Yoko Ono brings film, sculpture and infectious optimism to the Serpentine

By Mark Sheerin | 18 June 2012
Colour photo of an artist on a lawn with several stepladders
Yoko Ono with her installation: Sky Ladders 2007 in her exhibition Sognare, Museo di Santa Caterina, Treviso, Italy© Photo by Stephan Crasneanscki/©Yoko Ono
Exhibition: Yoko Ono – TO THE LIGHT, Serpentine Gallery, London, June 19 – September 9 2012

Yoko Ono walks a very thin line. On the one side is new age hippiedom and on the other is empty conceptualism. So it is easy to balk at her frequent exhortations to imagine "peace" or, more absurd still, to here build a room with 31 windows, bottle your tears and defenestrate them.

But only a churl could come away from her first UK outing in a decade and not be inspired by her utopianism. A pair of sound pieces give this show a beating heart and a hawk's cry. And there are many ways to reciprocate this artist’s generous spirit, so let me count them.

Firstly, there are the suspended World War II helmets filled with puzzle pieces from a Magritte-like sky. You are invited to take one and to bring it back at some unspecified time in the future to piece together the heavens with every other visitor to the show.

Secondly, there is the canvas that you are invited to walk on. A simple gesture takes on resonance here from the persecution of Christians in Edo-period Japan who were required to renounce their faith by stepping on a holy image.

Thirdly, there is the maze which gives rise to a faint sense of stupidity as you kick off your shoes and wander narrow Perspex lanes, turning back at each dead end until you find the mirrored well in the centre.

Fourthly and fifthly there are the tables at which you are invited to sit and plot your future and the trees to which you may attach wishes.

And finally, there is the #smilesfilm Project in which you are invited to upload your grinning mug to a global archive, which aims to catalogue smiles from every last person on the planet.

You have to put so much into this show, you are bound to get something out. It even becomes possible to believe that work like this really could effect global change, if only everyone would come to this exhibition and take note of the poster in the front room which still declares War is Over (if you want it).

Film still which shows John Lennon smiling
Yoko Ono, Smile Film No. 5 (1968)© Yoko Ono
This was the famous peace slogan of the late 1960s when Yoko Ono teamed up with John Lennon. Here it is battle-scarred. And the artist is matter of fact about her involvement with a rock star who was “bigger than Jesus”. His shooting may have grieved Ono but her optimism is bulletproof.

Life’s slings and arrows are best expressed here by what is perhaps her most famous work, a filmed performance called Cut Piece. For the duration of two films made in 1965 and then 2003, Yoko Ono sits resolute while members of the audience step forward to cut off pieces of her clothes.

Contrary to what you might expect from a 60s performance (think Yayoi Kusama), there is no nudity involved. The participants are strangely protective of Ono, in a way that anyone who engages with this show will understand.

On the face of it, wish trees don’t offer much opposition to the military industrial complex. And Ono’s arty spells might sound futile. But there is no questioning the artist’s belief in her work's potency. Surely, it is worth suspending disbelief to see what happens.

  • Open 10am-6pm. Admission free.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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