Yoko Ono: To the Light
The Serpentine Gallery
London W2 3XA
19 June through 9 September 2012
For such a quirky artist, Yoko Ono has a consistent voice: it's always been about peace and love, all that stuff. While the message is bold, the delivery is subtle; there doesn't seem to be anything unusual about the large-scale chess board sitting in the grass behind the Serpentine Gallery, until you realise that all the pieces are white - this is a pacifist game. Inside the audience is invited to pose for photos for the "Smiles" film, where Ono's brazen goal is to collect a contribution from every person in the world. Keen to be part of Ono's newest dream, I p
erch down on the seat and wait for the click of the camera. A message flashes up on the screen afterwards: 'Thank you, you are beautiful.' It's such a simple idea: to smile. At the Serpentine Gallery, Ono deals in a currency called happiness.
'To the Light' is a retrospective, meaning we are treated to numerous classic Ono themes. 'War is Over' says the poster on the wall, hanging over three piles of earth from three different countries. Army helmets are suspended from the ceiling, containing puzzle pieces depicting parts of sky. The audience is encouraged to take a segment, so that between us we may possess the whole sky. Outside are Ono's wishing trees, where people tie notes with their wishes written on them; it's clear Ono wants us to be active participants in her art. This is what I'm thinking as I'm standing in front of 'Ceiling Painting', the stepladder leading up to the tiny word written on the ceiling. Apparently this is how Ono met John Lennon, when he stood at the foot of the very same ladder, before climbing up to read the word. Diligent staff at the Serpentine Gallery prevented me from following suit, however, but I know what it says on the ceiling: 'Yes'. In every one of Ono's wondrous concoctions, a smile is the key, and yes is the answer.
'Cut Piece' from 1964-5 is a clear highlight of the exhibition. We watch the tape of a young Ono sitting on a gallery floor, looking softly ahead as members of the audience cut the clothing off her body. The opposite wall shows when Ono repeated the performance in 2003, and while the act is the same, the two tapes could not be more different. The young Ono looks so vulnerable, making the work into a social commentary on women's standing, but the older Ono looks invincible. Ono has said she felt very vulnerable when she did the second piece though, but from the point of view of the viewer, the fame she has amassed in the interim means she can probably never come across as that vulnerable again.
'John Plus Me' is two sets of foots prints on a piece of paper, hanging on the wall: "We were walking to the sky," said Ono, as she found a new meaning to these prints when she picked them up off the floor. Whether Ono would be as famous as she is without Lennon is a contentious question, but she does not shy away from acknowledging the influence he has had on her career. The wall of video works includes one where Lennon smiles serenely down on us, but other motion works are probably more interesting: 'Fly' is excruciating to look at as the critter moves restlessly over a woman's naked body, cleaning its feet while resting on her nipple walking the outline of her lips, scaling her eyelashes. Other works present in this exhibition are less absorbing, however, such as the 'Family Album' series. Artefacts include a wallet, a pair of shoes and a hanger, all painted metal grey with trimmings in blood-like red. But what does it mean? Without the meaning behind this work made more clear, the viewer struggles; Ono is at her best when she has a simple, clearly communicated idea.
In fact, sometimes Ono doesn't even need to do anything but to write her thought down and ask us to take a leap of faith. "This room glows in the dark when you're asleep," reads a note on the wall. The possibility that this is true fires up the imagination, and after an hour surrounded by sky puzzles and spheres that will be "a sharp point when it gets to the far corners in the room of your mind," I am ready to believe. Everything Ono does has this overtone of happy simplicity about it, like there's nothing to it. In a sense, this is the most rebellious act of all: peace and love, smile and say yes.