass stand. But simplicity is not simpleness. “Pointedness” was inspired by a vision of the moon Ono had during an event at a Kyoto temple in which the moonlight narrowed to a point. Her instructions for “Pointedness,” carved into the pedestal’s base, seek to duplicate that moment, instructing the viewer to focus on the sphere until it eventually becomes the same “sharp point” in the mind.

Invoking at once Zen meditation, metaphysics and the melting of time and space, “Pointedness” is still fresh, still unerringly new, even at a distance of nearly 40 years. Like all of her work from the ’60s, it doesn’t shock, but rather sends the mind meandering down a hitherto unknown path, allowing a glance at a new reality or truth, a new set of possibilities.

Her “Ceiling Painting (Yes Painting),” which debuted in 1966 at London’s Indica Gallery where Ono and Lennon first met, is another example. As with her instruction paintings, the “Yes Painting” is not a painting at all but an installation. It is a ladder with a magnifying glass suspended from the ceiling. In its original incarnation, the viewer was to climb the ladder to see a word written in minuscule letters on a white board suspended from the ceiling above. The word is “YES.”

Resolutely positive and elegantly simple, its humorous, intelligent twist gently transforms the viewer into a participant. The ladder and its accouterments are only the beginning of the artwork; its completion is in the viewer’s mind, rolling over the meaning of that small yet powerful message.

For John Lennon, that “yes” was a personal missive from Ono, the most improbable of Cupid’s arrows. For the organizers of the exhibition, which takes its name from this piece, it is symbolic of the relentless positivity of her entire oeuvre.

And for the viewer, it fittingly summarizes both the wonderfully comic eccentricity of Ono’s work and also the inevitable problems with displaying it in a historical context in a museum space. For in Mito, one can only experience the “yes” at a distance. You cannot go up the ladder; you can only look at it.

For any artist whose work is prominently metaphysical, in which the object is but a prompt for what takes place in the imagination of the viewer, museums are tricky. For in a museum the thing as an artifact, rather than the idea of it or the idea that might be derived from it, is ultimately the focus. In the case of “Yes Painting,” one wonders why they couldn’t have simply bought a new ladder.

To their credit, the curators of “Yes Yoko Ono” do include pieces that almost force participation. “AMaze,” a crystalline labyrinth that plays with concepts of space and light, is open to the public. One wanders through the maze disoriented, dazzled by the play of light off its shimmering mirrored surfaces. Eventually reaching the middle, one finds, in perhaps a tribute to Marcel Duchamp’s most notorious “readymade,” a toilet.

Problem is, there weren’t many takers. And this is the second difficulty — even if a museum is inviting viewers to interact with an artwork (and in the case of Art Tower Mito, the gallery assistants were literally begging people to walk through “AMaze”), people tend to react to them as passive spaces, as places to perceive rather than participate.

This is a pity. The passive viewer at “Yes Yoko Ono” will spend an enjoyable few hours learning a lot about Ono’s special place in art history, reliving the cultural ferment of the 1960s and her artistic partnership with Lennon, and looking at beautiful things.

But the real wonder of Ono’s work is reserved for those who take the time to participate in it with her, to read through her instructions and think of them not just as words on a page, and to look at her objects and perceive them as more than just matter in space. You need only say “yes.”