Yoko Ono: A slight exhibit but a major impact on conceptual art

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LONDON -- Yoko Ono is a famous person: artist, author, composer, widow of John Lennon and a star.

Her exhibition "To the Light," at the Serpentine Gallery in London, will probably attract far more visitors than you might expect for a mini-retrospective by a 79-year-old pioneer of conceptual art.

Why? Ms. Ono isn't a very important artist, and the Serpentine show is slight. On the other hand, she can't be denied her place in history. The day in 1966 when she met Lennon the link between popular music and the artistic avant-garde was made. She became a rock performer, and he turned into her collaborator in her performances and films. Since then many others, from David Bowie to Lady Gaga, have blended pop and cutting-edge art.

Last week, she held a public conversation with art critic Waldemar Januszczak at the Serpentine Pavilion. As she sat under the canopy designed by Herzog, de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, her charisma and grace were on display.

It was easy to see what made her one of the emblematic personalities of a certain time, let's call it the age of the Beatles. If you love that period, you probably love her, too.

Step inside the exhibition, however, and there's much less on show. Elusive is a good word to describe her art. There are a few celebrated sights, such as the moving images of naked male and female posteriors, some hairy, some smooth, walking on the spot ("Film No. 4 (Bottoms)," 1967), and she and Lennon in bed together ("Bed In," 1969).

Another looks intriguingly familiar. "Apple" (1966) is a green apple sitting on a plastic plinth. Two years later, probably not coincidentally, the Beatles founded Apple Records, with a green Granny Smith as its logo.

Ms. Ono's art is more about words and actions than objects and images. As she told Mr. Januszczak, she has never really made things; she is a conceptual artist. A lot of her work consists of instructions. Take "Footsteps I": "Walk through the museum with a map of the room. Rubber stamp the map with where your feet carried you. Send the map of your footsteps to a friend."

The various versions of "A Box of Smile," (1967), consist of receptacles containing a mirror. "Look in the box and tell yourself, it's not so bad. You're still alive."

If you don't share Ms. Ono's view of things, you'll probably find her art merely whimsical and/or naive. After all, the rational response to, for example, her faded poster that reads "War Is Over (if you want it)" (1969-2012) would be "in practice, international conflict is a bit more complicated than that," wouldn't it?

There's an echo, of course, in "Imagine there's no countries/ It isn't hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for."

Through her influence on Lennon, Ms. Ono has had a much broader impact than any other conceptual artist. That's quite a thought.

"To the Light" is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, through Sept. 9. Information: www.serpentinegallery.org.



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