Monday, November 24, 2008

Yoko Ono in Shanghai: Oh No! Yoko's "Fly" Hit or Miss?

I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from the opening of Yoko Ono's retrospective entitled "Fly", as I am only vaguely familiar with her in the context of her marriage to John Lennon. When I arrived at the Ke Center for Contemporary Art, I was not exactly surprised to find a video projection of some of Ono's public appearances. In them, she often spoke of things like universal love, a love that transcends the romantic or the familiar in favor of universal love for humankind. Her rhetoric on the subject I suspect has changed little since her days in the spotlight as Lennon's pacifist wife (and subsequent widow), whose connection to her is clearly inextricable. Ono's exhibition opening, despite obvious efforts on the part of the Ke Center to do otherwise, attracted hundreds of fans and caused something that could only be described as completely chaotic. The whole event, whose organization once again revealed the novice of Chinese institutions in dealing with such situations, was ironically contradictory to Ono's own philosophy and her emphasis on peace and love. Hundreds of people pushed, prodded and shoved their way to the doors of the center, which was only exacerbated by the impending downpour. Many people left in frustration. The combination of the sardine like state imposed on guests as well as the complete lack of communication between crowd and gallery staff was worthy cause for premature departure. I couldn't find one (non-security) staff member to talk to while I waited outside in the rain for an alarmingly indefinite amount of time.

Once inside, however, I am sad to say that the exhibition was not worth the struggle. The space was deceivingly large considering the amount of work that comprised the "retrospective". As far as I could tell, the work consisted of about 5 actual pieces, including the following. Most "shocking" (i.e. provocative and popular with snap-happy Chinese and tourists) were two pairs of large photographs, one a close-up of a woman's nipple, the other of a vagina. On all four photographs the words "My Mommy Is Beautiful" are inscribed.

The next snippets of work mainly consisted of Ono's scrawlings, often on the white walls of the center. To the right of the photographs was a framed poem in appreciation of motherhood. The poem lauds mothers from the perspective of the universal "child" (i.e. everyone on the earth has a mother). Not far from the poem was a large cocoon, once again evoking themes of maternity and childhood. Here the idea of "flying" was blatantly introduced; Ono compares people to butterflies and presumably, cocoons to our mothers. This symbolism was a bit heavy-handed for my taste, or maybe I simply wasn't too interested in the ideas she was expressing. I am also not so sure how deeply it resonated with the local audience, who seemed fascinated by the presence of a giant empty cocoon, but less than contemplative about its message.

There was also a room of unremarkable scrawlings and sketches, most notably a sketch of a 2000 foot long circle (which was about the size of a dumpling). I get what she was trying to do, but I wasn't awfully impressed with it. Her minimalist approach lent the works an air of laziness and incompletion, and ultimately detracted from her message. I will be interested to see how the exhibtion will be recieved.

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