Yoko Ono: The learning garden of freedom

There’s a before and an after at a Yoko Ono show. The artist’s creation transforms not only the installation venues, but also the viewer. Her words and images, her discourses and plastic actions create an aura whose intangibility does not prevent it from expanding and transferring endlessly. A learning garden is presented with various fields: art, philosophy, politics and morale. It is Ono’s garden, with open doors, at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art.

From May 30 to November 15, this exhibition is Yoko Ono’s first retrospective in Portugal. It is curated by the museum director Philippe Vergne, and by Jon Hendricks, the usual commissioner of the artist’s exhibitions. The project was conceived for the museum’s left aisle, now occupied by a strong and diverse set of works. The exhibition covers the beginning of Ono’s artistic career in the 1950s and goes all the way to the present. It includes several new and unpublished creations, countless paintings and objects from the 60s, several videos made with John Lennon, and the projection of past performances of her career, now reactivated.

The exhibition is an opportunity to get to know the artist’s work. Although it is crossed by a perceptible and unique creative line, it is also particularly hybrid. Her work is not limited to means and expressions. It is deeply heterogeneous, open and experimental. It is characterized by a minimalist aesthetic, which contrasts with a dense content, united by the sublime execution that guides each work, in remarkable harmony. Ono shows rare ease in the most different practices and expressions, besides a high conceptual depth. She affirms herself as one of the most complete artists of contemporaneity.

To fully understand and experience Yoko Ono’s work, we need to know her as an artist and a woman. Although her history is inevitably attached to the icon of the Beatles, and all that such implies, we must also see the artist and what she represents. Ono is a creator, poet, composer and activist. Her struggle in defence of women and uninterrupted peace is tireless and audible. Cultural and sociopolitical issues are her main motivations, which originate her manifestos and, intuitively, many of her artistic creations.

She is one of the most relevant artists of her time. Throughout her 87 years of life, as the curator Alexandra Munroe[1], says, she was “a forerunner of new artistic forms, which unite and expand the different media”, having an “insider/outsider status in contemporary artistic movements, such as conceptualism”. Not being aligned as a specific artistic trend, Ono was one of the pioneers to overthrow the importance of objectivity in favour of the centralisation of concept, a trait of conceptual art. She is also part of the linguistic turn of the 60s, fruit of her actions in the field of communication and art. The interdependent relationship between discourse and action is transversal in her work. Many works convey ideas that deserve to be considered by the viewer, something that Yoko Ono started in 1962 with the piece Instructions for Paintings, in Tokyo, recreated multiple times over the years. Some copies are currently on display in Serralves. The set of canvases and placards is distributed between the building and the gardens of the museum, through which the artist cries Imagine, Remember, Reach, Fly

These innovative artistic proposals, besides the affirmation of the impossibility of dissociating art from life, connect Yoko Ono to some artists such as the group Fluxus and Joseph Beuys, with whom she collaborated, or John Cage, her everlasting reference. But the artist stands out from these, considering her oriental sensibility and aesthetics, a consequence of her cultural references and Buddhist principles, elements articulated with her interest in 20th-century western philosophy.

Yoko Ono also reveals her awareness of space and architecture, with magnificent installations, physically challenging and aesthetically admirable. This is proven in the current exhibition, with spatial, visual and perceptive games that provide absolute receptive experiences, mental and physical. Encouraging the viewer to have an intimate relationship with the works, the artist invites them to a free intervention or one guided by specific orientations. We produce art with Ono. As she defends, “anyone can do it”[2]. Some works are only materialized with the participation of the public, like Wish Tree (1996/2020), an olive tree placed on the lawn near the entrance of the museum, which “will grow” with every desire attached to it. Arising (2020) appears at the end of the exhibition. Months before the opening, Serralves asked, on behalf of the artist, for testimonies from women who had suffered from gender inequality. The result is conveyed by the strength of anonymous figures, of whom we only know the eyes and the stories. Although it is a work thought up by the artist, it is materialized by the participation of the public.

Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo in 1933. She went to New York in 1953, where she eventually settled. She travels regularly to Viðey, an Icelandic island, where she has had a permanent installation since 2007, entitled Imagine Peace Tower. Now we read at the entrance of Serralves Peace is Power, a message followed by many others distributed throughout the museum, which acquire new meanings depending on the contexts. For example, Breathe, whose senses and symbolism have changed dramatically in recent weeks.

In a protest sign of shared authorship between Ono and John Lennon, we see the expression War is Over! If you want it!, an important message that should be underlined today. We are living in a period where it is necessary to define positions, reflect on the world in which we live and (re)educate ourselves and others, especially the new generations. It is fundamental that we follow Yoko Ono’s orientations towards a more fair, equal and free future.

[1] In O espírito de SIM: A arte e a vida de Yoko Ono, text conceived for the exhibition.

[2] Yoko Ono’s quote in the exhibition text.

Constança Babo (Porto, 1992) has a PhD in Media Art and Communication from Universidade Lusófona. Her research focuses on new media arts and curatorship. She has a master's degree in Art Studies - Art Theory and Criticism from the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Porto and a degree in Visual Arts - Photography from the Porto School of Art. She has published scientific articles and critical texts. She was a research fellow in the international project Beyond Matter, at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, and was a researcher at Tallinn University, in the MODINA project.

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