The conceit of “From My Window” — an exhibition that covers Yoko Ono as a conceptual artist from the 1950s onwards — is to focus on her connection with Tokyo. Since it’s at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Contemporary Art, maybe that’s to be expected, but this does not necessarily jibe well with Ono’s reputation as constantly challenging geographical, political and social boundaries.
The exhibition opens with an installation of small antique cricket cages suspended from the ceiling, each with a metal plate engraved with the date and place of historical human tragedies, among which the shooting of John Lennon appears.
The following room is filled with splintering panes of glass which have each been shot with a single bullet, and have the text “GO TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GLASS AND SEE THROUGH THE HOLE” etched at the bottom. An installation created in 2009, this is characteristically indicative of Ono’s work being technically minimalist, often based on engaging her audience as collaborators, and, considering that all the panes, except for one, are mounted directly on the wall and can only be viewed from one side, it’s an invitation to go beyond the physical and extend the notion of art to include ephemeral acts of the imagination.
At its best, Ono’s work can be seen as exercises in free thinking and freedom of expression; exhortations not to be limited by materiality and received wisdom. A fading piece of handwritten text that was later included in the artist’s 1964 book “Grapefruit,” for example, provides a scenario for an orchestra that reads: “Count all the stars of that night by heart. The piece ends when the orchestra members finish counting the stars, or when it dawns. This can be done with windows instead of stars.”
On the other hand, in “Voice Piece for Soprano”, which comprises a microphone and speaker with instructions to: “Scream 1. Against the wind, 2. Against the wall, 3. Against the sky,” her work can come across as childish, rather than child-like, self-indulgent rather than self-affirming.
The perception of Ono as a poor little rich girl from a privileged background, along with many other personal digs, has dogged critical appreciation of her career in art. But as she herself — as a body, subject or personality — is so often an integral part of her work, it’s fairly unavoidable that the circumstances of her life must be considered along with her philosophical thought experiments.
Ono is now on the far side of 80, and continues to dance, sing and generally exact sweet revenge on her critics by living well in spite of running the gamut of being bombed in the World War II, pilloried by the press and public for much of her life and losing her husband. Her art career has been honored critically, and major retrospectives focus on her achievements as an artist, putting her work ahead of her celebrity status.
In the case of “From My Window,” one problem with this, sadly, is that in being respectful of Ono’s accomplishments, it perhaps stifles the spirit in which they were created. With everything laid out meticulously in white display cases, or mounted on white walls, there is more a feeling of frigidity than Fluxus, the international ’60s avant-garde movement that Ono was associated with and whose name means “flow” in Latin.
Archive footage of Ono having her clothes being cut away by the audience in the famous performance “Cut Piece” at Sogetsu Kaikan in 1964 is supplemented by an original scrap of material from her dress, like a piece of modern archaeology. The microphone for “Voice Piece for Soprano,” apart from being used by Ono at the opening reception does not seem to be something many people are willing to try out, which is also true for the recreations of “Touch Piece,” where visitors are encouraged to touch each other, or “Bag Piece,” which involves participants wrapping themselves up in a giant black bag.
There are, of course, inevitable logistical reasons why exhibitions end up being about the freedom of designated personalities, rather than freedom in general. in the case of Ono’s particular appeal to be engaged and interact, however, the gap between what we are asked to do and what we allowed to do, either by dint of design or direct regulation — no photographs, except for specifically permissible works, no use of certain types of writing implements or touching of certain pieces, stand here, go this way round — makes the exhibition quite surreal, and not it a particularly good way.
On a meta level this echoes a particular issue integral to the reception of Ono’s work: How much of it really is about collective free thought and free expression, and how much is it about indulging the abstract musings of a culturally and materially privileged elite? We are invited to scream wildly in the atrium. The success of the exhibition relies on us taking up the challenge.
“Yoko Ono: From My Window” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, runs until Feb. 14; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. (except Jan. 11), Jan. 1 and Jan.12. www.mot-art-museum.jp