Yoko Ono instructed me to climb into a big cloth bag, so I did, pulling it up to my chin. I and another man laughed as we took a few steps in our form-effacing sacks at Montreal’s Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain.
Ono, who was present only via small wall cards printed with instructions, also encouraged me to put my hand through a slit in a blank canvas, and from that position “shake hands and converse with hands.” I didn’t follow those instructions, but in a way I didn’t need to. Just reading the text of Ono’s Painting to Shake Hands was enough to make me think about how hands communicate.
“All my life I have been walking through an enchanted forest with wonderment in my heart,” Ono wrote in a recent tweet. After decades of neglect and derision, she and her enchanted forest have entered a spotlight of new celebration and renown.
In the past five years, Ono has been feted with retrospective shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, as well as current exhibitions at the Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Liverpool. Recent scholarship has reclaimed space for her, away from the prominent men (including John Lennon, La Monte Young and other Fluxus artists) in whose wake she was often thought to follow.
In March, a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles featured rock luminaries such as St. Vincent and Garbage’s Shirley Manson in a whole evening of Ono songs. There have also been two albums of tribute recordings entitled Yes, I’m a Witch, featuring the likes of Cat Power, Antony Hegarty, the Flaming Lips and Le Tigre.
The Fondation Phi’s Liberté Conquérante/Growing Freedom exhibition focuses on the “instruction paintings” Ono began creating in the mid-1950s, the films and music she made with Lennon and the weeklong Bed-In for Peace the couple held at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel 50 years ago in May. There’s also a new instruction piece called Arising, which invites women to “send a testament of harm done to you for being a woman,” with a photo of the writer’s eyes. There were already 400 testaments on display when the show opened on April 25.
Ono was 22 when she began her instruction paintings, pointedly maintaining a link with a tactile medium while creating art that had no unique physical form, and no value as a commodity. As co-curator Gunnar B. Kvaran said at the media opening, Ono is the only artist of international prominence whose work lies almost entirely outside the art market.
Her instruction works are brief and written in simple language. Decades before “interactive art” became commonplace, Ono saw the reduction of means as a way to expand their effect. Some pieces call for specific actions, while others point to fantastic or politically tinged exercises of mind.
Her Tunafish Sandwich Piece (1964), asks that we “imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time,” and concludes with the directive: “Make one tunafish sandwich and eat.” At first glance, the work is merely playful. But “one thousand suns in the sky” comes from the same passage in the Bhagavad Gita that was quoted by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer after the first successful atomic-bomb test: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” Ono, who was in Japan during the Second World War, is alluding to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this context, imagining one thousand suns can be a gesture of remembrance, just as eating a sandwich can epitomize peaceful daily life.
In Cut Piece, shown in a video made in the mid-1960s, Ono sits on the floor with a pair of scissors in front of her. People approach and cut her clothing. Some of the men do so with gusto, while Ono remains motionless and silent. Decades later, the piece remains a potent statement about violence and the silence often imposed on female victims.
Ono’s works with Lennon include short films, and LPs such as 1969’s Wedding Album (recently remastered by their son, Sean Lennon). Ono’s primal singing style seems less extreme now that Tanya Tagaq has become an international star. There’s also much documentation of the Montreal Bed-In, including the 70-minute film Bed Peace, which Ono has posted on YouTube.
Ono’s Water Event (1971) prompted responses by a dozen invited Canadian artists. A small parallel exhibition, curated by Caroline Andrieux, gathers fugitive traces of a performance Ono did in Montreal in 1961.
Ono, 86, continues to make art. She released a new album, Warzone, in 2018, and is creating a sculpture for a park at the Petrovaradin Fortress in Serbia. She also continues to win people over: I’ve never seen so many smiles at a media opening. This often-maligned artist is still fostering wonderment.
Liberté Conquérante/Growing Freedom, co-curated by Cheryl Sim and Gunnar B. Kvaran, continues at Fondation Phi in Montreal through Sept. 15.