Yoko? Oh, Yes.
When I arrived at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami to see "YES YOKO ONO," there was already a contingent of security guards in the lobby gearing up for duty. I was surprised only by the number of guards present first thing on a Saturday morning. MoCA has one of the largest teams of security guards I've seen in a South Florida museum, as well as one of the most high-profile. The guards are garbed in uniforms more befitting a police force, and they can be surprisingly aggressive.
In the years I've been reviewing shows at MoCA, I've been accosted several times by guards who want to make sure I'm taking notes with a pencil, not a pen. (To keep people from permanently defiling the art, don't you know.) Once I had to put away my pen and use the stubby pencils provided at the museum's front desk, and I went through so many that my hand started to cramp. I've considered asking MoCA's executive director and chief curator, Bonnie Clearwater, for a special dispensation to use pens, but I suspect that even if she granted it, the guards would remain suspicious.
Such a zealous security staff seems vaguely incongruous in an institution that prides itself on art that often encourages interaction. Sometimes I find myself looking around cautiously to ensure that the guard at hand -- and there's almost always one nearby -- approves of my involvement with the art. Perhaps the guards realize that they can be intimidating, because from time to time, I've had them urge me on.
Interaction is especially important in a show like the Ono exhibition, the first American retrospective of works by the artist probably best known, at least here, as the wife and widow of John Lennon. Ono's art has always been concerned with engaging the viewer -- or, perhaps more accurately, the participant -- in a dialogue of some sort.
The first of the show's five chronological and thematic sections is "Grapefruit: The Early Instructions," with pieces drawn from a book first published in a limited edition in Japan and then expanded for an American edition in 1970. Much of Grapefruit consists of instructions, some of which can be carried out literally, others that are meant to stimulate intellectual activity, much like Zen koans. Some of those early pieces are included here in the form of instructions written in small, wispy letters on rice paper.
This section also includes the piece that initially brought Lennon and Ono together at a London gallery show in 1966. It's called Ceiling Painting (YES Painting), and it consists of a painted ladder, a magnifying glass attached to a metal chain, and a framed panel that includes a bit of text on paper. As the story goes, Lennon climbed the ladder and used the magnifying glass to read the tiny single word on the paper -- "YES" -- and then asked to meet the artist. Unfortunately, visitors to "YES YOKO ONO" aren't able to re-create Lennon's experience: On the base of the piece are instructions not to climb the ladder, presumably for reasons of liability.
Participation is encouraged elsewhere, however. The first piece inside the museum's entrance is such a work. It's called Wish Tree (1996/2001), and it consists of a live potted tree. Nearby are some of those stubby little pencils and small slips of paper with bits of string attached. The idea is to jot down a wish, then attach the paper to the tree. Many wishes are the ones we might expect: LOVE, PEACE, HEALTH, MONEY. Some were obscure and personal. One smartass wished for A REALLY BIG DICK. And in what is obviously a small child's scrawl, I WISH I CAN FLY. Yes, I filled out and left behind a wish card, and no, I'm not going to tell you what I wished for.
A more daunting interactive piece is Amaze (1971/2000), a room-size maze with Plexiglas walls, a laminated, highly reflective floor, and -- fully visible only from the inside -- a porcelain toilet with a black wooden seat at the room's center. A sign at the entrance warns: "ATTENTION VISITORS: Walking through the maze is deceptive and disorienting. There are several dead ends which necessitate extreme caution. Please walk slowly, with your hands in front of you."
As if to counteract this warning, the two guards near the entrance seemed to relish inviting people to navigate the maze, then motioning to help them find their way out when they got stranded. The maze isn't especially large, but once you're inside it, the reflections take on a house-of-mirrors quality, so that you're never quite sure where you are. The experience can be both disorienting and exhilarating. Like much of Ono's art, it's designed to leave you with at least the hint of a smile.
The artist's most tantalizing interactive piece wasn't activated during my visit: Telephone Piece (1997/2001), which consists simply of a white Slimline phone and the instructions, "When the telephone rings, pick up the receiver and talk to Yoko Ono." Once a day at random during the exhibition, Ono calls the museum from wherever she is at the moment, and the person who answers gets a chance to converse with her.
Perhaps most impressively, the show reveals the scope of Ono's work and her never-flagging desire to challenge our perceptions. A pioneer installation such as Half a Room (1967) is full of ordinary objects that have been halved. Corner Painting (c. 1967-71) is a small blank canvas in a gilded frame that wraps into a corner.
Some of Ono's notorious film work is shown in small, darkened galleries. Film No. 4 (Bottoms) (1966-67) is an 80-minute black-and-white piece that features close-ups of 365 sets of buttocks shot as the subjects walk in place on a special platform. I confess I didn't stay for the entire movie, but what I saw is goofy fun as well as an especially unusual study in form and texture. In the 25-minute color Film No. 13 (Fly) (1970), the camera chronicles several flies as they crawl all over a naked woman's body, accompanied by some of Ono's banshee vocals, which Rolling Stone critic Jonathan Cott once described as evoking "the feeling of being inside one's own body cavities."
Another film, by documentarians Albert and David Maysles, records what the wall panel characterizes as Ono's "most important performance work," Cut Piece, which was first staged in Kyoto in 1964. Here it's seen in a 1965 performance at the Carnegie Recital Hall, where audience members were invited onstage to cut away pieces of Ono's clothing as she sat impassively, until she was nearly nude at the end.
This sweeping exhibition, which includes more than 150 works created over four decades, also features photographic documentation of some of Ono's other performance work, some of it done in connection with the Fluxus movement, some of it in collaboration with Lennon. There's a video of one of the couple's "bed-ins" for peace soon after their marriage, for instance, and at the entrance to the show is one of their big War Is Over! posters from the late 1960s.
There's also a wall of 72 extraordinarily delicate ink-on-Japanese paper drawings executed from 1995 to 1999, from something called the Franklin Summer series. The intricate, largely abstract drawings are built up with countless tiny dots, according to the posted description, "composed while conversing with others, riding airplanes, or talking on the phone." They show a softer, more fragile Ono than many of us may have seen before.
This vast and varied show, in fact, made me so hungry for more information on Ono and her work that I sprang for a copy of the exhaustive 352-page exhibition catalog, which also includes a new CD with about 24 minutes of Ono's music, from her trademark caterwauling to more subdued and accessible material. This recommendation comes from someone who, aside from a high school fascination with Grapefruit, always considered Ono interesting but marginal.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.