By Nigel Hewson
Yoko Ono’s exhibition currently on at The Serpentine Gallery is part retrospective, part an updating, a re-imagining of previous work. Not only did I not know her work before, I admit that I went with some trepidation and goodly dose of cynicism. There’s obviously the shadow of John Lennon and their relationship as a backdrop (or at least there was for this Briton), and then there is the fact that this is Conceptual Art. Both might be reason enough not to even pay a visit.
Trying hard to put any prejudices aside, I soon found myself drawn in. The exhibition uses the full gallery space – using not only the seven interior rooms, but also the exterior space as well. There are trees on which to write and tie your wishes to, a giant chess set and there is the #smilesFilm project in a separate covered room, which is behind the main gallery.
By the time I reached this final room – where Yoko Ono realises a dream of her own, to capture the smiles of the whole world – I too was beguiled and smiling, and I confess, a little in love too.
Ok, so this is conceptual art. You’re greeted by three piles of earth and soldiers helmets hanging down with pieces of blue sky jigsaw inside. It’s easy to ridicule and easy to dismiss, and there are probably other works that challenge the viewer more or have been done before and possibly better. But I was charmed. There were definitely pieces I “didn’t get”. (Maybe I wasn’t thinking about it enough?). But there were others that did connect with me, that made me laugh and made me tear up (a little bit).
Yoko Ono’s work asks you to participate. To write. To smile. To take your shoes off and walk through a perspex maze. You become the artwork for others to read or observe. It is then your interpretation of the work. It is your meaning, your history, your experiences and knowledge (or lack of) that you can bring to the work.
And what makes some of these pieces interesting is that they have been shown before – although you don’t loose anything from not knowing this. There is the ladder which once was climbed by John Lenon (his presence is here, interwoven into the exhibition, but ever so lightly), where he picked up the magnifying glass to read, written on the ceiling in tiny writing, the word “yes”. Today you can’t climb this exhibit. Some said it is because of health and safety, but it need not have been. It now becomes as much the image of a young John Lenon climbing the ladder and laughing and smiling at what he saw, and we no longer need to participate. It is the work re-imagined.
The “Blue Room Event”, originally from 1966, has a (today modern flat screen) TV playing on a loop a film of a bright blue summer sky. Today it seems ironic to be titled “Sky TV” – maybe it is intentional, maybe not. The room too contains handwritten statements on the white walls in the style of Magritte’s “C’est ne pas une pipe”, surreal or philosphical in nature like “this room moves at the same speed as the clouds” or “this room is bright blue” (it’s white like the rest of the gallery). This stuff either leaves you cold or makes you linger – I lingered and saw more.
The Amaze piece (1971/2012) – the perspex maze others see you bumping into the invisible walls – needs people to join in so others can watch. The picture above with no one there actually shows how Yoko Ono’s work is participatory. Taking you shoes off and leaving them outside (in a symbolic Japanese way you enter someone’s home), you find yourself with two other strangers (3 at a time please) feeling your way to the centre. This piece also has been updated, the goal at the middle, hidden from the outside world, has changed from that first shown in 1971. Once there was a toilet – a nod to the first conceptual artist Duchamp? – now there is… ok I’ll leave some mysteries for others to enjoy. Does it work?
Another key piece – Cut Piece (1964 / 2003) – also contains a then and now moment. The earlier of the two videos shows a young, almost innocent looking Yoko Ono, having her clothes cut, as one by one members of the audience take hold of a pair of shearing scissors, and approach her cutting bits of her clothing away. On the wall facing this is the second video, filmed in 2003. This time Yoko Ono is necessarily older and therefore seemingly more hardened by life, but the audience is this time more deferential to who she is, and so whilst the balance has shifted, there is still something disturbing about her passivity, and the audience as aggressor, even if this time they take more timid cuts. Apparently of all the countries that she performed this piece in, it was here in the UK that the audience was the most aggressive – cutting her clothes off in the fastest time. A lot has been written about this work (there was even an episode in House) and it is interesting to read after having seen the work.
And so to the final room outside, the #smilesFilm project. To be found on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, everywhere in fact, including the obligatory app. Participating however is what it is about. Sparked from a film of Yoko Ono’s of John Lennon smiling, which is included in the exhibition, here you can add your own smiling mugshot to the library of thousands of others from around the world. And even here, even as you are having your smile captured for all the world to happen upon online, those waiting to take their turn, can see you displayed on a large screen. As audience participation in conceptual art, this one did leave me smiling.
To The Light is on at The Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park until 9 September.