14 December 2013

Yoko Ono’s War is Over (if you want it) at MCA Sydney

Words: Saskia Edwards
Images: Saskia Edwards

Yoko Ono’s 50 year retrospective War is Over (if you want it) is an emotional roller coaster. I spent the entire time fighting back waterworks. Afterwards I felt like a Dr Phil special could have been made on my emotional journey through the exhibition. Throughout the pieces her famous history was everywhere. I could see her struggles losing her daughter, her love for John Lennon and her fervent activism. Let’s just say I was a wreck.

Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney Rachel Kent worked with Yoko Ono for five years on the exhibition. I spoke to her about the exhibition.

SE: So what was it like working along-side Yoko Ono for five years?
RK: It’s been wonderful working with Yoko. She’s really generous. She’s full of ideas and she’s also very enthusiastic in terms of her involvement and commitment to the exhibition and also wanting to make it specific and meaningful for Australia and Sydney audiences.

SE: So what did she do to personalise it for Sydney?
RK: She also wanted to make certain works or make new iterations of certain works specific to our audience… The chest installation is a new iteration and it’s actually inspired by the Opera House, by the circular geometry of the Opera House … She also make a new iteration of her Wish Tree Project. So there’s Wish Tree for Sydney up on the level four sculpture terrace using native trees. They’re lemon scented gums.

SE: I noticed a lot of the art was interactive where it was participatory for the audience. Why is that so important to Yoko?
RK: I think one of the pleasures of her work and one of the strengths of it is that you can get involved… Really the work is the idea, which means that it kind of has no boundaries. There’s no limit to what one can do in terms of creating a work in your mind or kind of taking an idea and interpreting it in many different ways. If you take that one step further and you allow other people to get involved and invite their collaboration their participation, their ideas or interpretations you get a pretty fantastic outcome. It’s a lot greater than you alone. It’s a kind of collective statement… Historically artists have had this idea that art is kind of immutable, it’s untouchable, it’s static, it’s unchanging. But of course the reality of art, like every other aspect of life is that of course it’s going to change over time. So when she was making her works first in the 60’s and seeing what a lot of other artists were doing in terms of these very self contained, permanent structures. She decided she wanted to change that in her own practice than rather fight against time and work towards permanency and create works that were actually open to change. The best way to do that of course is actually invite people in and get them involved.

SE: I had a hugely emotional response to the exhibition. Do you think the themes that Yoko explores are quite emotive and do invite that kind of response?
RK: That beautiful work My Mommy is Beautiful, which is essentially a message board where people write messages to their mothers. That came out of her own experience and her own thinking about her relationship with her mother that was quite difficult or unresolved. And of course thinking back on that as an older woman who is a mother and a grandmother she wanted to make amends. I mean I think that’s something that touches all of us. I have to say it’s one of those works that makes people cry. I hear from our gallery staff every week that people cry over this work and I know from talking to people as well it does illicit this very powerful response. But you know another work that I think is really amazing is about mothers and sons with the army helmets… Those were helmets that someone has worn on the battlefield. Regardless of whose side they’re on or what they’re fighting for, when that person dies a mother loses her child. So you know again I think that has a really strong resonance. And I love the idea you can take the jigsaw pieces from these empty helmets because she invites people to take the piece of the jigsaw with the idea that maybe in 10 years time people will come back together with the jigsaw and make a better or safer sky for the future.

SE: It’s quite interesting how throughout this you’re discussing Yoko Ono’s life and as John Lennon said she was the most famous unknown artist. Do often think perhaps her personal life has overshadowed or eclipsed her artistic practice?

RK: To some degree I think it’s made things more complicated for her, yes. But actually she was working as an artist for many many years before she met John Lennon… Really by the end of the 50s, beginning of the 60s she was setting up in New York and staging her own exhibition projects. She didn’t have a lot of money at that time, no one knew who she was really. She was this young Japanese artist trying to make a go of it in a very male-dominated white New York art world. So she would have been quite an oddity… She met John Lennon in 1966, they were married a couple of years later. But actually she met him because he came to her exhibition in London and maybe people don’t realise that. It was actually that he went to see her art… I think often people don’t realise she was already an artist, she was establishing her own career.

SE: Do you think there’s anything else worth adding?
RK: I find her work refreshing because it’s actually affirmative rather than negative. It’s very positive. It has a generosity to it and an inclusiveness that I find a relief. I think that’s something that stands her work apart from a lot work that is about critique of the institution and the art making system. It does have this generosity and this warmth to it. It has this very strong humanity and I really like that it brings people in and gets them involved… 

(Pictured: This piece is entitled 'Morning Beams'. The rocks mirror the Zen philosophy of balance. These rocks are from NSW, another element of the exhibition unique to Australia.)

(Pictured: My Mommy is Beautiful - a wall where people post messages to their mothers. It stems from Yoko Ono's uneasy relationship with her own mother. Participants are also encouraged to write what they have gained from their mothers as Yoko sees many qualities of her mother in herself.)

(Pictured: German army helmets. This work signifies the human loss from war and the suffering of mothers of fallen soldiers.)

(Pictured: An iteration of Yoko Ono's work from the 60s 'Hammer A Nail'.)

(Pictured: 'Imagine Peace' where attendees stamp the words 'Imagine Peace' in various languages on maps.)

And of course there's John, John, John.

The exhibition is on until February 23 next year. Pack some Kleenex.

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