Yoko Ono at 80


Yoko Ono's first Australian survey exhibition is a blast from the past; a reminder that genuine creativity never sleeps.

For the majority of my generation the name alone causes the moist fog of nostalgia. Ono is a potent link with the heady, optimistic and ultimately doomed 1960s.

Even for teenagers in sleepy Nelson, Yoko and John became personal gurus, helping us navigate perplexing adolescence with their music and art.

Our parents were either puzzled, scandalised - usually both - by the sight of two adults snuggled together in bed, obviously without flannelette pyjamas, urging the world to give peace a chance.

But for us, this was Art with a capital A; something which fused together film, dance, music and the visual arts which swept away the past (so we fondly imagined) to construct a new exciting and relevant future.

Looking back on Ono, Lennon, John Cage and Allan Kaprow nearly 50 years later, much of the art they created now seems strangely silly, pretentious and portentous.

It, They and We didn't change the world and peace wasn't given much of a chance. But, dammit, it was invigorating at the time. It was a decade which invited us into one gargantuan creative hothouse where it was all happening.

The Mother Superior of the Happening Generation is still amongst us, still busily stoking the fires of art and creative activism at 80.

But as War Is Over! (if you want it) at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art demonstrates with a satisfying intensity, Ono has moved into different creative spaces to give us a less strident, more measured and subtly nuanced creativity . . . and none the worse for that.

You encounter this artistic sea change at the entrance to the show. On one wall is a film of the 1965 Cut Piece featuring 30ish Ono inviting audience members to cut away pieces of her clothing as she sits impassively on stage. On the opposite wall is the identical performance repeated in 2003 when she was 70.

Cut Piece has become a recognised performance piece but what fascinates are the different reactions of the individuals taking part. In the 1965 film, their mood swings between a surprised shyness, cautiousness and a jokey, look at me attitude.

In the 2003 film, the much older Ono is treated with a deep respect amounting to the piety normally displayed at audiences with the Dalai Lama. There's a singular irony that the woman who once worked to topple the art establishment and all that accompanied it, is now part of that same establishment.

It's obvious that Ono is an artist who continues to speak directly to a new, colder less idealistic age.

Ono's message swings from installations like the 1998 Crickets with its delicate suspended skein of tiny cricket cages each emitting a melodic trill to the direct full frontal assault on our consciences with Endangered Species 2319 - 2322 with its apocalyptic visions of a humanity doomed by a violated environment and war. You might not agree with her philosophy but her commentary still resonates.

At the other end of the exhibition's spectrum is the quiet contemplation of Doors and Sky Puddles. A large gallery is filled with a series of battered wooden doors, each standing in isolation on a small pool of liquid reflecting a slice of sky and clouds. The humble doors float across the gallery floor against a backdrop of haiku poems written in a cursive Japanese script on the wall.

This is a world apart from the Fluxus films designed to fuse art with the mundanity of everyday life but seemed to end up with tedious loops of John Lennon's naked posterior and intimate love-ins before the international media.

Somehow a work like Doors and Sky Puddles places a sharper perspective on the art that has gone before, transforming it into a small part of an individual artistic evolution. Ono's art is still the art of ideas, of suggestions and the imagination.

It's the art of the metaphysical and there are no signs that the inspiration is drying out. She still wants us to participate, physically and mentally, in her creativity and, for the most part, the invitation should be accepted with pleasure.


War Is Over! (if you want it). Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Until February 24, 2014.

This is a regular weekly column by Press arts commentator Chris Moore.

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