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All the same

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Multimedia artist and activist Yoko Ono presents new and recreated works in her exhibition Golden Ladders in Beijing. Avenal McKinnon considers the poetic and participatory propositions of the works on show and the octogenarian’s relevance to a new generation.

Golden Ladders

Faurschou Foundation, Beijing


Partly retrospective, in that it includes work from the 1960s along with pieces created specifically for a Chinese audience, Yoko Ono’s exhibition Golden Ladders at the Faurschou Foundation, in Beijing’s 798 Art district, is whimsical, provocative, playful and profound.

Her participatory aesthetic begins on the threshold of the gallery with a reinvention of her 1996 Wish Tree. Here, as in the tradition of approaching a Japanese shrine, the public is invited to write a wish to tie upon a selection of trees. In due course these wishes will be gathered up and sent to Ono’s Imagine Peace light tower in Reykjavik, Iceland.

A hundred and eighteen water-filled glass jars, labelled in Chinese characters with famous and infamous names ­– Mao Zedong, Ernest Hemingway, the Chinese philosopher Laozi, Adolf Hitler, and Ono herself – offer a quasi-scientific challenge as to who and what we are. Titled We Are All Water it confronts issues of gender, and racial, political and religious intolerance in its reductionist simplification of our physical makeup. Yoko Ono herself confessed that she was shocked by the idea that, in the end, the good and the bad are all the same, but believes that once we accept this, we can surrender to a philosophy of tolerance.

Installation view of Yoko Ono Golden Ladders at Faurschou Foundation, Beijing, 2016. Jars (left) 'We Are All Water', 2015. Coffins (right) 'Ex It', 2015.

This levelling of all people by stressing the ephemerality of existence is extended in Ex It, where 70 hastily constructed, rough pine coffins are laid out in the gallery, evoking the aftermath of some catastrophic event. But Ono has balanced the initial horror with an opening in each coffin where real pine, plum or bamboo trees burst forth. Known as The Three Friends in Winter, in China, these trees are symbols of steadfastness, resilience and perseverance, and in them we are given an image of hope in the face of disaster.

An inscription on the wall beneath the title of this work states: 'The gates of hell are only a play of light.' Behind a curtain within a darkened space, Ono has recreated her phantom Parts of a Light House from 1965. This mirage of a room bounded by light depends upon light splintered through a set of prisms. The result is blackness animated with a constellation of swirling rays of light, an effect that is eerie and poetic.

There is a spirit of enchantment to the signature piece: Golden Ladders, where seven ladders – ranging from standard cleaners’ ladders to fanciful chair-cum-ladder forms and even a rough Chinese farmer’s bamboo ladder – have been covered with gold leaf, Midas-fashion. Ono invites viewers to interact by adding their own ladders to the installation and suggests the additions should be seen as pathways to the future.

Installation view of Yoko Ono Golden Ladders at Faurschou Foundation, Beijing, 2016. Yoko Ono with 'Golden Ladders'.

Immense in scale, the ladders emphasise her power to make magic out of the ordinary and one is reminded that, as a child, she 'would play sitting in the deep gaps between tall and fat chairs'. In 1971 she declared, 'I see life as the playground of our minds.'

Another literally uplifting piece that invites action to create a shared mental and physical experience is To See the Sky. This relatively new conceptual piece made its debut in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2015. Comprising a spiral staircase, it is playfully inviting, but as one approaches the top, the whole structure becomes unsteady, trembling and swaying, conveying the message that the journey to light is fraught with danger.

Yoko Ono’s work has always involved social activism, an ambition to communicate with the world at large, and campaigning for world peace.

Text is a fundamental aspect of her artistic practice. As early as the 1960s she had devised a way to hugely expand her audience by including advertising as an artistic medium. Here, a jar of her word pieces, reduced to wearable buttons, stands upon a counter, available for purchase, and every 20 days different word-concept pieces – IMAGINE, FEEL, YES – appear on billboards and posters throughout Beijing.

After decades of pursuing the art that matters to her, this challenging octogenarian, famous as the widow of ex-Beatle John Lennon, undaunted by a sometimes unreceptive press, is receiving new-found international recognition. In addition to a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the summer of 2015, she has a current exhibition in Tokyo, and will be the subject of Lumière, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon, later this year.

Here in Beijing Yoko Ono has proved that her life-affirming oeuvre is both accessible and relevant to a new generation and a new audience.

First published ArtZone #62


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