Adrian Searle June 25, 2012
Indulgences ... Yoko Ono's latest exhibition. Photo: Getty Images
THWUNK! I walk straight into one of the clear walls of Amaze, an exhibit in Yoko Ono's new show at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
Turning and turning inside this little labyrinth of Perspex and aluminium, backtracking and feeling my way towards the centre, I do it again, the noise reverberating through the gallery. When I do reach the centre, there is a square column, waist-high, grey and half-full of water. I look down at my own dazed reflection.
First made in 1971, Amaze is the centrepiece of this exhibition of early and late Ono work, from her 1960s Fluxus art to more recent and sometimes unwise indulgences. In the first room, upturned soldiers' helmets dangle like hanging baskets from fishing line strung from the ceiling. Each is filled with jigsaw pieces, depicting fragments of the sky. On the floor sit three large conical mounds of earth, labelled Country A, Country B and Country C. Behind them is a worn 1969 War Is Over! (If You Want It) poster, forever associated with the heady days of John and Yoko.
These elements have been brought together as a single installation called Pieces of Sky. Were it not by Ono, we wouldn't linger. War is bad, the message seems to be, so consider the sky or take up gardening. Later in the exhibition, titled Yoko Ono: To the Light and set to a monotonous heartbeat Ono has piped into the gallery as a ''soundtrack'', I come across a live feed of the London sky from a camera on the roof.
Ono's work invites all kinds of readings, especially inappropriate ones. The harder she tries to be meaningful, the easier it is to resist. The bronze shoes, mangled coathanger and keepsake box in A Family Album, all drooling and spattered with painted blood, are obvious and trite, whatever they are meant to suggest (family secrets, murderous desires and abortions come to mind). Other dangerous objects - a long needle erect on a plinth called Forget It, a crystal sphere titled Pointedness - have a mild surreal bite, but it is not sustained.
There's a lot to read here: little framed anecdotes and apercues, instructions and bald statements. ''This is the ceiling,'' says a note on the floor. No, it isn't. Anyway, Italian artist Piero Manzoni (Ono's exact contemporary, both born in 1933) once inverted the world more effectively with his Socle du Monde or The Base of the World, an upside-down plinth that stood on this very floor. Manzoni's Serpentine exhibition was a great monographic exhibition. Ono's isn't.
When she was part of the lively international rag-tag group of composers, conceptualists, dancers and artists who met, and sometimes showed, in her New York loft in the 1960s, Ono was a vital conduit of ideas and inspiration. The story of this period would make for a far more profitable and engaging exhibition.
Ono's art is better seen in the context of dialogue, as part of an artistic community, rather than her own somewhat dubious uniqueness. But this would probably not be alluring enough for the Serpentine's summer show this Olympic year.
Much of the work she is known for - such as 1967's Film No. 4 (Bottoms), which follows the naked buttocks of male and female friends as they walked on the spot in her loft (she made a second version in London) - has the innocent charm of period pieces.
In one 1966 film, the artist blinks. On another screen a match is struck, flares and dies, over several slow-mo minutes. Innumerable artists have continued to work in this vein, often to even lesser effect. But there was a genuine innocence to early Ono, inevitably and irreparably lost to her several kinds of fame.
Would she deserve a Serpentine solo exhibition in 2012 if she were not Yoko Ono? Would her cries for universal peace have any more clout? Thwunk! There goes another one, walking into a wall.
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