Despite an oeuvre that includes a range of pertinent, original and intelligent performances, videos, installations and objects, Yoko Ono has had a hard time shedding the image of a conniving wife and then widow of John Lennon. Her week-long Bed-Ins for Peace, staged with the Beatle in 1969 in Amsterdam and then Montreal, are remembered more for their sensationalism -- the famous couple basically invited the media into their bedroom on their honeymoon -- than as a powerful protest against the Vietnam War.
As an artist, Ono is celebrated for several provocative Fluxus actions, notably Cut Piece (1964), an interactive feminist performance for which she sat motionless on a stage and invited members of the audience to come up and cut her clothing off her body. In the 19-minute-long video Fly (1971), Ono focused her camera on first a single fly and then several flies walking all over the naked body of a young woman, who lies passively and does not respond. This fascinating video plays on our uncertain perception of death, a condition that wars fought in far away places tend to exaggerate.
Despite the acuity of such works, for this artist, who is now in her 70s, the move from the periphery to the center of the New York art world has been slow in coming. The artist’s first major retrospective, "Yes Yoko Ono," was organized by Alexandra Munroe for the Japan Society in New York, where it premiered in late 2000, before circulating to several other museums. I remember participating in one of her Wish Trees a few years ago in Siena, Italy, by writing a wish on a piece of paper and hanging it on a tree branch. In 2003, Ono had a major gallery exhibition at Deitch Projects, where "The Odyssey of a Cockroach" explored issues of life and death by filling the SoHo gallery with overscaled objects that metaphorically converted gallery visitors to beetle-sized insects. She was included in "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution," which recently ended its run at P.S. 1 Art Center in Queens, and she has many more shows coming up this year.
Yoko Ono’s current exhibition at Galerie Lelong in Chelsea, "Touch Me," may be regarded as a signal event. The show includes two videotapes of different versions of Cut Piece (from 1965 and 2003), several works from the 1990s on the subject of memory, and three interactive works that are new. Though the exhibition may assuage some of her critics, the manipulative aspect of the interactive works remains a contentious issue. The timing of her show, which coincides with the commemorations of the revolutionary month of May ’68, is probably not accidental.
The memory works are in a variety of media. Family Album Exhibit M: High Heel Shoes (1993), pair of spike heels in painted and patinated bronze displayed on a pedestal, is an homage to her deceased mother. Vertical Memory (1997) is a suite of 21 identical blurred photographs superimposing the faces of her husband, her father and her son as a baby, accompanied by brief texts evoking the passage from birth to death.
The third work devoted to memory is Memory Paintings (1998), a group of photo-based mixed-medium portraits of women said to have been interned in an insane asylum for political insubordination. These photos are accompanied by a sign of escape: the outline of a door drawn life-sized on the opposite wall, symbolizing the passage from prison to freedom. As a group, these works reveal Ono’s perennial yin and yang of hope and nostalgia, with a minimum of exhibitionist fanfare.
The new "Touch Me" pieces from 2008 are both ludic and morbid. Ludic in the way that gallery visitors are urged to have fun in touch me I, a 20 x 10 ft. piece of canvas, stretched across the gallery space and perforated with nine smallish openings. People are supposed to stick various body parts through the holes, and a pair of Polaroid cameras are provided to take snapshots. The results, often annotated with markers, are posted on touch me II, a 16 x 8 ft. canvas used like a bulletin board. Overall, the resulting image is a morbid one, showing severed body parts strewn across a metaphorical battle field.
The sculpture that gave the show its title, touch me III, is even more morbid. A low black table displays six black wooden boxes, each containing different parts of a human body -- lips, breasts, knees -- cast in silicone and realistically colored. A notice on the wall nearby, next to a plinth containing a small well of water, invites visitors to dip their fingers in the bowl and touch the body parts in the sculpture -- an invitation to feel the cold of death. Whether these works are inspired by personal concerns of aging and dying or by the current state of the world, they make their point admirably.
Considering that her work is serious and empathetic, why does one sense a reticence to accept it on the part of the art world? That her career as an artist has suffered from combining exhibitionism and a desire for moral relevance is one possibility. Yet Ono’s obsession with the body must be contextualized. Born in Japan and resident there as a child during World War II, Ono calls herself "a war child" who grew up hating war, filled with memories of World War II, when to survive or to die were equally plausible destinies.
Images from the Vietnam War re-energized her pacifist convictions, she says, and the brutal death of John Lennon put her face to face again with the fragility of life. Clearly, for Ono the human body, both dead and alive, has been a haunting presence, a personal as well as a political obsession. And in any case, Ono is only one of many artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s who used their bodies as a symbol of a new freedom vis-à-vis the male gaze.
Speaking for myself, my unease has to do with her all too frequent use of the imperative voice, which arguably gives participants in her interactive works no choice but to obey her commands. In the Situationist International Anthology, Guy Debord is quoted raising some powerful arguments about this kind of participatory art. He talks of spectators "participating in their own misery," of "freeing" the spectator by announcing that it is "forbidden not to participate." And he calls the whole endeavor "a parody of the revolutionary theses on putting an end of the passivity of separate spectators."
The reenactment of Ono’s 1965 Bag Piece at a fundraiser for Artwalk NY held at Cooper Union in 2003 is certainly an example of an innocent bystander being made to collaborate "in his own misery" by her actions. In this case the victim was none other than the late newscaster Peter Jennings.
According to a report in Artnet Magazine [see "Artnet News," Oct. 28, 2003], Jennings was on hand to conduct a public interview with Ono. After a few exchanges, she invited him to dance, and then "picked up a large black cloth bag from the floor and pulled Jennings into it for an impromptu performance of the 1965 Bag Piece, a work in which two people undress, or perhaps exchange clothes, in a bag outside of the sight of the audience.
"As the sack morphed and moved. . . out came first their shoes, then their socks and finally Jennings shirt. . . . ‘Darling I love you,’ joked Jennings, in the first of a series of quips that turned the piece into a comedy act.
"’He has the microphone to protect him,’ observed Yoko. ‘Help,’ said Jennings. Breathing hard, the newscaster eventually emerged from the bag and retired behind a column to adjust his clothes. ‘Interviewing George Bush was nothing like this.’"
Despite the propensity of 20th-century utopians to seek their goals via coercion, when I visited "Touch Me" at Galerie Lelong, the people in the gallery seemed to be having fun interacting with friends, taking pictures and writing messages to Ono on the Polaroids.
About three years ago, I had a personal experience of Ono’s endearing side. The artist was invited to come to a symposium I organized to honor the memory of the French critic Pierre Restany. On the afternoon of the event, an immense bouquet of white flowers with a card bearing her name was deposited at the entrance of the Maison Francaise of New York University, where the round table took place that night. I can finally say, "Thank you, Yoko Ono."
Yoko Ono, "Touch Me," Apr. 18-May 31, 2008, at Galerie Lelong, 528 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).