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Conceptual artist Yoko Ono working on “Mend Piece.”

Entering Toronto's Gardiner Museum to view The Riverbed, Yoko Ono's three-part art installation, attendees are handed a booklet. "Draw a line to take me to the farthest place in our planet," says one passage in it. "Mend with wisdom, mend with love. It will mend the earth at the same time," says another.

Offering instruction as well as an invitation, the passages urge visitors to become not mere observers but also participants in Ono's collaborative display. In fact, over the course of the three-month-long exhibition ending June 3, museum goers will be playing a key role in its evolution. In part 1 of the exhibit, "Stone Piece," they pick a pebble from three tonnes of stones smoothed over time by river currents and inscribed with words, such as "dream," "wish" and "remember," and then hold and contemplate on it before setting it down and moving on.

For the second part, "Line Piece," notebooks are provided to visitors, so they can draw lines that would take them "to the farthest places" on Earth. Or, using hammers and nails, they can create lines by securing lengths of string across the gallery space. Part 3 – "Mend Piece," which reinforces the concept of healing – encourages attendees to repair broken cups and saucers with glue, tape and string before placing them on shelves in a pristine white room. As they participate, they are encouraged to linger over a cup of coffee, sipped from illy cups designed for the exhibit by Ono herself.

The hands-on nature of the exhibit means that how it looks over time will bear little resemblance to how it looked at its opening in February­ – or to how it will look when the exhibit closes.

"[Just] within two days of [the opening], it changed dramatically," says Meredith Chilton, the Gardiner's former curator who worked remotely with Ono to bring Riverbed to Toronto. "For 'Stone Piece,' I had placed [the pebbles] in a meandering position, which I felt was pleasing to the eye. [In] those two days, people picked up rocks and put them in different places. One person created a whirlpool of rocks. Others piled them in different ways."

PlateYoko Ono "Mend Piece," 1966 / 2018, © Yoko Ono. (Photo Credit: TARA FILLION)


In "Line Piece," which started out as an empty space in the gallery, a cat's cradle–like web quickly emerged. "I can only imagine that in a few months, it's going to become really dense," says Chilton.

While most curators would likely be horrified by the quick undoing of their carefully set-up work, Chilton is delighted by the ongoing evolution of Riverbed. "I can't think of anything more wonderful," she enthuses. "Each string represents one person's participation in the exhibition. You're going to see this amazing web, almost like a fabric, where all these people have interacted together to create a piece of art."

In New York, where the exhibit premiered in 2015 simultaneously at two galleries – Galerie Lelong and Andrea Rosen Gallery – attendees were encouraged to visit both installations, so they could witness the diverse effects of human interaction on the same works. Reading about those two simultaneous exhibits, as well as the ceramic component of the "Mend Piece," was what inspired Chilton to reach out to Ono about bringing Riverbed to Toronto.

It is the sort of interactive experimental work that Ono has long championed. She's widely considered a pioneer of the conceptual art movement, which is more about the underlying ideas of a work rather than its materials and other esthetics. But it's a surprising show for a museum such as the Gardiner, which, as a gallery focused on ceramics, is very much rooted in the tangible. "In the past, we've been accused of being a museum of teacups," says Chilton, laughing.

Meanwhile, another current show at the Gardiner – "Japan Now: Form + Function" – celebrates how tightly the notions of form and function are intertwined with Japanese ceramics. Past exhibitions – such as "Finding Balance in a Topsy-Turvy World," which displayed the works of young artists who had survived sexual abuse – show that trifling notion is unfounded. But Chilton thinks that the interactive nature of Riverbed opens up the museum-going experience in ways that she feels can only deepen the public's connection to art.

"It makes the exhibition very personal," she says. "We're actually involved in making the experience [possible]. There's a freedom to participate, which is very seldom done in a museum."

Though not always appropriate to the art, such participatory experiences open up the opportunity for museums to be more engaging and relevant to the public. "We know this from our clay classes," explains Chilton, referring to the Gardiner's hands-on workshops offered to both kids and adults. "Looking is wonderful. Being engaged, being inspired by gorgeous, creative, wonderful art is terrific. But getting your hands into it is an additional dimension."

The buzzy Infinity Mirrors installation of Yayoi Kusama, on exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, might, at first blush, seems unrelated to Riverbed. For starters, the LED lights and mirrors of "The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away," one of Kusama's mirrored rooms, feel distinctly high-tech, with Instagram appeal a key factor in the show's immense popularity. (In contrast, Ono requests Riverbed visitors to leave their phones in their pockets.)

Yet, both exhibits are clear signs that museums are opening up more for their audiences, according to Chilton. "They're realizing [that] there are many different ways in which to engage."


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