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Oh, Yoko!

Stairway to heaven: The ladder on which John Lennon said YES to Yoko Ono's art.
Contemporary Arts Museum

An exhibition of work by the widow of John Lennon" is how KUHF-FM led into its report on Yoko Ono's retrospective, "YES YOKO ONO," at the Contemporary Arts Museum. More than 20 years after the death of her husband, "the most famous unknown artist" still doesn't have a name, not even on public radio. Whether her work reverberates with your artistic sensibilities or not, Ono's been done wrong. She was on the razor's edge of the avant-garde back when people still believed in an avant-garde, long before she hooked up with the idealistic Beatle. Her celebrity has worked against her art in many ways. Add to that a liberal dose of racism and sexism -- not to mention a media-constructed image of her as some weirdo hanger-on trying to topple the reigning kings of pop -- and you end up with a seriously underestimated artist.

A brief bio of Ono's early years reveals a privileged upbringing. She was born to a wealthy, aristocratic Japanese banking family. With Japan's current emperor as one of her classmates, she received an extensive education in classical music, German lieder and Italian opera. In 1952 Ono became the first woman admitted to study philosophy at Gakushuin University in Kyoto. She became disillusioned with academia and decided to join her family in New York, where her father was an executive for the Bank of Tokyo. Ono continued her studies at Sarah Lawrence College and eventually found her way into Lower Manhattan's art scene, where she began to create objects and performances associated with the Fluxus movement.

The works in the CAM exhibition, many of which were originally interactive or performance-oriented, feel like relics. The preponderance of "modern" Plexiglas makes it all seem quaint. Many of the objects are a little banged around, a little worse for the wear. Ono has not been precious with her work. You've probably heard by now that the "YES" piece of the show's title is on display. Ceiling Painting (Y E S Painting) is the famed white ladder that Lennon climbed to the top, where he picked up a magnifying glass and spotted the word "yes" written on the ceiling. That hopeful affirmation introduced the former working-class Liverpudlian to Ono at her 1966 Indica Gallery show.

Ono was the first artist to develop a conceptual approach when she made "idea" the subject of art in her 1962 series "Instructions for Paintings." Written on paper in neat Japanese characters, Ono's works function somewhat differently for viewers lacking the appropriate language skills. We can't read them, so they seem more visual than originally intended, but tiny cards with translations are available below. The works are wonderfully conceptual and poetic, with a feeling of haiku about them. Although they presaged the conceptual work of Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner by several years, their poetic, less didactic nature caused them to be perceived as "soft" or less intellectually rigorous. If there is such a thing, they have a more feminine sensibility, deemed lesser by the boys of the avant-garde. Just 'cause they were avant-garde doesn't mean they weren't sexist.

Open the lid of Ono's Box of Smile (1967), and its mirrored bottom reflects you back at you. With a Zen sensibility, it is simple, charming and hopeful. Do complex, alienating and negative themes make for a more "serious" artwork? People forget that humor was frequently an intentional component of art, which in documentary photographs seems esoteric and obscure. For AMAZE (1971), Ono created a labyrinth from Plexiglas. Wind your way to its center, and you find a toilet. At her talk when the CAM exhibition opened in mid-July, Ono was asked, "Why not a chair or a table? Why a toilet?" She replied, "I thought that was humor" and smiled wryly.

The works have their ups and downs through her broad range of media and interests. It's hard to pin down her art, to succinctly set out her territory of exploration. That hasn't helped her career. Ono's work also could function as a cautionary tale to young artists, albeit a cynical one. Take care -- do not have a diverse and wide-ranging output that cannot be easily categorized. The powers that be won't know what to do with you. And oh, yeah -- don't marry a celebrity.

Ono's performances and videos are some of her most compelling work. Cut Piece (1964) is still pertinent and edgy commentary 37 years after the fact. Imagine how it was perceived at the time. In short, Cut Piece entailed Ono sitting or kneeling on a stage. Members of the audience were invited to snip off pieces of her clothing. The performance explored issues related to art, gender and culture. Ono submitted to the actions of others, but what role did the others play? It differed by culture and gender. When she performed the piece in Kyoto, the audience was discreet as they snipped away the fabric. At her performance in London, the presence of cameras and press incited the crowd. Ono's clothes were cut away completely, and she was left sitting naked.

In a film documenting her New York performance, you see how audience members respond to the situation. The women appear to be more considerate and snip away pieces at the collar or the sleeve. One young man bounces up, takes the scissors and grasps the fabric over Ono's breast. He snips away a circle of black cloth over her nipple to reveal her white slip underneath. Most commentary about the performances states that Ono remains impassive and expressionless throughout. This is not entirely true. She adheres to the conceptual program she has set out, but you glimpse her exasperation at his childishness.

He returns later, more self-confident and cocky. He laboriously cuts away her slip all around her midriff. With even more bravura, he clips the straps of Ono's bra, stopping only when a cry rises up from the audience. Ono's face twitches in embarrassment as he cuts, and she crosses her hands over her breasts. She is an artist performing, but she is also a woman in the early '60s with a traditional upbringing. Nice girls in Japan or America do not sit naked on stage; she struggles to remain composed for the sake of the work, against her instinctive personal response.

The performance piece brings up a host of issues still relevant decades later. Elements of the young man's behavior parallel aspects of date rape, Tokyo's subway gropers or the sexual violence of invading armies. The woman is unresisting, unable or unwilling to protest. Some see that as permission to do whatever they can; personal responsibility is ignored. Should you, just because you can? The world is full of puppy-kickers.

By far her silliest piece is the No. 4 (Bottoms) film from 1966. You don't often see 365 consecutive butts. Well, perhaps some people do -- proctologists, prison guards, prostitutes…? The video is both comic and human. It has been described as erotic, but it's about as erotic as an annual physical. This sea of humanity is seen only through its most generic aspect.

A broad range of butts is presented -- imperfect, hairy, flat, fat, curvy, scrawny, pimply or bearing the outlines of recently removed underwear. One especially pockmarked version looks like its owner ought to be dead. It's goofy; nobody looks cool or good. The tight angle of the camera keeps the screen divided into quarters -- the vertical butt crack and the horizontal cheek lines perfectly divide the frame into four abstracted fields of flesh. The audio is a banal background discussion of the project by random people. One aspiring young actress, answering a cattle call for this parade of posteriors, explains that while she thought the project "veeeery artistic," it would be a bad career move.

"The nail that sticks up gets pounded down" is an oft-quoted Japanese proverb. Ono has spent her life being that nail, in her own culture and in that of her adopted country. Hers is not rebellion for the sake of rebellion, but the act of someone following her own ideas and social conscience. At her lecture/performance, Ono provided a whiff of '60s idealism, but an idealism grounded in humanism rather than sanctimony.

"Thank you for everything you have done for the planet!" one audience member gushed, before posing a question. How do you come to terms with the extremes of public opinion? With one faction that puts you in league with Mother Teresa and with the other that permanently affixes the phrase "the bitch who broke up the Beatles" after your name? You don't. When someone asked how she wanted to be remembered, Ono replied that while she can't worry about what everybody thinks, "I hope people will be kind."


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