Yoko Ono at the Poetry Foundation

Written by Jennifer Chen-su Huang

The exhibition opening of Yoko Ono: Poetry, Painting, Music, Objects, Events, and Wish Trees at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago was a crowded affair. Waiting in the line that snaked around the courtyard, I looked at the trees with their tethered wishes.

Yoko Ono asks visitors to the Foundation to write wishes to hang on the grove of trees in the courtyard. I wish to be rich and famous. I wish to see Grandma again. I wish to always be loved and cuddled by my dog. The wishes span a range of desires, from the outlandish to the simple and mundane. Some were political, concerning the 2020 presidential race, while many were personal. 

The exhibition features a wall of square papers hung in a grid. They are facsimiles of the typescript for what was to become Grapefruit, a compilation of simple instructions through which to experience the world. 

These written directions are simultaneously specific yet open and abstract. Addressed to the composer and fellow friend in the Fluxus movement, La Monte Young, Ono assigns Young an unusual task that suggests that act of living itself. Drawing becomes like breathing — to go on living with intention until you pass. 

LINE PIECE to La Monte Young II

Draw a line with yourself.

Go on drawing until you disappear.

1964 spring

The opening event also held screenings of the artist’s films Eyeblink, Fly, Cut Piece, and Match Piece. Both Eyeblink and Match Piece are close-up examinations of everyday phenomena. They are ordinary occurrences — an eye blinking, a match burning — but they command your complete attention. Similarly, the camera zooms in on the minute movements of a fly in Fly. The film follows a fly, which turns out to be multiple flies, traversing the landscape of a female body. Throughout the video, the audio comes in as a variety of high and low squeaks and wails, sometimes urgent, sometimes wistful, like the imaginary sounds emitted by the traveling creature. Commonplace activity occupies our focus; its close observation is both absurd and intimate.

Perhaps most well-known in Yoko Ono’s oeuvre is Cut Piece. In this particular performance filmed in New York in 1965, the underlying violence of toxic masculinity and Western hegemony is prominent. The audience is asked to participate in this performance by using scissors to cut the artist’s clothing as she sits silently still on the ground. She wears her best outfit and the participants keep the fabric they cut away. The video begins with a handful of participants cutting small scraps. It is quiet until a white man mutters some incomprehensible words under his breath prompting the spectators to laugh. This particular audience member takes the scissors to bend the score of Cut Piece. Rather than “cut a small piece of the performer’s clothing to take with them,” he proceeds to cut through the front of her bra in addition to the straps of her bra. It is a repulsive scene; the violation of the artist by a vulgar man given a pair of scissors. The performance is a simulation of real life, of the atrocities wrought by men with power. One recalls how a century prior, the American government exercised its “Big Stick” policy in order to force Japan to open to the West. Now over 50 years after the first performance of Cut Piece, the participatory art piece is still as relevant as it was then. As a voyeur in Yoko Ono’s performance, one notices the crossover between art and life. 

Like all art ought to, the work still lingers in one’s conscious long after one exits the exhibition. Yoko Ono’s Poetry, Painting, Music, Objects, Events, and Wish Trees is simultaneously whimsical and profound. The work continues to exist off gallery walls when attendees leave, tying their wishes for a better tomorrow onto the tree branches as they go. 

Yoko Ono: Poetry, Painting, Music, Objects, Events, and Wish Trees is on display at the Poetry Foundation until August 22, 2019.

Image Courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

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