Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA)
15 Nov 2013 to 23 Feb 2014
War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono was the first Australian survey exhibition by the legendary artist, musician and activist Yoko Ono. Spanning five decades from the early 1960s to the present, it encompassed her text and instruction works, sculptures and installations, films and performances. The exhibition took its title from a 1969 campaign by Ono and her late husband, John Lennon, who rented public billboards in cities including New York and London over Christmas 1969, to spread their message of peace and hope for humankind. The work captured the power of the human mind to transcend the present and wish for a better world in the future, without conflict; the key being the tiny words in brackets, (if you want it).
Participation is a central aspect of Ono’s art and various works in this exhibition invited gallery visitors to become actively involved in creating meaning. In Play It By Trust (1966/2013), a work that Ono first created in 1966, visitors were invited in pairs – with a friend or a stranger – to play a game of chess. Ono’s chess pieces are all uniformly white so that once play commences, the pieces merge and it is difficult to distinguish whose ‘side’ they are on. The idea of competition is undermined by the work, and as Ono comments, ‘Peace is then attained on a small scale.’
In MEND PIECE (1966/2013), another work from the same period, people were invited to sit together at a table and repair pieces of broken crockery using scissors, thread, glue and sticky tape. They did so creatively, devising all kinds of new objects in the process then displaying them on nearby shelves. A small gesture towards healing a damaged world, MEND PIECE was surrounded by world maps attached to the gallery wall like colourful wallpaper. Visitors were invited, through Ono’s written instruction, to stamp the maps with the words ‘IMAGINE PEACE’ using inkpads and customised rubber stamps. Lines were blurred, boundaries crossed, and a new world order built on harmony and exchange.
Ono’s artworks exist, however, as ideas first and foremost. Some remain as written instructions to be imagined in one’s mind, while others are realised as physical objects years or even decades after being written. Some works are also made several times over, using different materials at different points in time. In this exhibition, for example, Ono’s ‘conceptual objects’ of the 1960s – a series of everyday objects sitting atop transparent plastic pedestals, with engraved texts – had been cast in bronze in the 1980s, their material quality and meaning shifting as a result.
Ono employs a range of materials in her art, including everyday and shop-bought items, alongside more traditional artistic media. In her positioning of idea over object, and democratic approach to materials, she is an early pioneer of conceptual or ‘idea art’. Ono has been associated with various artistic movements and styles over the years, including Fluxus, a loose international grouping of artists who were linked by their desire to integrate art and everyday life. She was involved with Fluxus during the 1960s-70s and made a number of ‘fluxfilms’, some of which appeared in this exhibition. As with her objects and installations, Ono’s films respond to her instructional texts. Several were also presented on the MCA’s Circular Quay façade, illuminating the building at night over the course of the exhibition.
War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono presented a diverse range of historically significant artworks by the artist, as well as more recent sculptures and installations from the 1990s and 2000s. Several pieces were made especially for Australian audiences, including Wish Tree for Sydney (1996/2013), a work that recalled the Shinto temple trees of Ono’s childhood. This participatory installation featured six lemon-scented eucalyptus saplings on the MCA Sculpture Terrace, plus writing materials and paper tags that viewers were invited to affix to their branches. As with Ono’s wider practice, it invited us to visualise and work towards a better future, together.
Yoko Ono was born on 18 February 1933 in Tokyo, Japan; she lives and works in New York.