exhibitionREVIEW: Venice Biennale 2009
Yoko Ono was born in 1933 in Japan and moved with her family to San Francisco and then New York after she was seven years of age. She is now 75 years old and has been an artist for over 40 years. Her recent commitment has been to contribute to the restoration of John Lennon’s aunt’s house, Mendips, where he lived in Liverpool. This year Yoko Ono received the Lifetime Achievement Golden Lion award at Venice Biennale 2009.
Yoko Ono became famous in the late 1960s once her romantic links with John Lennon, who became her second husband in 1969, became known. Her appearance at the 2009 Venice Biennale celebrated her contributions to art over 40 years. Starting out her professional life as a conceptual artist in the 1960s, she was part of the Fluxus movement. Fluxus means ‘to flow’ and is associated with artists moving away from using traditional materials such as oil-paint or bronze, to using all sorts of new media of expression, including performances. Influenced by Dada, Fluxus artists liked to embrace chance and the absurd and they include in their number some of the first conceptual artists, one of whom is Yoko Ono. The movement had two strands, one in Europe and the other in New York City, where Ono was living. Ono was in her 30s when she became involved in the Fluxus movement and is the now the most famous Fluxus artist; others include Dick Higgins (1938-1998), George Maciunas (1931-1978) and Joseph Beuys (1921-1986).
Ono’s early works include a canvas upon which people had walked, a performance in which members of the audience cut off her clothing and Grapefruit (www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwbdFe2YdmE). One of her most notorious works, ‘Bottoms’ (1966) was a film of exactly that and confronted US prudery and morality. She linked up with Lennon in the late 1960s, at a time when he was soon to split from the Beatles; her views provoked and influenced Lennon, who had himself been an art school student between 1957 and 1960, and he joined her on peace crusades. Together they created anti-government propaganda, and their actions – or rather their non-action – has been etched indelibly in the minds of their contemporaries. With Lennon, however, Ono’s most famous shared performance was probably their lie-in at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel for their honeymoon-protest-against-war.
Since Lennon’s untimely death, Ono has continued to contribute to the art world in her own incomparable fashion, most frequently through music and conceptual artworks. Much of her art from this time resonates with the tragedy of her life and her mourning period; the details before, during and after Lennon are well documented and form one of the main subjects of her work.
Ono’s performance at the Venice Biennale 2009 emerged in four parts. Part one saw her on a stage as an old woman with two people sitting on the right hand side playing chess; not until later did she introduce one of them as her and John Lennon’s son, Sean. She moved slowly around the stage, at first performing with a chair, then trying to break it, lying on the floor face down squawking (apparently giving birth), ambiguously letting the audience know that there was some pain being expressed here. She was lithe and acrobatic and, for all her 75 years, was able to show us how little her agility has been affected by age. It was Ono herself who was the main attraction – she is the centrepiece of her art – but while her performance created an enigma, it also lacked clarity and intensity.
Part two of the performance was a talk with simultaneous moving pictures of herself as a toddler. I wondered at her narcissism and – as I do also about Tracy Emin – the notion that anyone could possibly be interested in such exposés of artists’ life-as-art creations. The debate is endless, but more relevant to the Venice audience is probably the interest in Ono as the channel to John Lennon who, at 40, was taken too early. Ono definitely colludes with this without any resistance and will always be linked to him. I wonder about the pain of her prolonged grief, of her becoming the shrine of Lennon, a vessel for those who have not yet forgotten him and will not either. Has she ever been able to tell herself that the grieving is now over and it is time to move on? Have the public been instrumental in her retaining the position as his grave in the cemetery? On the other hand, I wonder too whether she would have achieved fame without Lennon.
Part three invited the audience to join her in her newest creation – that of using a torch to flash out a code for I Love You; One flash for I, two for Love and three for You. She described how well this had worked with crowds of people at many different venues and how loved-up she had felt after having flashes returned. She added that the I Love You performance is a very effective way of peacekeeping and spreading love. Indeed her Twitter page defines her understanding of saying I love you:
When you say ‘I love you’, you are not just saying it to that person. You are saying ‘I love you’ to yourself, the planet & the Universe.
While one could say that without love we are nothing, repetitive and superficial declarations of love de-contextualise and destroy meaning; moreover, repetition trivialises. Nevertheless, Ono insisted on the power of I Love You. It is far from the more powerfully persuasive peaceful protest of Gandhi, even though its essence may have emerged from him. I felt, overwhelmingly, that Ono had tapped into her past, was trapped in the past and had not created anything new. This performance for me was overkill and resulted in a deep yawn.
The fourth part of Ono’s performance was equally idealistic. One large, earthenware pot and a pile of earthenware fragments were brought onto the stage. There were 500 fragments she said, the same number as people in the auditorium. She told us that the fragments represented the fragmentation of her performance and that each person in the auditorium was to take one piece and return in ten years’ time to the 2019 Biennale to put together the fragments to reform the pot. A nice sentiment, reconstructing, uniting, but what followed was so very un-Ono. Everyone present rushed forward to grab their piece of earthenware, knocking one another aside; then having grabbed their piece, pushed others aside to get away. In other words they exhibited normal human behaviour as seen at a retail sale, for example. One man elbowed me in the ribs and, clutching his acquisition, scratched my arm as he retreated. While I moaned and complained, some laughed at the spectacle that ensued especially in the context of the performance about peace and love. What happened to Give Peace A Chance and I Love You? Sadly, it really is all a fantasy from a golden age.