POLLY DEVLIN’S REMEMBRANCE OF PEOPLE AND TIMES PAST IS TRIGGERED BY HER COLLECTION OF TREASURED ANTIQUES AND THE BACKSTORIES OF THEIR ACQUISITION …
For new readers and seasoned ones … This is the seventh episode in the loose concoction called The Remembering Rope – a series of memories describing the fruits of my travels and my addiction to collecting – an addiction which skewed my life as all addictions do. As I move through my house past the pictures and objects I also see my past life in geographical detail and in memorable panorama. I try not to be like a priestess guarding a shrine but there’s an element of that in it. So I also try to cull – and it’s difficult. I still slightly mourn the ones that get away.
A cold coming WE had of it. 1971. Two hundred miles north of New York. Syracuse. I remember it as being in January because there was snow everywhere, but it was in October, and a blizzard had come blasting in. (FYI Syracuse city receives the most annual average snow of any metropolitan area in the United States. Bet you didn’t know that?) So suddenly WE were all bedded down in a small hotel in Syracuse which didn’t know what had hit it. What had hit it was an art exhibition many voluble critics thought was something other and less than art. The artist in question? Yoko Ono.
She ignored criticism and her work thrived on a multitude of stylistic possibilities. There was nothing ambiguous or shifting about her. She was steadfast in her belief in her genius. Fair play to her.
So the WE here, in this unready hotel, are Yoko Ono, of course, and John Lennon, who never left her side, and a raggle-taggle band of journalists, liggers and hangers-on. Oh, and me. WE had all rushed up from New York for her first semi-retrospective exhibition. (1971! semi-retrospective! and she’s still going strong.) The show was called “This is Not Here”, revisiting and recreating more or less concrete work conceived by her from the beginning of her days in New York as an avant-garde artist. She was a sort of member of Fluxus, that interdisciplinary community of artists, composers and poets who were dedicated to the intangible rather than the specific in the true bohemia that was the vivid, vigorous and almost anarchic artistic life of Greenwich Village in the 1950s. They invented and performed the impromptu art Happenings of the 1950s and 1960s. If you don’t know I can’t explain here, but for example in “Cut Piece”, Yoko, on stage, had her dress cut off piece by piece with sharp scissors by random members of the audience – inviting trouble you might say, as she did. Or it arrived, whether she invited it or not.
WE were joined on opening day by over 6,000 Beatles fans who hoped the event might actually be a secret concert. Blissful ignorance all round. Ringo was in there somewhere, lurking as usual.
I was with them because I was in New York for over a week doing a long interview with John. We were staying in the St Regis hotel, and as I remember they had taken a whole floor there. One morning I walked down the corridor looking for them and found myself in a room devoted solely to accessories. Belts. Many many belts. Handbags. Many many handbags. Hats? Hats. Many. Oh and, and bracelets and – I’ll stop there but it was obvious someone didn’t know how to stop shopping. Someone after my own heart. (Now her vast wardrobe is kept in dedicated rooms in her multiple apartments in the Dakota Building on Central Park West where the annual service charges of one apartment would buy a small house.)
So when John and Yoko, probably the most fabulously famous and derided couple in the world, set off for her first ever exhibition, in the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse naturally enough, I followed. I already sort of knew about the museum, built only a couple of years before, and designed by IM Pei (most famous now, I think, for the Louvre Glass Pyramid). It was/is a brutalist masterpiece which made other museums look archaic and elitist, which of course they were/are. Now an architectural landmark, then the building was a matter of controversy.
I was full of anxious anticipation. It was no barrel of laughs being with those two I can tell you … egos the size of the museum. No-one seemed to have much idea about the show and its contents and fake spontaneity seemed the key. But far from it. When it was finally up and running, it was organised and captivating. It bridged minimalism and conceptualism and she wasn’t a stranger to drollery. Yoko liked to play with conceits, ideas and concepts and of course, words. (Her book Grapefruit in 1964 was eye and brain-opening and surely inspired John Lennon’s witty books In His Own Write and Spaniard in the Works.) Anyway.
She ignored criticism and her work thrived on a multitude of stylistic possibilities. There was nothing ambiguous or shifting about her.
In “This is Not Here”, things that were there ranged from a real apple on a pedestal – labelled Apple and almost immediately eaten – to container pieces commissioned by Yoko from other artists which she then filled with water. (The things, not the artists.)
I have the catalogue and it still makes me newly aware of differences within the ostensible meaning and connections of things and imagination and metaphor and her cleverness.
Different concepts were explored in different rooms. A crystal maze, called Amaze (geddit?) was almost invisible which caused stumbling confusion and had a Duchamp-style toilet seat in the elusive centre. The Weight Event room explored sensory surprises – a dumbbell weighing as much as a balloon, a balloon more than a dumbbell. In the Dialogue Room inanimate objects supposedly communicated … Four Spoons by John Lennon engaged with Three Spoons by Yoko. Daft of course but – this will sound patronising and its not meant to be – often touching. Stuff like that. Fading apparitions for me now.
Yoko Ono’s art has always been called into question. Was it art at all but rather, eclectic gimmickry? Did her work deepen our experience of life? But few artists do. She never pretended to be Goya. Paradoxically, by using, editing and transforming banality to open our eyes, by giving witty instructions on how to live, by nudging our thought processes and perceptions, the show worked. At that Everson Museum show I began to perceive that her individuality, her art, her life, are all one performance, including being a peace activist, a film-maker, a maker of cross-over and new wave music, composing her flamboyant autobiography, whatever … with her wild mental energy she has been there, done that. Yet while white male artists like Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner working in the same vein as Yoko were respected and acclaimed and their work labelled seminal, what she did was dissed and pushed to the art margins.
But then again, all know how women artists have been treated. Like other women.
So back to Syracuse. The next morning the Dadesque motley of followers woke to snow piled up to the windows in the hotel. We were well trapped. The atmosphere became pretty heady. And, as in our own quarantines, some people – let’s be honest, many people – took to drink. Only one other thing to do. So a lot of both. The only slight snag was that the drinkers made free with John and Yoko’s tab. Yoko could have turned it into a Happening called Freeloaders. But she didn’t. When the snow melted and we all headed out for the real world, John and Yoko Happened upon the bill. Whoops! The frost outside was nothing to the frost inside. And was there moaning at the bar when John set out to see? My dears, the reckoning was fearful. Judgement Day will have nothing on it. Goody Two-Shoes here had paid her own bill. After all, I was still supposed still to be interviewing them, and not to mix metaphors, I knew which side my bread was buttered on …
So mild bemusement here? Why am I telling you all this when I am meant to be writing about my collecting habits and the results thereof ? Well, one of my most cherished objects is an old wooden cigar box engraved in gold letters A BOX OF SMILE by Yoko Ono. When I left, John gave it to me. It is perfectly lined with mirror and when you open it and see your expectant face within you do indeed smile. A good way to start this year. Make your own Box Of Smile.
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