Participate (if you want to): Yoko Ono at the MCA

Don’t forget to take a piece of the sky home with you.

Said a co-worker who had already visited the Yoko Ono exhibition. Initially, this confused me. My next thought was, “Aww Yoko, you so cute”. The exhibition would be idealistic and a little twee, I assumed, rather than hard-hitting, shocking or emotionally arresting. There would probably be a few John Lennon references thrown in, given how intertwined the two celebrities are in public consciousness. One could also bank on a whole lot of proclamations of world peace printed on white gallery walls in Helvetica Bold, and an excruciating soundtrack of Ono’s animal noises and primal screams (symbolising something pertinent of course, but please, spare me).

Entrance to Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia.

Entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia.

War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, was nothing like what I expected. Lennon is ubiquitous, as presumed. But he emerges as an important signifier in Ono’s art, instrumental in exploring how history and memory can inform future decision-making. The exhibition was both welcoming and startling: drawing me in with its promise of democratic participation, while exposing me to weighty political concepts through sensory access to tangible material. Lennon once described Ono as “the world’s most famous unknown artist”; this exhibition strives to make the unknown artist known to a wider public, by providing access to an oeuvre which spans five decades.

A brief CV: commencing her practice in the early 1960s, Ono was an early proponent of conceptual art, which favoured idea over form. She was innovative in her use of non-traditional artistic materials, such as using her own body as an exhibit or placing recycled domestic objects on pedestals. She invites visitors to participate in her works in order to create their own meaning, challenging the historic power divide between the artist as authoritative and the audience as passive observers.

Yoko Ono media collage on one of the gallery walls.

Yoko Ono media collage on one of the gallery walls.

At a recent talk at the Sydney Opera House, Ono recalled her first-ever encounter with Lennon. He attended one of her early gallery openings, bit into an apple she had exhibited on a pedestal, and ran away. After Ono’s instinctual response wore off (“Wait, what are you doing, that’s my exhibit!”), she was impressed by the way he put his unique stamp on the object, altering it through participation and injecting it with personal narrative. For Ono, this small-scale input made within an exhibition is symbolic of, and equivalent to, the power and influence that individuals can have on a larger scale in creating global change.

It’ll change in time. So why not make a change before that, a positive change, instead of waiting for it to just change, as it might deterioriate. But if you keep putting some creative ideas in it, it might just change in a very interesting way. (1)

The first work I noticed upon entering the exhibition was Cut Piece. Two videos are projected on to gallery walls (one filmed in 1963, the other in 2003) showing a performance piece in which exhibition visitors, armed with scissors, are given free rein to cut away sections of Ono’s clothing. The videos are uncomfortable to watch, but powerful in initiating dialogue on issues of gender, power, the body and ageing. Ono is stoic and silent in both performances, merely batting her eyelids as more and more sections of her clothing are removed.

A work which appears later in the exhibition – Touch Me III (2008) – is equally as uncomfortable, perpetuating discourse on contemporary gender-power relations. A small sign on the work instructed me to dip my fingers in water, and touch a silicone representation of individual female body parts (such as a mouth, torso and feet) contained in wooden boxes. It was a strange tactile sensation, soft and rubbery, and the material bounced back without leaving an imprint. However, this was not the case when the first incarnation of Touch Me was shown in New York, the gallery attendant informed me. Toes were gouged off, body parts were mangled, and the silicone was filled with finger-sized craters. But Ono decided not to remove the work from display, deciding that it revealed more about power relations, violence and the human psyche than she originally thought it would. Art, holding a mirror to society.

Play It By Trust (1996/2013) is as participatory as you can get. The work consists of a set of white tables and stools, with a chess board and pieces on each table. I sat down with a friend and started to play a game of chess. However, both of us forgot how to play chess, so instead we moved random pieces across the squares and made them talk to each other. But we soon realised that our lack of ability was irrelevant, because the chess pieces were all white.

Playing 'Play It By Trust'

Play It By Trust

Is that my king or yours?
Which pawns are my pawns?
Yoko, you so sneaky.
Ono hopes that the work “leads to a shared understanding of mutual concerns and a new relationship based on empathy rather than opposition”(2).

There are 25 works on display, encompassing sculpture, performance art, film, installation, and yes, ‘pieces of sky’. Helmets – Pieces of Sky (2001/2013) is made up of military helmets hanging from the ceiling, with each helmet holding small blue puzzle pieces. The idea is for every visitor to take a piece of the sky home with them, and then one day in the future come together to create the sky by piecing the puzzle together.

Helmets: Pieces of Sky

Helmets – Pieces of Sky

The capacity of art to unite and reform can also be seen in My Mommy Is Beautiful (2004/2013). Using the note cards and pens provided, visitors are encouraged to write a personal message to their mother and tape it on to the gallery wall. The result is a colourful wall filled with miscellaneous expressions of maternal love. Some notes are hilarious, such as a list of ‘Top 5 Dream Mums’ which includes Miss Honey from Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda, Ono herself, and a slightly more peculiar choice: Labor MP Tania Plibersek. Many notes express gratitude and appreciation (“You are truly the best”, “It’s nice to finally get to know you”, “I want to be you”) while others are more apologetic (“I’m sorry for ages 13-21”).

My Mommy Is Beautiful

My Mommy Is Beautiful

I decided to contribute to the work by posting a message. However, this sentimental, personal moment was interrupted when a gallery attendant advised me to put my backpack on the front of my body instead of on the back. He was polite enough and just following gallery procedures, which is understandable. But something tells me that Yoko wouldn’t have minded too much if I unintentionally bumped a few chess pieces off a table or caused a note to drop from the wall. Accidental participation is still participation, right?

My contribution to 'My Mommy Is Beautiful'

My contribution to ‘My Mommy Is Beautiful’

(1) Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, ‘Yoko Ono discusses the importance of participation in her practice’ (audio).
(2) Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, War Is Over (if you want it): Yoko Ono exhibition booklet, 2013.