Conceptual art divides people as fiercely and clearly as it divided the Old from the New early in the 20th Century. Art that can be an idea, or a mere instruction or a thought – often independent of a material resolution or form – is anathema to many.
And all too often, conceptual art is itself to blame. By creating impenetrable layers of obscure meaning or by expressing an ultra-personal iconography (as in the work of Joseph Beuys) it can lose people who can see it as coldly intellectual, its poetry alien.
The work of Japanese-American artist Yoko Ono is different. Although highly conceptual and loaded with many layers of meaning, Ono’s art has always carried a very human message. Almost everything she creates can be immediately felt on some flesh-and-blood level, which can be a doorway to the deeper storeys of stories within. Ono’s work is outwardly simple, but it is as loaded as a bear-trap.
War Is Over (If You Want It) Yoko Ono recently opened at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It gives us a unique and wide-ranging look into Ono’s world (and through it, our own). The title comes from massive billboard posters that Ono and her husband, Beatle John Lennon, placed across the world’s cities in Christmas 1969 as a message and gesture of peace.
Peace is a theme deeply associated with John and Yoko and many of Ono’s pieces express a yearning for peace, both on universal and personal levels. Her Play It By Trust (1966) is a chess set where all the pieces are white as are their squares. As the players play, they lose track of which pieces are theirs and which are those of their opponent, and soon the idea of ‘sides’ is blurred – we realise, just as fraternising trench troops during World War I realised, we are really all the same. The simplicity, the whiteness, the life-affirmation of this piece are pure Ono – her emotional palette as well as her colour palette is white, water, clouds, dreams, love, peace: blurred edges of personality that connect us all in a universality.
This universality of humanity is equally expressed in her 2006 piece We’re All Water, a row of identical bottles containing identical amounts of water but all with a name attached – Groucho Marx, John Coltrane, James Joyce, John Lennon – different names, identical containers and contents. A simple idea but one which grows many thoughts, like branches, upon reflection.
But it is not all sweetness, love and light. Ono’s meditations on sexual politics – especially as they relate to women – can be disturbing in their power. Footage of her famous Cut Piece from 1964 – where audience members are invited to cut away the clothes of a passive, kneeling Ono with sharp scissors – is shown on a wall here, adjacent to a more recent performance from 2003, where the piece is carried out on the artist, now 70 years old. Aside from the power of the obvious sexual and political connotations here, it is remarkable that the piece takes on even greater depth and raises new questions when Cut Piece is now applied to the artist as an elderly woman.
Touch Me III from 2008 is a series of boxes, each containing a silicone replica of an erogenous part of a female body – lips, breasts, pubis. We are asked to wet our fingers in a bowl of water and touch the flesh-like silicone. The sense of violence here is inescapable, even though all is dark and still. When Touch Me III was first shown in New York, the silicone was left with so many cuts and gouges by visitors that the gallery decided to remove it. Ono declined the idea, leaving the damaged ‘flesh’ in view of all.
Ono has created a specific artwork for Sydney – Wish Tree for Sydney – six lemon-scented eucalypts on the Sculpture Terrace with materials to write and attach dreams and wishes to the tree. Inspired by Shinto temple trees of Ono’s childhood in Japan, these Wish Trees (the first was made in1998) are a simple, heartfelt emblem of positive human aspiration.
And it is this desire for a better world, a better future, that runs through all of this work. Ono lived through the nuclear devastation of Japan during WWII; she has starved and known the dreadful suffering of the vanquished side. So this yearning for peace is not an abstract issue of lip-service, as it is in too many artists, but her gift to us and her gift to the future.
War Is Over (If You Want It) Yoko Ono runs till February 23, 2014 at Museum of Contemporary Art, Circular Quay, Sydney.