MCA Chief Curator and curator of War is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono, Rachel Kent, talks about the first major survey in Australia of works by Yoko Ono, once described by her late husband John Lennon as the world’s ‘most famous unknown artist’.
How did you first conceive of the idea of an exhibition by Yoko Ono for the Sydney International Art Series?
I have had a longstanding interest in Yoko Ono’s art practice, from its origins in the early 1960s through to her more recent objects and installations. I had seen works in Europe and the US, but there had never been a major exhibition of Ono’s art in this part of the world, beyond her inclusion in the Biennale of Sydney. I was keen to see and learn more, and thought other people would share this interest! The resulting project takes the form of a major survey for Australian audiences at the MCA Australia, encompassing five decades of her art across media – specifically, her text and instruction works, objects and installations, films and sound works. Yoko Ono has been actively involved in all aspects of the project and she has created several pieces especially for Sydney. The exhibition expands beyond our Level 3 galleries to encompass the Sculpture Terrace and the new building façade, which will light up at night time with film projections upon its surface.
Tell us a little about your first meeting with Yoko?
I first met Yoko Ono in early 2011 – a very exciting and slightly daunting experience. I had been in communication with her representatives since 2010, explaining our ambition to stage a major survey exhibition for Australia, and presented information and materials on my past curated exhibitions plus our beautiful new MCA building – which had only just begun construction. Following this process, I was invited to come to the artist’s residence in Manhattan to speak further in person, one cool morning in April. I had read copious articles and publications in advance, prepared preliminary ideas and diagrams, and brought with me a range of materials about the museum and its new planned galleries. She was warm and welcoming, and curious to speak about her work in an Australian context. It was a positive first meeting, and from it, an exciting process of ideas, discussion and planning commenced.
What were some of the challenges, both anticipated and unanticipated, you encountered in your endeavours to bring the exhibition into being?
There are always going to be challenges and some surprises in bringing a project of this scale and ambition together. It’s a learning process and also quite an adventure – I have really enjoyed every moment. Firstly, it’s important to understand that Yoko Ono’s work exists first and foremost as ideas. The translation of these ideas into physical objects, participatory art works, and installations then follows (and some works exist only in the mind, never to be realised in physical form). One of the most exciting challenges that the artist put forward, early on, was how to create new iterations of several key pieces for Sydney: for example, her participatory chess installation called ‘Play It By Trust’. Ono first created this now-legendary work in 1966 and since this time, it has been realised as multiple two-person chess tables, one long multi-player table, and an enlarged outdoors piece. The new Sydney iteration has been created in response to the design of the Sydney Opera House, responding to its curved geometry, and its tall white sails with their chequer-board tiles. Ono’s chess tables and chess pieces are all white – so that when people begin their game and the pieces intermingle, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish who controls which piece. In this way, she observes, competition and conflict are neutralised, even on a small scale. The creation of the furniture for the Sydney work, from preliminary drawings through to construction, has been a big job involving a highly skilled team of people.
Throughout her career much of Yoko’s work has explored political and social themes and even today she remains a committed activist. Can you talk about how some of these themes are represented in the works chosen for the MCA exhibition and how they might resonate with contemporary Australia?
Yoko Ono is well known as an artist, musician and activist. Her political activism finds expression through her art works, as does her training in music and composition. In particular, she has been very active for decades in the movement for world peace, and a number of art works that feature in the MCA Australia survey respond to themes of reconciliation and the desire for a better, safer world in the future. One example is the participatory art work called ‘Maps (Imagine Peace)’ – a series of world maps which are pinned to the gallery walls like a colourful wall paper; gallery visitors are invited to stamp the maps with the words ‘Imagine Peace’, using customised rubber stamps and ink pads. Another work, called ‘Mend Piece’, invites people to work together to mend pieces of broken crockery at a shared table, using all kinds of materials like sticky tape, glue and string – a simple gesture, perhaps, towards healing a damaged world.
Born in Tokyo in 1933, Yoko Ono grew up during the Second World War and witnessed the physical and economic devastation of Japan as a young girl. She was twelve when the atomic bomb was dropped upon Hiroshima then Nagasaki. This experience had a profound influence upon Ono, and both before and since her marriage to John Lennon, she has campaigned vigorously for peace. The exhibition title for Sydney is War Is Over! (if you want it) – and comes from a 1969 joint campaign by Ono and Lennon on public billboards in London, New York and other cities worldwide to spread their message of peace and hope. Created against the backdrop of American troops in Vietnam, and student uprisings in Europe, it is a powerful affirmation of the power of the human mind, to transcend present circumstance and work together for a better future. The key to the work is of course the tiny letters in brackets – if you want it. I first suggested this title to Ono as I felt it resonates as powerfully today as it would have four decades earlier, and because we are in such a terrible a global situation of conflict and warfare in 2013. Ono has always described herself as a pragmatist, rather than an optimist. Her work is affirmative but also worldly aware; and its power comes from the ability to represent some of the hard realities we face, while presenting the possibility for collaboration and reconciliation – it is something we can (and need) to learn from. It asks us to consider what kind of world we want to live in today or leave to our children in the future.
What do you think people who may be seeing Yoko’s artistic output for the first time will be most surprised to learn about her?
I think many aspects of this exhibition will be surprising and revealing to visitors. First, many people will know of Yoko Ono by name only; to encounter her art and engage with it in such depth will, I hope, be a very meaningful experience. The extent of her career, from the beginning of the 1960s through to the present, and the sheer diversity of the art works featured – this too will come as a surprise to many. Yoko Ono does not shy away from complex and sometimes difficult issues through her art and activism. She has confronted the legacy of violence and war; the daily, often unspoken violence facing many women in society; and – being an outspoken activist against fracking – the question of what sort of world we will leave for future generations, if we do not take urgent environmental action. In this regard, her MCA Australia exhibition may be something of a wake-up call to some visitors. For others, its ability to bring people together and generate meaning though the hands-on participatory art works, will be its great strength.
Interview by Nicole Trian