Among the many fascinations served by The Beatles: Come Back documentary series is the nature of Yoko Ono’s presence in the recording studio. She did not observe sideways with the other spouses and partners. She was literally in the inner circle, sitting next to John Lennon, turning the Fabulous Four into a group of five. While The Beatles scrambled and recorded what would become iconic songs, Ms. Ono was right there, reading, sewing, sorting mail, or just sitting down.
Ms. Ono was a household name at this point because of her famous boyfriend. But long before meeting Mr. Lennon, she was a highly regarded concept artist. You can discover his work now at the Vancouver Art Gallery‘s Yoko Ono: Growing Freedom: The instructions of Yoko Ono / The art of John and Yoko exhibition.
The work presented in the exhibition falls within the period described in To recover. The three-part, nearly eight-hour series from director Peter Jackson documents the intense four weeks of January 1969, during which the Beatles, working on what they had planned to be a TV special, created material for what would become the So be it album, including their legendary Rooftop Concert – their last public performance.
As a viewer of the series, you get more than a front row seat for it all; this is a fly-on-the-wall level access.
In a few scenes, the group members were reading newspaper articles aloud about themselves. Headline read: “The Beatle John Lennon Says I’m In Love With Yoko.”
While Ms. Ono’s relationship with Mr. Lennon, and ultimately her marriage to him, meant she would never have to struggle to draw attention to her job (or a paycheck), attention is a thing – recognition is another. His artistic career would be forever eclipsed not only by his musical career, but by their relationship. It has become almost impossible to experience one’s work in a vacuum.
I saw the VAG show earlier this fall. But after devouring the Mr. Jackson series, I wanted to go back for another look. Would the exhibition be different?
With the backdrop of the Beatles documentary floating through my brain, I started with Cut piece, Ono’s pioneering work in participatory art. In a film of her 1965 performance, Ms. Ono sits on the stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City as attendees, following instructions in a flyer, climb one by one to cut out a small piece of her clothes with a pair. of scissors. Throughout, she remains motionless and expressionless.
Nobody says a word; Ms. Ono is quieter than she is during these recording sessions. But this time, she is the center of the scene. And alone, with the exception of visiting spectators. All you hear is the clicking of their shoes as they walk up and down the stage.
Ms Ono met Mr Lennon a year later – famously, while she was preparing a solo exhibition at an experimental gallery in London. Mr. Lennon was intrigued by her Ceiling painting (1966), where the participant climbs a ladder, takes a magnifying glass and points it at a small panel on the ceiling. The word “yes” is revealed.
Mr Lennon – a superstar at the time – later said that if the word had been “no” he would not have continued through the exhibit. He liked her optimism.
In Vancouver, Ceiling painting stands in the center of one of the galleries. (This is not the same physical labor; these are realizations of Ms. Ono’s concepts.) He shares the space with other examples of his “Instruction” work. Laughter piece (1961): “Keep laughing for a week. ” lump of cough (1961): “Keep coughing for a year. (I must have laughed, behind my mask.) Fly piece (1963): “To fly”.
These were written long before she met Mr. Lennon, but it’s hard not to think of him when meeting Shadow Piece (1963): “Gather your shadows until they become one. “
The next part of the exhibit deals with the couple’s collaboration in life and art, including the greatest performance of their lives: how they sparked intense media interest in their marriage to bring attention to the atrocities. of the war. Part of their crusade for peace took place on Canadian soil. As the Vietnam War raged, they organized Bed-Ins for Peace – first in Amsterdam, then at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. They appeared at a hastily organized seminar on world peace in Ottawa (prepared by young future cabinet minister Allan Rock). They then met with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
It is a story well known to many Canadians. But looking at the photos from that time right after watching the Jackson documentary, Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono feel more familiar, in a way – as humans, not as celebrities.
These events took place in 1969, just a few months after the To recover sessions. Still, Mr. Lennon looks more mature and serious in his white suit and shaggy beard. This may in part be the result of being out of the shadows of Paul McCartney’s support studio presence. Ms. Ono, who is no longer the silent observer, is now participating, and Mr. Lennon is Mr. Lennon’s equal in this collaboration. The duo, instead of the group, have more important business to deal with. (The Beatles officially broke up in 1970.)
The remainder of the exhibition concerns the reverse side of Ms. Ono’s instructions: what the viewer – or rather the participant – does. For Ms. Ono My mom is beautiful (2004), visitors are invited to write about their mother. A small gallery is filled with post-its messages. “I love my mom so much. I’m so happy that she’s my mom,” one reads.
Further on, for the final segment of the show, Yoko Ono: Water Event, Ms. Ono invited local indigenous artists to create or choose a container of water. “Ono’s water supply completes the sculpture,” explains the wall plaque.
All along, people were taking pictures of almost everything with their phones, which highlighted another thing that I thought about a lot since watching To recover: how different these sessions would have been in a world of ubiquitous cell phones. The four – and everyone else – would have been buried in their phones instead of having to talk to each other, mess around, get a little bored, bring up music to fill the void.
How much do we not create because we look at our phones?
Ms. Ono believes that the viewer / participant is an essential part of the job. Plus, the context is so important. The works feed off each other. Each experience merges with the next, whether consciously or not. You see an exhibition twice in the space of two months, watching a related documentary in between, and the experience changes – so the art actually changes. He’s always on the move. But we have to be careful.
VAG show ends with Ms. Ono’s Wish tree (1996), where participants are asked to make a wish, write it on a tag (provided) with a pencil (sterilized) and attach it to one of the small trees in the space. “I wish the end of Covid for the world”, we read during my second visit. Another: “I wish to continue laughing with friends and looking at art forever. “
The exhibition is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 1.