An orchestra plays Antonín Dvoˇrák’s Serenade for Wind Instruments (1878). Eight young women wrap the musicians’ bodies in white bandages. They keep playing, unfazed. Mirth in the audience. The double bassist is tied to his instrument. Finger holes and keys are wrapped, the music begins to stumble, the first wind instruments fall silent. One after another, the musicians are forced to stop playing. With a fart-like sound, the final wind player ceases. Laughter in the audience. The last to give up is the double bassist. Standing ovations. The musicians are escorted off stage, an ensemble of disabled bodies, like something from a postwar street scene.
Yoko Ono’s performance Sky Piece to Jesus Christ premiered in New York in 1965. This February, in the auditorium of Frankfurt’s Dominican monastery, not far from Schirn Kunsthalle, Ono staged a remake of her famous performance with the Young German Philharmonic. The titlular Jesus Christ actually stands for John Cage (who had the same initials). ‘Sky’, the programme tells us, is ‘the epitome of freedom in contrast to the inner and outer bonds visualized during the performance’. Ono’s retrospective of almost 200 works, entitled ‘Half-a-Wind Show: A Retrospective’, opened at the Schirn the day after the performance and a couple of days before the artist’s eightieth birthday (the exhibition will travel to the Lousiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark; Kunsthalle Krems, Austria; and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain).
The bandage piece generated a few beautiful, melancholy images and left behind a vague sense of mournfulness for bygone times. So 1960s! Once again, this raised the question of whether performance art can be reproduced, especially after half a century. In the mid-1960s, a performance like this, with the seemingly naïve humour it shared with Fluxus actions, could still subvert the sacred, earnest and resolute composure of a serious classical concert. Today, Sky Piece to Jesus Christ pushes at an open door.
What might have happened if Ono had instead chosen to reprise her Cut Piece from 1964 in Frankfurt? In this performance, which premiered in Kyoto, members of the (mainly male) audience cut the clothes from the artist’s body until she was left sitting almost naked. This was four years before she was seen with John Lennon on the album cover for Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968) in a full-length portrait of them both naked. According to a statement from the show’s curator, Ingrid Pfeiffer, in an online video accompanying the Frankfurt show, Cut Piece (a film of which features in the exhibition) remains a ‘symbol of violence, not just against women – it could also apply to men’. So what might have happened if it were reperformed? An 80-year-old Ono has her clothes cut off in a Frankfurt monastery? The very thought is an affront – to the artist, who, as a household name, is still a potential target for a deranged stalker, and whose husband was murdered by such a person in 1980. Still, might this affront not have given Cut Piece a new, topical dimension, the way it did, to some extent, ten years ago in Paris, where Ono restaged it? Touching, for example, on the issue of ageism, a form of prejudice that makes a taboo of the bodies and sexuality of people, especially women, over a certain age – preferring them to keep quiet, out of sight. Cut Piece in Germany, in the winter of 2013? At the time of the exhibition opening, the country is coming to terms with two old men and their sexuality. The German pope announces his retirement, fuelling speculation about ‘homosexual conspiracies in the Vatican’, and Rainer Brüderle, a senior figure in the neo-liberal FDP, triggers a debate about sexism following reports that he sexually harrassed a young journalist. In this context, Cut Piece could have been a more timely statement than Sky Piece, which has lost its bite in a widely accepted culture of permissiveness. Whereas in a country where women still earn an average of four euros less per hour than men, Ono’s feminist works have lost little of their potential for controversy. As reflected by a comment in the show’s visitors’ book: ‘I’ve split up with my husband. And that’s a good thing.’ Ono, divorce and empowerment.
The installation Half a Room (1967) comprises a room in which all of the furniture and objects, most of them white, are cut in half. At the press conference, the artist cheerfully explained how the piece came about: she was living with a man (not that man), and one night he didn’t come home. Half of the bed stayed empty; ‘half a bed’ giggled Ono with her own brand of performative naivety. With pieces like this, the retrospective focused above all on the historical dimension of Ono’s works and pioneering feats. Alongside Half a Room, Ono’s ‘better half’ smiled out from a DVD projection: centre parting, soft white flesh, clean-shaven, a baby-faced Lennon, and it took a while to realize that this was a film and not a photograph (Film No. 5 [Smile], 1968). The longer one looked at the smiling Lennon, the more Ono-like he looked. The master plan behind the Plastic Ono Band project became apparent: the convergence (ruled out by the paradigms of the period) of two individuals of divergent origins, gender, class, history and physicality, as a flesh-and-blood denial of the normative power of fact. Here, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ (1969) reveals itself as the historical template for ‘The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye’: the pandrogynous life and love project of Genesis Breyer P. Orridge (of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV fame) and his partner Lady Jaye Breyer aimed to make their bodies ever more similar, by means including plastic surgery. Like Lennon, Lady Jaye died too young.
The body occupies a central place in Ono’s oeuvre. Rather than a biological constant that cements social hierarchies, it is a work of art, a work in progress, a definable variable, to be unveiled and veiled and unveiled again – in films, photographs and drawings, and on the stage. According to Pfeiffer, the premiere of Cut Piece in 1964 ‘did not generate an awareness of feminist issues, neither among artists nor in the audience’. In many of the performances of the early 1960s, Ono was the only woman among men. ‘How could we be an eternal James Bond or Twiggy (false eyelashes, the never-had-a-baby-or-a-full-meal look) and raise three kids on the side?’ Ono asked in her manifesto ‘The Feminization of Society’ (1971). Replace Twiggy with Cara Delevigne and we’re right up to date.
The two-minute film Freedom (1970), presented in the exhibition opposite Fly from 1968 (a 25-minute exploration of a naked female body from the perspective of a fly), shows Ono – her head outside the frame – trying to rip open the front of her bra, a declaration of solidarity addressed to the emerging women’s movement. Breasts are allowed to sag, as on the cover of Two Virgins.
Ono’s musical output was documented in the exhibition in a separate room, complete with record covers, photographs and videos. Using iPads and headphones, visitors could reassure themselves that, as a musician, Ono is more than just a women in the shadow of important men. Conventional accounts of avant-garde music history depict her as either an admirer or a pupil of Cage. In fact, they worked together on equal terms, as on their joint tour of Japan in 1962, the year after Ono performed her own composition at venues including New York’s Carnegie Hall. ‘Two Minutes of Silence’ is the title of one track on Two Virgins, a sort of updating of Cage’s 4’33” (1952). The silence is dedicated to John Ono Lennon II, the couple’s unborn son. Ono lost the child in November 1968, suffering two further miscarriages before giving birth to Sean Ono Lennon in 1975.
From at least 1961, musically modulated screaming played a key expressive role in Ono’s singing technique (a crucial experience often mentioned by Ono was listening, aged four, to servants imitating the cries of a woman in labour). In 1969, the world was shaken by Lennon’s and Ono’s cries as they imitated – or re-enacted – the sound of a junkie undergoing withdrawal on ‘Cold Turkey’. A year later, Arthur Janov published The Primal Scream (1970), supplying a corresponding theory of the healing, cathartic power of screaming in the treatment of repressed childhood trauma.
The end of Sky Piece brings the silence that Cage ‘set to music’ in 4’33”. ‘Silence is a rhythm too,’ sang The Slits (in the chorus of their song ‘In the Beginning There was Rhythm’, 1980). In 1979, the three members of this all-girl British punk band posed topless, their bodies smeared with mud, for the cover of their debut album, which bore the Ono-esque title Cut. In terms of vocal technique, too, female-dominated punk bands learned from Ono: The Raincoats, Siouxsie & The Banshees, X-Ray Spex and Lydia Lunch all used their voices to annoy, because there were reasons not to sing about things as if they were better than they are. A generation later, Riot Grrrl bands returned to this aesthetic. Things came full circle in the 21st century, when Ono worked on joint projects with musicians including Cat Power, Peaches, Kim Gordon and the members of Le Tigre – the daughters and granddaughters of pop-feminism, as seen and heard in the show’s Music Room.
‘When I make music, people say, “Oh, she’s just an artist”, and when I do art, it’s: ‘‘Well, she’s a musician, you know.”’ This statement of Ono’s sums up the dilemma. Moreover, perceptions of her as a musician are obscured by the outsize figure of her husband. The soundtrack to Freedom, produced by Lennon, includes audible fragments of Ono’s song ‘Yes I’m a Witch’ from 1974, her response to the witch-hunt instigated by Beatles fans. German writer Franz Dobler turns this round: ‘Many people accuse Yoko Ono of breaking up the Beatles. Why are none of the various women associated with the Stones ever accused of not having the balls to break up the Stones?’ So even if Ono contributed to the Beatles splitting up, perhaps nothing better would have happened to them – otherwise they might still be drifting through Martin Scorsese rockumentaries as caricatures of themselves. With Cut Piece and Freedom, Ono contributed to the liberation of the (female) body from its corsets. And she helped the Beatles to explode the corset of the three-minute pop song and to get out of the dead-end of boy-meets-girl subject matter. She politicized Lennon and encouraged him to make songs like ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’ (1972), which she has called the ‘first song of the women’s movement’. In public perception, the song is attributed to Lennon – he sings it, it’s his sound – but the universalist slogan in the title points to Ono’s authorship. In the Music Room, Ono’s overall status as a musical author is highlighted, with all of her many but scattered musical works arranged into a plausible whole.
The artist’s later work has weak moments, for example in elaborate installations like Balance Piece (1997/2010), which involves kitchen appliances made to look as if they were drawn to one side of a room by a giant magnet, a slightly redundant reprise of Half a Room. These redundancies demonstrate Ono’s mastery both of self-plagiarism to establish a brand identity and of the art of self-presentation, including performative naivety. Nonetheless, after this presentation of works from more than five decades, it will no longer be possible to play Ono-just-an-artist against Ono-just-a-musician.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell