It’s hard to leave a Yoko Ono exhibition feeling miserable. Especially when you step out, past the ubiquitous wish tree, into the blazing hot sunshine in gorgeous Hyde Park. This Serpentine show, part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, seemed to be inducing much enjoyment from the crowds on my visit. I think that the kind of light-hearted life-affirming messages which Ono espouses could be just the antidote for the grey, post-Olympic fug the City is currently gripped with.
By now almost everyone over the age of fifty, or anyone with anything resembling a passing interest in art, will have an awareness of Ono’s key themes. She was one of the original anti-war brigade, promoting hope, peace and love in her art since the 1960’s. One might feel that her continued pursuit of these themes were trite or even slightly affected if it weren’t for the fact that she has remained universally steadfast for all these years. It’s hard to imagine that behind the public persona she could be a calculating business woman making a career out of peddling and re-hashing works created five decades ago. She seems so friendly and almost naive in her video interviews…
At Serpentine you can play giant outdoor chess on Ono’s Play It By Trust, add your beaming grin to the #smilesfilm, make a wish and affix it to the trees papered with other people’s dreams and ambitions….and that’s all before getting into the main exhibition space! Once inside things take on a slightly more traditional format. The opening room of the show takes an anti-war stance with three piles of dirt titled Country A, Country B and Country C highlighting the pointlessness of war. Soldiers helmets suspended upside down from the ceiling echo this theme.
Further on are confused autobiographical portraits of Ono’s formative years, cryptic in their reading, and videos of the Cut Piece performance work, where members of a studio audience have been invited to remove parts of the artist’s clothing with scissors while she sits silently. In this room I couldn’t help noticing a number of lingering middle aged men, perhaps waiting for the moment when they were rewarded with a flash of tits. Another popular wall of films simultaneously shows John Lennon’s smiling face, a couple of virgins embracing and the view of naked bottoms. Most curious here, in an ‘I don’t want to look but can’t tear my eyes away’ kind of way, is footage of a big, black, juicy fly navigating it’s way around a person’s naked body. I left the room as it was crawling around the lips undisturbed.
One of Ono’s vintage original pieces is here, the ‘yes’ at the top of a ladder written in tiny writing for which you need a magnifying glass to read. This famously brought Lennon and the artist together, so impressed by the positive message was the Beatle when he saw the work installed at a gallery in London in 1966. Lots of the elements like this can seem almost twee now; not least the labels informing us that the floor is the ceiling, and the ceiling the floor, and the nauseatingly childlike descriptions of invented rooms. I think the danger is in reading too much into these pieces. I’ve been to three of Ono’s solo shows now, and none has taught me anything new about her, her body of work or the wider world. Still, I’d recommend you come along to this one, if nothing else it’s a refreshing beacon of positivity, and the least it can do is raise a smile.
Curated by Kathryn Rattee. On display until 9th September 2012.