Among the many fascinations served up by The Beatles: Get Back documentary series is the nature of Yoko Ono’s presence in the recording studio. She wasn’t observing from the sidelines with the other spouses and associates. She was in the inner circle, literally, sitting alongside John Lennon, turning the fab four into a group of five. As the Beatles jammed and messed around and recorded what would become iconic songs, Ms. Ono was right there, quietly reading, sewing, sorting through mail or just sitting.
Ms. Ono was a household name at this point because of her celebrity boyfriend. But long before she met Mr. Lennon, she was a highly regarded conceptual artist. You can experience her work right now at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition Yoko Ono: Growing Freedom: The instructions of Yoko Ono / The art of John and Yoko.
The work in the exhibition brackets the time period depicted in Get Back. Director Peter Jackson’s three-part, nearly eight-hour series documents the intense four weeks in January, 1969, during which the Beatles, working toward what they had planned to be a TV special, created material for what would become the Let It Be album, including their legendary rooftop concert – their final public performance.
As a viewer of the series, you get more than a front-row seat to it all; this is fly-on-the-wall level access.
In a couple of scenes, the bandmates read newspaper stories about themselves out loud. Reads one headline: “Beatle John Lennon says: I’m in love with Yoko.”
While Ms. Ono’s relationship with, and ultimately marriage to Mr. Lennon meant she would never have to struggle to attract attention to her work (or a paycheque), attention is one thing – recognition quite another. Her art career would forever be eclipsed not just by his music career, but by their relationship. It became nearly impossible to experience her work in a vacuum.
I saw the VAG show earlier this fall. But after devouring Mr. Jackson’s series, I wanted to go back for another look. Would the exhibition feel different?
With the context of the Beatles documentary floating around in my brain, I started with Cut Piece, Ono’s pioneering work of participatory art. In a film of her 1965 performance, Ms. Ono sits on the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall while attendees, following instructions supplied in a leaflet, ascend one by one to cut away a small piece of her clothing with a pair of scissors. Throughout, she remains still and expressionless.
Nobody says a word; Ms. Ono is more silent than she is during those recording sessions. But this time, she is centrestage. And alone, except for the visiting audience members. All you hear is the clickety-clack of their shoes as they ascend and descend from the stage.
Ms. Ono met Mr. Lennon a year later – famously, as she was preparing a solo exhibition at an experimental gallery in London. Mr. Lennon was intrigued by her Ceiling Painting (1966), where the participant climbs a ladder, picks up a magnifying glass and points it to a small panel on the ceiling. The word “yes” is revealed.
Mr. Lennon – a superstar by that point – later said if the word had been “no,” he would not have continued through the exhibition. He loved its optimism.
In Vancouver, Ceiling Painting stands at the centre of one of the galleries. (It’s not the same physical work; these are realizations of Ms. Ono’s concepts.) It shares space with other examples of her “Instruction” works. Laugh Piece (1961): “Keep laughing a week.” Cough Piece (1961): “Keep coughing a year.” (I had to laugh, behind my mask.) Fly Piece (1963): “Fly.”
These were written long before she met Mr. Lennon, but it’s hard not to think of him when encountering Shadow Piece (1963): “Put your shadows together until they become one.”
The next part of the exhibition deals with the couple’s collaboration in life and art, including the greatest performance of their lives: How they parlayed intense media interest in their marriage to call attention to the atrocities of war. Their Crusade for Peace took place partly on Canadian soil. With the Vietnam War raging, they held Bed-Ins for Peace – first in Amsterdam, then at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. They appeared at a hastily organized Seminar on World Peace in Ottawa (cooked up by young future cabinet minister, Allan Rock). They later met with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
This is well-known history for many Canadians. But looking at photos from this time right after viewing the Jackson documentary, Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono feel more familiar, somehow – as humans, not celebrities.
These events took place in 1969, just a few months after the Get Back sessions. Yet Mr. Lennon seems more grown-up and serious in his white suit and shaggy beard. Perhaps it’s partly the result of being out of the shadow of Paul McCartney’s take-charge studio presence. Ms. Ono, no longer the silent observer, is now a participant, and Mr. Lennon’s equal in this collaboration. The duo, in place of the band, has more important matters to attend to. (The Beatles officially broke up in 1970.)
The next part of the exhibition concerns the other side of Ms. Ono’s instructions: what the viewer – or participant, rather – does with them. For Ms. Ono’s My Mommy is Beautiful (2004), visitors are invited to write about their mothers. A small gallery is filled with messages on Post-it notes. “I love my mom sooooo mutch. I am soooo happy she is my mum,” reads one.
Further along, for the final segment of the show, Yoko Ono: Water Event, Ms. Ono invited local Indigenous artists to create or choose a water container. “Ono’s contribution of water completes the sculpture,” the wall plaque explains.
Throughout, people were snapping photos of pretty much everything with their phones, which underscored another thing I have been thinking a lot about since watching Get Back: how different those sessions would have been in a world of ubiquitous cellphones. The four of them – and everyone else – would have been buried in their phones instead of forced to talk to each other, to mess around, to get a little bored, to conjure up music to fill the void.
How much are we not creating because we’re looking at our phones?
Ms. Ono believes the viewer/participant is an essential part of the work. Further, context is so important. Artworks feed on each other. Every experience bleeds into the next, whether consciously or not. You see an exhibition twice in the space of two months, viewing a related documentary in between, and the experience changes – so the art in fact changes. It is always in flux. But we need to pay attention.
The VAG show ends with Ms. Ono’s Wish Tree (1996), where participants are instructed to make a wish, write it on a tag (provided) with a pencil (sterilized) and tie it to one of the small trees in the space. “I wish the end of Covid for the world,” read one during my second visit. Another: “I wish to keep laughing with friends and look at art forever.”
The exhibition is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 1.