(War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono) represents the first Australian survey exhibition by the legendary artist, musician and activist Yoko Ono. Spanning five decades from the early 1960s to the present, it encompasses her language and instruction texts, sculptures and installations, and films and performances.
The exhibition takes its title from a 1969 campaign by Ono and her late husband, John Lennon, who rented public billboards in cities including New York and London over Christmas 1969 to spread their message of peace and hope for humankind. It captures the power of the human mind to transcend the present and wish for a better world in the future, without conflict: the key to the piece being the tiny words in brackets, (if you want it).
Buy your “War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono tickets here
MCA Insight, our free smartphone app, adds rich content to the gallery experience by presenting the artist’s own voice through audio recordings and video.
Hear about Ono’s practice from MCA Chief Curator Rachel Kent along with other highlights from the app below:
Play It By Trust, 1966
Play It By Trust reflects well Ono’s conceptual and material approach. Since its first iteration in 1966, it has been made repeatedly over several decades as one long multi-player table, various two-player tables, and enlarged outdoor works in wood, plastic and marble. The new 2013 iteration realised for the MCA Australia is inspired by Sydney Harbour and the Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, which sits across the water from the museum. It responds aesthetically to the building’s visionary 1960s design of intersecting circles and ovals, and its towering, white tiled sails.
Ono’s customised boards and chess pieces are all white. Once the game commences and the pieces intermingle, it becomes difficult to know who controls which piece and thus, the idea of competition flounders. ‘Ideally’, Ono has said, ‘this leads to a shared understanding of (our) mutual concerns and a new relationship based on empathy rather than opposition. Peace is then attained on a small scale.’
Yoko Ono discusses the importance of participation in her practice
CUT PIECE, 1964
CUT PIECE is considered one of Yoko Ono’s most significant art works today. First performed on 20 July 1964 in Kyoto, Japan, when Ono was in her early 30s, it invited audience members to cut pieces of her clothing away with a pair of scissors, as she sat impassively upon a stage. It has been performed all over the world since, by Ono, as well as other female and male performers.
When Ono performed CUT PIECE in New York, Tokyo and London in the mid 1960s, it became quite financially draining for she had little money at this time. Her instruction required the performer of the piece to wear their very best clothes, so after six or more consecutive performances Ono’s wardrobe was considerably depleted. The emotional toll was the most challenging aspect of CUT PIECE, however. In a short biographical statement of 1966, Ono wrote of her experience: ‘People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone.’
BALANCE PIECE, 1998 and Family Album, 1993 objects
Much of Yoko Ono’s art is affirmative, reflecting the desire to wish for a better, more peaceful world. In some works, however, there is equally an undercurrent of violence – for in keeping with Buddhist principles of universal balance, harmony cannot be expressed without its opposite state.
In Ono’s sculptural installation, BALANCE PIECE (1998), an ordinary kitchen with a table, chairs, pots and pans, is literally suspended in a precarious balance, with a large magnet visible on the other side of the wall. Her sculptural work Family Album objects (1993) extends this theme. It represents individual domestic items like forensic specimens – a hair brush, stilettos, a needle and cotton reel, an opened envelope and letter – in bronze that has been patinated with red, blood-like pigment.
The work is universal as well as personal. Ono does not shy away from confronting pain and loss in her art, using it as a means to understand human nature and the capacity for violence that lies within us all.
Rachel Kent discusses violence, and the Buddhist concept of balance, as they are evoked in Ono's work
SKY TV, 1966 and HELMETS - Pieces of Sky, 2001
Yoko Ono witnessed the physical and economic devastation of Japan as a young girl living through the Second World War. She was 12 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Her mother sent Ono and her siblings to the countryside in Japan’s north for their safety during this period. Ono has written about her wartime experiences, describing the hours that she and her brother spent watching the sky and clouds drift past, inventing menus in their heads to counter their hunger due to food shortages.
Images of the wide blue sky with its drifting clouds have become a recurring theme within Ono’s art works ever since. The desire to look heavenwards and envision a better future for humanity is reflected in various sky pieces within this exhibition. They include SKY TV (1966) – a television within the first gallery space that shows a live feed of the sky above, relayed from a video camera on the roof.
This theme also finds expression in HELMETS - Pieces of Sky (2001), a suite of World War 2 military helmets that hang upside down from the ceiling, each filled with small pieces of blue-sky jigsaw puzzle. Gallery visitors are invited to take a piece of sky away with them in the hope that, one day in the future, they will return with their pieces to build a beautiful new sky together.
Rachel Kent on Yoko Ono's use of a blue sky motif in her practice
MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL, 2004/2013
Yoko Ono has long been interested in the complexity of gender, and the feminine through her art. This interest is poignantly expressed in the participatory artwork MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL (2004/2013), which takes the form of a wall upon which audience members are invited to pin or tape private messages of love, hope, forgiveness and reconciliation to their mothers.
MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL elicits a spectrum of responses from love and thanks, to anger and sadness. Some people return to it more than once, coming back with a photograph, flowers, or a small token of appreciation. It is also deeply personal for Ono, who is a mother and grandmother herself. She reflects on her own maternal relationship, ‘… the reason I created it was because I don’t think I gave enough credit to my mother. Of course, we are all guilty of that I think. Now I know the kind of pain she was going through, as a woman, but she didn’t voice it.’
Yoko Ono was associated with Fluxus, a loose international grouping of artists who sought to integrate art and everyday life, in the 1960s-70s. Over this period she made (and participated in) a number of ‘fluxfilms’ with fellow Fluxus artists, including Eyeblink fluxusfilm No. 15 (1966), One (Match) fluxusfilm No. 14 (1966) and Film No. 4 (Bottoms), (1966-67).
Filmed at high speed, then printed on regular black-and-white film, Eyeblink fluxusfilm No. 15 depicted Ono’s own eye opening and closing in extreme slow motion, disembodied from her wider face. One (Match) fluxusfilm No. 14, made similarly, captured the brief lifespan of a match: igniting, burning brightly, slowly sputtering out. Simple in structure, silent, and without an overt narrative, both films nonetheless had allegorical significance: one, on the idea of looking and the camera/gaze, and the other, on life and its brevity.
Film No. 4 (Bottoms) is perhaps Ono’s best-known film, featuring the bared bottoms of various artist friends and associates, male and female, detached from their bodies rather like the eye in Eyeblink. Presented in this way, one bottom after the next, filling the entirety of the screen, the bottoms become both distinct – inviting comparison – and abstract, curved shapes.
Rachel Kent on Flux films and Ono's relationship to Fluxus
ENDANGERED SPECIES 2319-2322, 1992
Yoko Ono has been active since the 1960s in addressing the legacy of war and the desire for global change. She is also outspoken today in her campaigning for environmental awareness, particularly in relation to fracking (the extraction of oil from coal seams deep within the earth).
Her 1992 work ENDANGERED SPECIES 2319-2322 sounds a cry for help for the human race. Sculpted in bronze, it depicts a mother, father and their two children seated upon a park bench with their pet dog beside them. They seem sad, their shoulders drooping and heads bent low, and each has a small mortuary card attached to their body. They are surrounded by objects in framed boxes like private thought-bubbles; two red and blue butterflies suggest perhaps the dog’s own fantasy of the chase. An engraved tablet leans against one wall, its Morse code text calling out to the skies for help.
MORNING BEAMS, 1996 and Cleaning Piece - Riverbed, 1996
MORNING BEAMS (1996) resembles powerful rays of light emanating downwards from the gallery ceiling to the floor below, to dramatic effect. It has been made using 100 thick cords of white shipping rope, anchored to the floor using sailor’s knots. The rays of light are surrounded by stone mounds, a work called Cleaning Piece - Riverbed (1996) that has its origins in an instruction text. Ono’s original text asked people to recall every moment of sadness in their life, measuring it with a stone. They were then invited to do the same with every moment of joy, observe the piles grow and eventually let go of sadness.
Balance is a universal, guiding principle in Buddhist thought, explored in this work though the spectrum of human emotion. Ono studied philosophy at university in Tokyo in 1952 and her understanding of Eastern philosophy, combined with a detailed knowledge of the French existentialism popular in post-war Japan, finds expression in much of her art today.
Yoko Ono talks about her work MORNING BEAMS
touch me III, 2008
Ono has often addressed the quiet undercurrent of violence done to women and their bodies, through her art. This theme is expanded in her participatory work touch me III (2008), comprising individual parts of a woman’s body, in silicone, in small wooden boxes upon a raised platform. A bowl of water is placed at one end of the work, with an instruction to viewers to wet their fingers and ‘touch’ the body.
Silicone is a soft, spongy material not unlike human skin. The depressions and gouges left by gallery visitors when this work was first shown in New York caused Ono’s gallery to recommend taking it away from view. Ono declined, leaving the damaged body on display as a reminder of the violent treatment that so many women endure in their daily lives.
Rachel Kent talks about Ono's work touch me III and how that work approaches the issue of violence against women
Wish Tree for Sydney, 1996/2013
Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree project powerfully encapsulates her belief in the power of the mind to effect positive change. Inspired by the Shinto temple trees of her childhood, Ono’s first Wish Tree was made in 1996. Subsequent versions have appeared around the world in museums, schools and public spaces, with instructions available from her website, www.imaginepeace.com In each instance, the trees chosen are local to the country or region.
Wish Tree for Sydney (2013) features six lemon scented eucalyptus saplings in custom-designed circular planters on the MCA Sculpture Terrace. At a nearby table with notecards, pens and string, people are invited to write private messages of peace and hope, and tie their wishes to the branches of the trees. As the wishes build up over days and weeks, they begin to resemble a profusion of white blossoms in the spring. Every wish counts, according to Ono, who keeps the wishes after their display but does not read them out of respect for peoples’ privacy.
Tristan works in the zone where digital interaction touches curatorial, art and institutional practices, creating new and innovative content across the MCA’s digital platforms.
He has a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Hons 1) from Sydney College of the Arts, and studied at the Universität der Künste Berlin. Having come to the MCA from Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney, Tristan is also a practicing artist who has exhibited in both Sydney and Berlin.