Due to her indelible association with John Lennon, Yoko Ono’s impact on culture goes far beyond her work as an artist. This has been a curse and a blessing for her.
It has taken time for institutions to acknowledge her work, which was pioneering, both as an artist and an activist - but deserved recognition is coming, including a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2009 and this retrospective exhibition at the Serpentine.
To The Light, however, is mixed in quality – ranging from the wonderful to the awful. There are interactive works that attempt to capture images of everyone in the world smiling, and trees on which you can hang your handwritten wishes outside the entrance to the gallery. It’s cloying work – and while obviously well-meaning – clichéd and ineffective.
On the other hand Ono’s instructional text works, published in Grapefruit (1964), are interesting experiments into formal execution. Painting to Be Stepped On (1964) reads ‘leave a piece of canvas or finished painting on the floor or in the street’. This is accompanied by a dirty, scuffed piece of canvas on the floor, which nonetheless manages to absorb some beauty alongside the grime of the floor and grubby shoes.
Much of it is so very “meaningful” – a tiny text painting at the top of a ladder that reads ‘Yes’, or Cut Piece (1964), a performance work of which we see two documentations from 1962 and 2003, in which audience members cut off the artist’s clothes, while she sits, looking victimised.
The labyrinth titled Amaze (1971/2012) demonstrates both the good and bad elements of Ono’s work. Made chiefly from Perspex, it is a maze that looks as thought it should be easy to navigate, because the walls are see-through. But its very clarity renders it confusing and it’s easy to get lost. At the very centre is a container filled with water, which reflects the ceiling of the Serpentine Gallery, but it’s this ‘profound’ moment that is the most disappointing. Getting lost, amused and confused was the good part.
The really strong works here are those that don’t have this knowing profundity – Film No.4 (Bottoms) (1967) is a film of different buttocks, their creases creating a cross on the screen. The butt cheeks of the various subjects seem to nudge and kiss one another in a sweet, jolly fashion as they move their legs up and down. Fly (1970) in which fruit flies explore a woman’s naked body, is equally compelling, giving us the perspective of a tiny, light creature on the alien landscape of the body. Both of those works give us an alternative vision of the world, rather than easy answers.
To 9 September (www.serpentinegallery.org)