Vis­ual Arts Christo­pher Allen on Yoko Ono and celebrity art

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

War is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Syd­ney, un­til Fe­bru­ary 23 Jef­frey Smart 1921-2013: Re­con­dita Ar­mo­nia — Strange Har­mony of Con­trasts

Univer­sity of Syd­ney Art Gallery, un­til March 7

WHAT’S wrong with the ti­tle of the Yoko Ono spec­tac­u­lar at the MCA? War is Over — with joy­ous ex­cla­ma­tion mark — fol­lowed by the qual­i­fi­ca­tion: if you want it. The words are bor­rowed from a peace cam­paign she and John Len­non spear­headed in 1969, the sen­ti­ment is unim­peach­able and the as­ser­tion im­plicit in the ex­hor­ta­tion un­doubt­edly con­tains some grain of truth; and yet some­how it’s rather an­noy­ing, isn’t it?

The trou­ble is the smug­ness in the sec­ond part of the ti­tle. Ono knows the truth and is happy to preach it to us: if only each of us could be as truly good as she is, and gen­uinely wish for peace, con­flict would end. We could all wear big sun­glasses and smile and flash torches — to ador­ing crowds — and tell ev­ery­one we love them.

The re­al­ity is, alas, more com­pli­cated, start­ing with the fact that it takes two par­ties to make a war, and that the un­will­ing­ness of one to de­fend him­self has sel­dom, as far as we can see in the his­tor­i­cal record, led the other to cease his ag­gres­sion. And while there are com­pletely in­sane wars, es­pe­cially those of re­li­gion (think of the Catholics and Protes­tants in the Ref­or­ma­tion, or the Sun­nis and Shi’ites to­day), there are also many that are fought over ri­val claims to vi­tal re­sources.

And we might con­sider how peace has been main­tained in cer­tain happy pe­ri­ods. In the Bronze Age, when weapons were scarce and easy for the cen­tral gov­ern­ment to con­trol, there were long pe­ri­ods of sta­bil­ity from the Mid­dle East to China. The Iron Age — when more lethal weapons were in­vented and pro­lif­er­ated — led to en­demic vi­o­lence and the break­down of large peace­ful em­pires into smaller states that were chron­i­cally at war.

Peace was only en­forced in th­ese times by mil­i­tary power suf­fi­cient to de­ter ag­gres­sion. The Ro­man Em­pire en­sured cen­turies of pros­per­ity through­out Europe and the Mediter­ranean by sup­press­ing re­volts, ex­tir­pat­ing piracy and con­tain­ing the depre­da­tions of bar­bar­ians. None of that could have been achieved sim­ply by be­ing nice and, as Ed­ward Gib­bon pointed out, the rise of Chris­tian­ity, with its com­bi­na­tion of paci­fism and anx­i­ety about per­sonal sal­va­tion in another world, was among the causes of the fall of the em­pire.

Later, once Chris­tian­ity was adopted as the ide­ol­ogy of a re­born state sys­tem, it could be­come part of the mo­ti­va­tion for re­sis­tance to sub­se­quent in­va­sions of Europe. It was, for ex­am­ple, the strength of Chris­tian faith that helped the Knights of St John re­pel the Turk­ish on­slaught on the is­land of Malta in 1565.

Through­out lit­er­a­ture, from Homer on­wards, the horror and bru­tal­ity of war are de­plored but the virtues of the war­rior, as one will­ing to sac­ri­fice him­self in the de­fence of his com­mu­nity, are cel­e­brated. Her­a­cli­tus even raises war — as Ni­et­zsche saw — to the level of a cos­mic prin­ci­ple: na­ture is a strug­gle be­tween op­pos­ing prin­ci­ples and through that strug­gle jus­tice and equi­lib­rium are achieved.

Ori­en­tal tra­di­tions too, of­ten cited to­day as peaceable al­ter­na­tives to the war­like spirit of the West, pon­der the virtues of con­flict and the qual­i­ties of the war­rior. Zen Bud­dhism, with its em­pha­sis on pres­ence and what is of­ten called mind­ful­ness, was adopted as the phi­los­o­phy of the Samurai; it in­spired the Ja­panese tea cer­e­mony, but also the art of archery and, even more im­por­tantly, that of swords­man­ship, in which your ab­so­lute pres­ence of mind and har­mony of spirit and body are used to bring death to your op­po­nent.

Much ear­lier, in the Bha­gavad Gita, there is a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­change be­tween Ar­juna, a war­rior prince of the Homeric type, and his char­i­o­teer, who is re­ally Kr­ishna, as they pre­pare to join bat­tle with their op­po­nents. Ar­juna is re­luc­tant to kill friends and rel­a­tives on the other side; Kr­ishna in­structs him in the sep­a­ra­tion of de­sire and ac­tion, and fi­nally — chill­ingly — re­veals his divin­ity and tells Ar­juna that he is the in­car­na­tion of time and has killed them al­ready: Ar­juna has only to act out his part.

It may have been partly in a spirit of para­dox that Christ said ‘‘ I bring not peace but a sword’’ (Matthew 10:34), but even he reminds us that sim­plis­ti­cally irenic po­si­tions are essen­tially kitsch, de­nials of the com­plex­ity and dif­fi­culty and even suf­fer­ing that are in­her­ent to hu­man life. And Wil­liam Blake’s line ‘‘ nor shall my sword sleep in my hand’’ is the motto of any­one de­voted to the pur­suit of truth in a world of man­u­fac­tured il­lu­sions.

So what is there to say about the ex­hi­bi­tion it­self? By far the most mem­o­rable part of it is some­thing Ono did al­most 50 years ago, in 1966, when she pro­duced an all-white chess set. The po­lar­ity em­bod­ied in the black and white pieces was elim­i­nated, as was the struc­ture of the black and white squares over which they are moved by the play­ers.

In prin­ci­ple, this ne­ga­tion of the dual­is­tic distinctions within the el­e­ments of the game should have neu­tralised or frus­trated the an­tag­o­nis­tic struc­ture of the game, of­ten taken as an anal­ogy for war and in­vented by Mars him­self ac­cord­ing to Wil­liam Jones’s poem Caissa (1763).

In re­al­ity, though, watch­ing cou­ples play­ing with the all-white sets in the ex­hi­bi­tion, one can see that what is hap­pen­ing is more like a brain-train­ing game, or like those con­tests

JOHN LEN­NON’S MUR­DER MADE HER NOT ONLY A CELEBRITY WIDOW BUT A KIND OF MAR­TYR BY PROXY

where a grand­mas­ter plays with­out see­ing the board, hold­ing all the po­si­tions and suc­ces­sive moves in his head. Hu­mans are not so eas­ily deterred from con­test and con­flict; once the com­pet­i­tive in­stinct is en­gaged, they dis­cover a sur­pris­ing ca­pac­ity for at­ten­tion and mem­ory.

Other dis­plays are vari­able in their aes­thetic in­ter­est. A room full of doors with plas­tic pud­dles that seem to re­flect the sky has a cer­tain flavour of Magritte but re­mains a bit too ob­vi­ous. Another large in­stal­la­tion is made of taut strings that are meant to sug­gest the rays of the sun and piles of river rocks that are sup­posed to stand for some­thing like the bal­ance of karma, but the idea is too re­con­dite and the ma­te­rial re­al­i­sa­tion lack­ing in aes­thetic re­fine­ment — think, in con­trast, of a Zen gar­den of raked gravel, which can be deeply en­gag­ing and sug­ges­tive.

More in­ter­est­ing is a row of bot­tles of wa­ter on a long shelf in the same room as the doors. Each bot­tle is la­belled with the name of some dead man or woman of in­ter­est in his­tory or pol­i­tics — good or bad. The idea, though again it is not fully in­tel­li­gi­ble with­out read­ing the la­bel, is that we are like the wa­ter and even­tu­ally will evap­o­rate into a com­mon at­mos­phere while the empty bot­tles will be left be­hind.

Ono is enor­mously fa­mous — leg­endary is the word used lib­er­ally by pub­li­cists — and it is her pe­cu­liar fate that her fame should be so much greater than her in­trin­sic sig­nif­i­cance as an artist. She has ended up in ex­actly the op­po­site sit­u­a­tion to that which De­gas hoped for: to be il­lus­tri­ous and un­known. Her fame ob­vi­ously is based pri­mar­ily on be­ing Len­non’s widow, and his mur­der made her not only a celebrity widow but a kind of mar­tyr by proxy.

Much of the ex­hi­bi­tion is au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal — there is a huge room full of me­mora­bilia — and ref­er­ences to Len­non and their life to­gether are per­va­sive in other works as well. Thus there is an in­stal­la­tion of lit­tle cricket cages ac­com­pa­nied by a record­ing of their song, and la­bels on the wall re­call­ing the dates on which the imag­i­nary crick­ets were sup­posed to have been cap­tured. Among those recog­nis­able as cor­re­spond­ing to var­i­ous atroc­i­ties in the his­tory of the 20th cen­tury is De­cem­ber 8, 1980, the day Len­non was shot.

It is by virtue of her per­sona as saint and mar­tyr as well as en­ter­tainer and im­pre­sario that Ono sets up var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties that in­vite the au­di­ence to show care, love and kind­ness, like a ta­ble with bits of bro­ken china that the au­di­ence is sup­posed to mend with a com­bi­na­tion of glue and string. Another is a wall on which au­di­ence mem­bers are asked to pin up notes to their moth­ers. Up­stairs on the rooftop there is a set of wish­ing trees, where peo­ple can make good wishes for the fu­ture of the world and at­tach them to a tree (a kind of cer­e­mony that ex­ists in var­i­ous forms in many cul­tures, of­ten go­ing back to tribal times).

Yet another in­stal­la­tion with au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion in­volves a rather hand­some an­tique set of Louis Vuit­ton trav­el­ling cases, in­clud­ing one of those trunks that the well-todo used to take on their trav­els, with space to hang suits and draw­ers for shirts and un­der­clothes, a minia­ture por­ta­ble wardrobe. Here visi­tors are asked to write a note about some­where they would like to go.

Most of the notes were ba­nal enough, but one was quite re­mark­able: ‘‘ I wish to go to God one day and die peace­fully’’, and it is signed Lily, age nine. WC Fields rightly warned against shar­ing the stage with chil­dren or an­i­mals. This heartrend­ing lit­tle let­ter — which leaves you won­der­ing what com­bi­na­tion of per­sonal tragedies, of suf­fer­ings ex­pe­ri­enced or wit­nessed could make a small child think like this — eclipses in its emo­tional im­pact ev­ery­thing else in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

Not en­tirely sur­pris­ingly, there is much more to look at and think about at the lit­tle Univer­sity of Syd­ney ex­hi­bi­tion of Jef­frey Smart’s work care­fully se­lected by David Malouf and thought­fully dis­cussed by him in the cat­a­logue. In­deed I men­tion this show briefly here only be­cause I have writ­ten about Smart’s work at length rel­a­tively re­cently on the oc­ca­sion of his Ade­laide ret­ro­spec­tive, and again when he died last June.

One of the virtues of Malouf’s ex­hi­bi­tion is to re­veal a num­ber of pic­tures that are held in pri­vate col­lec­tions or smaller pub­lic gal­leries and there­fore rarely seen, as well as oth­ers from the Univer­sity of Syd­ney’s own ex­cep­tion­ally rich group of paint­ings from the Ren­shaw be­quest. Early works in­clude the ad­mirable Cape Dombey and Va­cant Al­lot­ment, Wool­loomooloo, both of 1947, while the last pic­ture is also the fi­nal work Smart painted, Labyrinth (2011).

This pic­ture is at first sight as enig­matic as such a sub­ject should be, and yet at the same time it rep­re­sents the log­i­cal con­clu­sion to the iconog­ra­phy of roads and in par­tic­u­lar the Ital­ian au­tostrade that had be­come the dom­i­nant metaphor of an oeu­vre evok­ing the con­stant mo­tion and cir­cu­la­tion of so­cial ex­is­tence with­out any clear desti­na­tion or end­ing. Here the rest­less mo­tion turns in­wards to sta­sis — evok­ing, for those aware of Smart’s literary in­ter­ests, TS Eliot’s Four Quar­tets and his favourite theme of re­turn­ing, in the end, to the be­gin­ning and know­ing it for the first time.

Coogee Baths Win­ter (1961) by Jef­frey Smart, above; clock­wise from far left, Yoko Ono’s Map Piece (2003/13) on wall and

Mend Piece (1966/2013) on

ta­ble; Play it By Trust (1966/2013); We’re All Wa­ter (2006); Morn­ing Beams (1996)

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