“You’re going to have your baby in here!” a woman in a black tent dress shrieks as we thump into each other, lost in the strangest of places – a Plexiglas maze designed by Yoko Ono.
Amaze is the whimsical centrepiece of Ono’s retrospective Into The Light, which opens this week at London’s Serpentine Gallery. I know the woman is joking, but I must look alarmed because she places a hand on my eight-months-pregnant belly and says with a twinkle, “Don’t worry, Yoko would love that.”
Hardly a reassurance, but we press on to the heart of the maze where we gaze into a steel tube filled with water. It has a mirror at the bottom that reveals (what else?) a quavery reflection of our faces.
Eventually I manage to stumble out of the labyrinth and, in relief, start humming the Barenaked Ladies 1991 hit, You can be my Yoko Ono, you can follow me wherever I go…
There was a time, of course, when Ono was considered a joke – less an artist than a symbol of the sort of contagious pretension that can distract from, and ultimately infect, the grit of true genius. Here on British soil she was particularly reviled, often with a toxic mix of sexism and racism.
There are, of course, some skeptics still out there. But by and large, the contemporary art world has now embraced Ono and, at 79, she’s exalted as one of its great pioneers. Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons, Sam Taylor-Wood and even Lady Gaga have all hailed her as an inspiration. The historian Simon Schama recently described her as “a radically adventurous multimedia innovator,” who would, in his view, still be world famous had she never met the beloved Beatle.
And indeed, in a world of preserved sharks and performance art staring contests, Ono’s early conceptual work seems very much ahead of its time. The highlight of this retrospective includes her 1964 film Cut Piece, in which she sat on stage and allowed members of the audience to cut off all her clothes with a large and malevolent-looking pair of scissors. The effect of watching her is surprisingly disconcerting, even after all these years.
There’s lots of simplistic nonsense that feels dated and naive. Bloody coat hangers and sky-high heels on plinths, for instance. Or Second World War military helmets filled with jigsaw puzzle pieces of the sky. As “message art” goes, this is pretty much didacticism at its worst. Women are subjugated. War is bad. Thanks for news bulletin.
By the time I take a seat at the gallery to hear Ono speak, I’m not sure if I feel delighted or cranky. But the sight of her – tiny, baby-voiced and dressed in a signature black pantsuit, chiffon scarf and a jaunty straw boater hat – has an oddly cheering effect.
There is something charmingly original about her, even if most of what she has t o say is obvious. Indeed, for someone who has lived the most extraordinary life – surviving the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, hanging with John Cage and the Beatniks, witnessing the advent of Pop, all before she met and married the greatest pop star of all time – she is amazingly, perhaps intentionally, artless.
“All of us are breathing but we do so in a simple way,” she says, in an effort to explain her work. “Everything that is very fundamental is also very simple.”
It’s textbook Zen, of course – a philosophy she espouses, and in many way embodies, with her impossible smallness, self-contained gaze and monochrome style (“The beatniks all wore black, and then the hippies wore colourful things. Except for me.”)
She tells the audience the story of her first date with Lennon – after their fateful meeting at her 1966 show at the Indica Gallery in St James’s, London. “He invited me to a party at his house but when I arrived there was no party. He asked me to build a lighthouse in his garden and I said, ‘I can’t. I’m just a conceptual artist.’”
Since then, she actually designed a critically-acclaimed “light tower” memorial for Lennon in Reykjavik, which consists of 15 geothermally-powered search lights refracted through prisms and mirrors. It is lit every year from his birthday (Oct. 9) to the day he was shot (Dec. 8) and is dazzlingly powerful to behold judging by the photos.
Ono herself, on the other hand, looks like she might suddenly evaporate. She giggles and flutters and speaks in wispy sentence fragments making important things seem silly and silly things important. Once the audience has pelted her with a few hopeless questions, she instructs the gallery assistants to pass around stacks of white paper cups.
“In the Catholic Church, you get wafer and wine, and it’s the body of Christ,” she tells us in the slow, smiley voice of a children’s TV show host. “My body is made of paper cups and now you all get one.”
And, with that, she giggles and is gone, leaving us with our tiny, empty, white paper cups. I gaze into mine and wonder if it’s genius or stupid. Then I smile. I’m sure Yoko would love that.