Oh, Yoko…

Let me say first that I’m coming at you as a Yoko Ono 小野洋子 fan. Back in Seattle, the composers collective of which I was a member, Seattle School, did a tribute show to her and other Fluxus artists, named for her 1964 book Grapefruits. One of my pal Korby’s prized possessions is the letter from Yoko Ono’s people authorizing us to use her image in promotion of the show. Check out this article that ran in the Seattle Weekly.

I think a lot of the poetic little text pieces that comprise Grapefruits, notwithstanding a strand of dark deadpan humor, evince a certain optimism, the idea that by simply unhinging your brain a bit, you can see the world with fresh wonder. So I headed out to the Ke Center to catch her Fly show opening last weekend with this mindset, in a spirit of goodwill and hope—hope that was mercilessly dashed almost upon arrival.

As we entered the compound, we were engulfed by a huge sea of people waiting to enter. Evidently we had missed a formal welcoming address from Ms. Ono, delivered to the throng from on high in a makeshift podium erected on the gallery’s third floor balcony. But the gist was reiterated in a video that played repeatedly on the side of the building as we waited to be granted admission. The concept was simple: “I love you, Shanghai.”

To transmit this simple phrase, Ms. Ono employed an algorithm of her own devising to encode her message of love into an abstract sequence of flashing lights. She adroitly counted the number of words in the expression “I love you” (there are three), and assigned each word a number corresponding to its position in the sequence of words that comprise this short phrase. Using this system, “I love you,” can be rendered on a flashlight as, “flash,” “flash flash,” “flash flash flash.” In case you didn’t bring a flashlight with you, small souvenir “Onochord” keychain flashlights were distributed to certain lucky attendees.

It’s hard to explain why this is so dumb, but let me try. First of all, the act of encoding this message in lights does nothing to increase its potency or tweak its meaning, so there’s really no reason to do it in the first place. I mean, you could imagine using flashing lights to suggest some kind of emergency message or beacon or whatever, but she didn’t do anything to develop the idea along those lines; she was just flashing lights at people she could just as easily have been talking to. An even bigger problem is that there’s no coherence (let alone elegance or robustness) in the method of encoding she employed; it’s simply a blunt, arbitrary assignation. If you want a binary, human intelligible, time-based encoding system, either do the work to develop a complete and meaningful system yourself (and accept the fact that no one will take the time to learn it), or adopt an existing system, such as Morse code, so you’re at least deferring to other on matters in which you yourself lack competence.

This system belies a fundamental lack of understanding about how language works. Further, it actually erects an artificial barrier between people, because who, outside of the small subset of humanity who crammed into this show, will recognize a sequence of 1-2-3 as meaning “I love you?” (By contrast, you would touch a significantly larger percentage of humanity by simply speaking the words in English, or Mandarin or Spanish or Hindi, for that matter.) It serves only to obfuscate what is apparently intended to be a very sincere and meaningful message. And on top of that, what is the need for this kind of communication in today’s environment of high speed digital communications, when a voice can be relayed vast distances on a laser?

I suppose that what Ms. Ono was trying to achieve with her light code is related to a story she recounted in the video being screened to the impatient masses outside the museum. She talked of how John Lennon once invited her back to his home in rural England and requested a piece she had listed among her works in “Ono’s Sales List,” a catalogue raisonné from 1965 that was appended to the 1970 expanded edition of Grapefruits. In category E, “Architectural Works (priced according to contractors’ arrangements and cost of property),” type A is listed as,

LIGHT HOUSE-a house constructed of light from prisms, which exists in accordance with the changes of the day.

A footnote informs readers that, “Patents applied for, machines, and models for Architectural Works, may be viewed by appointment, only written requests accepted.” Of course, there were no plans, and when John Lennon asked her to build one in his backyard, she responded, as she said in the video, that she had no idea how to build a lighthouse.

The video then flashed us forward to the 21st century, and the LIGHT HOUSE has finally been constructed on Viðey Island, Reykjavik, Iceland. (I don’t know the details of construction, but at a certain point it strikes me as goofy to claim authorship for a work in which all you said was “build a lighthouse,” and someone builds one for you.) It’s clear from the video that Ms. Ono views this as a way of finally granting Mr. Lennon his request. Throughout the video, “Imagine” played over archival footage of the doting couple (raising the uncomfortable suggestion that Ms. Ono’s work couldn’t stand on its own without invoking the music and likeness of the great rock star), suffusing the whole endeavor in a nostalgic and completely backwards-looking sentimentality. Here she was in Iceland, 2006, flashing her coded “I love you” into the sky, hoping that the man who wrote “Imagine there’s no heaven” will hear and smile down on us.

(And let me say for the record that I wouldn’t mind if I never hear that stupid song again. Give me “Glass Onion” any day.)

It’s clearly a very lopsided kind of love that Ms. Ono is promulgating. Nothing about the show suggested equality between lovers; instead the very architecture of the show enforced power relationships, as when Ms. Ono delivered her opening speech from a pedestal high above the crowd, or when the selective bouncers in the third floor lounge limited entry to her performance to VIP’s only. But most egregious was the 1-2-3 encoding that was also the crux of the show. Instead of promoting free love for all, Ms. Ono was saying that we could only love her on her own terms by adopting her goofy and arbitrary code, and she even had the audacity, as an artist in a position of privilege and power, to suggest that we should use this same meaningless code to express our love to each other, as if the love of others required her mediation in any way.

In any event, the message of love was clearly lost on the crowd gathered at the entrance, where the scene was less like a 60’s love-in and more like the frenzied mob scene that erupted when Comme des Garçons launched their fashion line at H&M a week or so prior. There were flashes of anger, name-calling, and pushing as the guards attempted to regulate the flow of people into the gallery. And when she made her hurried exit later on, a crowd pressed upon her all the way from the elevator to the waiting car outside.

(And let me pause to ask at this juncture, What is up with you fickle people? Prior to her arrival in Shanghai, I didn’t know a single person who would voluntarily go on the record, as I did above, as a Yoko Ono fan. I, for one, think the Beatles ruined Yoko as much as the opposite may have been true. But in general conversation, if her name comes up, it’s usually with a mocking grin and a rolled eye; she’s blamed for the Beatles’s demise, decried as the queen of caterwaulers, and made to embody the disconnected capriciousness of “avant-garde art.” Yet on the night of her opening, the place was thronged with people. I can only attribute this to Shanghai’s insatiable obsession with celebrity in all its guises.)

And once the antsy crowd was inside, what spectacle greeted them? A sparse and cursory retrospective show. Photographs of women’s breasts with the caption “My Mommy Is Beautiful.” A wall on which people could write about how much they love their mommies. A tree on which people could hang their wishes. Selected works from Grapefruits enshrined in frames on the wall (which strikes me as somewhat contrary to the spirit in which they were meant to be experienced, but maybe that’s just me). As for her performance, I didn’t make it into the third floor VIP area to see it for myself, but Jutta did, and what she demonstrated to me later was a kind of half-hearted Chicken Dance.

Just inside the door was a new instruction piece entitled “Mend Piece for Shanghai,” which looked disappointingly as though it could have been torn right from the pages of Grapefruits. I really can’t be bothered to go back to the gallery to copy it down verbatim, but it was something along the lines of

Mend piece for Shanghai
Mend.
While mending, think of all the people in the world.
Think of how much you love them.
Mend the world.

Or some such fluff.

And the fact that this piece sounds fresh plucked from Grapefruits illustrates the biggest problem with Yoko Ono’s work. There’s none of the depth or maturity that you would expect from a renowned 60-year-old artist. It seems she’s been living in a bubble since the 60’s. Since her catapult to celebrity, her youthful efforts have been alternately enshrined and reviled, and she never grew beyond them. As often happens with celebrities, the very fact of fame costs them the frisson of interaction with peers that can hone great ideas, for who dares to argue with an established star? But the price is great, for it is this contact with people (as equals), the experience of the quotidian, where real love (I’m tempted to add, “the John Lennon kind,” in reference to that song from the Beatles Anthology, but that would probably come off as a bit hokey) truly springs.