Arts: Exhibitions: Ono, Yoko's got a new show

Yoko Ono was born in Japan in 1933. That explains her pacifism. She has never really worked. This may be why her art's so weak be why her art's so weak be why her art's so weak
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The Independent Culture
Chrissie Iles, a former Head of Exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, now works for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, but has made a quick return to Moma to curate a show called "Have you seen the horizon lately?" This is a partial retrospective of the art of Yoko Ono. Some work is recent and some belongs to the 1960s. On the whole Ono's earlier interventions in the art world are more interesting. At that time she seemed radical, and of course we know that she had a great effect on John Lennon during the last days of the Beatles.

However, Iles has little to say about Lennon in her account of Ono's career. She describes her simply as an artist who comes from Japan, had a period in London and has lived in America for many years. I have a feeling that Ono may soon be claimed for the Whitney. None the less, the art she made in London is sharper and better. And is it not perverse to minimise her association with the Beatles? After all, this exhibition - with all its costs, publicity, security, the catalogue, the lectures to Oxford students, the film programme and so on - would never have come about if Ono were not famous. And she is certainly not famous for her art.

What we find is a slender but pleasant talent, too often whimsical in its expression, and a personality that is both retiring and attention- seeking. There are also Japanese characteristics. Ono likes delicacy and brevity, nearly always uses white in preference to a declarative colour, and sometimes makes her drawings out of Japanese script. We should also think of the global view of Japanese people of Ono's generation. She was born of a wealthy family in Tokyo in 1933. The catalogue doesn't mention this fact - Iles is rather good at reproducing Ono's aura of nowhereness - but surely it's important. The future inspiration of "Give Peace a Chance" grew up as the Americans bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and (in 1954) polluted Japanese seas with the Bikini H-bomb test. Yet the sudden new affluence of post-war Japan tempered anti-Americanism in Yoko Ono's milieu. Riches called to riches, all over the world.

From beginning to end, Ono's art is that of a genuine pacifist with a lot of crazy new money to spare. It's also relevant that Japan had no indigenous tradition of modern art in the Western sense. Ono could not have become an artist had she not left Japan. So she jumped straight into the avant-garde, without previous experience of art, when she was a student at the exclusive Sarah Lawrence College in New York, more a finishing school than a place of higher education. Iles is vague about these circumstances, perhaps following forgetfulness in Ono herself. For instance, Ono dates her Lighting Piece to 1955. It's an instruction: "Light a match and watch till it goes out." This was a performance in 1962, which seems to me its more likely date. It has been recorded in a photograph. Yoko Ono has done a number of peculiar things in her time, but she has never been an innovator.

At Oxford, the earliest works are dated "1961/6", presumably meaning that they were reconstructed when Ono had an exhibition in the latter year, by which date she was in London. They are slight neo-Dada gestures, mainly on paper, often accompanied by commands: "Look through a phone book", "Cut out a circle on canvas A", "Hammer a nail in the centre of a piece of glass" and similar instructions. Then there are a number of small, enigmatic objects, like A Box of Smile, which is a box engraved with its title. They don't add up to much, but do have one non-artistic quality which must have been even more potent 30 years ago. They make one feel curious about the person who made them. The derivation from Duchamp et al is obvious, and often she is a weak follower of John Cage. Yet one still wishes to know about Ono, especially because she is not cynical, as Duchamp was. Lacking true interest in art, incapable of self-criticism, she utterly believes in what she is doing. So she was, and to some extent remains, a mystery.

Ono's inexplicable presence was at its height in 1966. She had a solo London exhibition, took part in the ludicrous but popular Destruction in Art Symposium - people burning books and canvases - began her (rather charming) film Bottoms, which is simply a film of people's naked bottoms, and met John Lennon. Iles correctly associates Ono with the Fluxus movement, an international vanguard- ist tendency, but she overrates the importance of DIAS. Much of the activity in those days was the work of a bunch of stoned idiots. When discussing Ono (or listening to the artist herself) it's hard not to be irritated by the mixture of silliness with thought that aims to be on a high plane. It's as though Ono had no intellectual level, just as her art has no aesthetic level.

"Drill a hole in the sky. Cut out a paper the same size as the hole," Ono commands. Or she asks visitors to play chess with all-white pieces. References to Zen don't make this art any better. I would rather think about Sixties pop music. Ian MacDonald's excellent and scholarly Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the 1960s (Pimlico, pounds 8.99) tells us that John Lennon met Ono just before the recording of "Strawberry Fields". She was first in the studio when the Beatles recorded "Revolution". Lennon's "Julia" is a message to the Beatle's dead mother that her son (born 1940) has someone to replace her. The line in the song " Get Back", ie, "to where you once belonged" was sung by McCartney while glaring at Ono.

Where did she, or does she, belong? In Oxford we encounter a lonely, as well as a stateless, exhibition. Walking through its white galleries, one wishes to return to the more vivid and Liverpool-rooted character of Lennon. He wasn't a very good (visual) artist either, but he did understand about work. God knows how many hours he spent in recording studios. Ono seems not to have worked hard at anything she has made.

I once organised an exhibition that included John and Yoko and am glad to say here that, in all the madness of their fame, they were both very nice. John was good with the carpenters. Yoko's conversation was somewhat opaque. None the less, she was trying to communicate. Those were the days, I'm tempted to say. Wrong: these are the days. We are grown-up now, and more sensible. I wish Yoko Ono were not in a time-warp. Why doesn't she once again work for world peace?

! Oxford Museum of Modern Art (01865 722733), to 15 Mar 1998.

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