Visual Arts Christopher Allen on Yoko Ono and celebrity art
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)