“To deride the hopes of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind” Peter Medawar (1915-1987)
It could be argued we live in increasingly cynical times. Perhaps this attitude is spreading as a consequence of an atomised society forced to wade its way through a daily diet of advertorial and media spin. This scepticism is often trained on those who are perceived as overly sincere, and Yoko Ono is an artist whose optimistic work seems at odds with our wry smiles and cocked eyebrows.
Her message of positivity and hope is illustrated throughout her extensive and captivating historical survey Half-A-Wind-Show, currently on at the Guggenheim Bilbao. ‘Wishing Tree’ (2014) invites visitors to participate in the work by writing their own wish on a tag and tying it to a branch of an olive tree. ‘Imagine Peace’ is an ongoing project inviting viewers to download, print and display this well known poster in their locality.
The breadth of the exhibition gives visitors the chance to examine and pay tribute to her significant impact on art. In one of many instructional works such as ‘Disappearance Piece’ (1964) she invites John Cage to “boil water until it evaporates”, a poetic sleight of hand that riffs on the transformative power of art through the most elemental of means. At the other end of the Fluxus scale we find her playful and naughty, projecting perfectly framed ‘Bottoms’ (1966) on a large-scale screen.
In more serious work we find her deconstructing and problematising the structure of power. In ‘Lion Wrap Event’ (1967) she shrouded - thereby neutering its power - one of the iconic and imperialistic lions in Trafalgar Square. Naturally this brought the police swarming out - as if there was a law against wrapping up a statue of a lion. In another complex and thoughtful work, ‘White Chess Set’ (1966), we find two aforementioned lines of chess pieces together with an invitation to play. One can imagine that a game would start amicably enough, indeed with each person ‘on the same side’ however - as with the wrapped lions - Ono has set up a further problem, in this case how do we agree who owns each piece once they are intertwined in the passage of play’
Other political statements are more personal. In the ‘Museum of Modern (F)Art’ (1971) Ono set up an imaginary show of her work at the Museum of Modern Art New York to challenge the lack of representation of female artists at the institution. In this instance it is worth also mentioning her ‘Cut Piece’ (1965) which invited members of the audience to cut pieces out of her clothes as she sat meditatively on the floor. The implicit violence of this act points to many things but perhaps, most provocatively, the male gaze.
As well as being a pioneer in the field of performance art this retrospective also highlights the sheer volume of her output in the realm of music. In a large room dedicated to this we find numerous examples of her collaborations; of course with John Lennon but further with the likes of Kim Gordon and more recently Lady Gaga.
Throughout the exhibition the metaphor of the “half” is noticeably recurrent. In most instances this is used as a positive and optimistic stance. Ono wants us to take an active role in the work and by extension the world, to join her in a “silent revolution” which is enabled through art. In ‘Water Event’ (1971/2013) she invited artists to send her a container for water; the water she supplies herself, completing the work. However, in ‘Half a Room’ (1976), the divided objects she presents were created in response to a particularly painful breakup.
Here one finds the crux of her work. It is deeply reflective and engaged in life, it is the living of life through art: if that is meditating on what it means to be alive, if it is about being silly and playful, if it is a way of expressing pain, if it is about being a positive agent of change - it is all about actively engaging in the world.