Yoko says…

Yoko says…make a wish

Yoko says…cut

Yoko says…step on the painting

Yoko says…smile

What ever Yoko says, one must do. It’s an irresistible game. A walk through Yoko Ono’s exhibition, ‘To the Light…’ at the Serpentine Gallery in the heart of London’s Hyde Park, is very much an extension of the park itself. Play and wander and, moreover, do what Yoko says. Simple and surreal, personal yet universal, Yoko Ono creates a series of playrooms for grown ups and kids alike in which viewers are encouraged to dream, think, remember and, of course, feel.

Art exhibitions can be intimidating to the general public; many people don’t cross the threshold of a grand gallery or museum entrance if they are not an art world regular. Yoko Ono’s show couldn’t be more welcoming and relaxed – and much to the dismay of many critics, fully embraces the idea of mass appeal. A number of the works in the exhibition engage with the park goers quite simply by being placed outside. No need to cross the threshold to see one of Ono’s fan favorites: ‘Wish Trees’ in which small potted trees are strung with wishful messages of passer-bys. Pens, string and paper are placed nearby for those who want to participate by stringing their wishes upon the tree. Others participate just by looking: reading the personal and heartfelt messages thoughtfully. Considering participatory art itself tends to cater to art-aficionados or perhaps the bravest ones of a crowd, Ono’s wish trees stand in stark contrast in their universal popularity – exemplified by the white leaves of paper tending to outnumber the green leaves of the trees themselves. People leave messages in different languages, wishing for wealth, love and happiness – or wishing to connect or communicate messages of love to family, friends or to the artist herself. Although the work is in danger of being reduced to the term ‘cute’, considering the positivity positively weighing down the branches of the trees, one feels like a bit of a scrooge not making a wish. Yoko says make a wish, so I make one, and I don’t sign my name, hoping it means something more that way to anyone who reads it.

Yoko Ono, Wish Trees 2012, photograph by Rosemary Marchant

Also set outside, a massive unplayable chess set draws more park wanderers’ attention, toddlers mostly, who climb on the all-white checkered platform like a jungle-gym, embracing the similarly-sized all-white pieces like teddy bears. The concept of Ono’s monochrome chessboard with no division, no groups, and no opposition is certainly a simple and poignant gesture for the advocate of world peace. Yet, regardless of its conceptual roots, there is something exactly right about these bumbling children jumping about and arbitrarily moving pieces around, incorporating collected clumps of green grass and seemingly precious pebble piles. I smile in hopes that the invigilators let them play on, thinking of the impossible, child-like dream of total peace and what that really means in our world, where there is not only black and white, but also infinite grays.

Yoko Ono, Play It By Trust (White Chess Set) 2012.

Additionally drawing in crowds at the back entrance to the exhibition, is the stage for another ongoing participatory artwork, ‘#smilesfilm.’  A large screen displays snapshots of startlingly familiar smiles – the most recent smiles displayed belong to the faces of my surrounding exhibition goers, snapped about five minutes beforehand. Two photo booths are set up to capture the smiles of anyone willing to pose for Ono – who explains on a monitor that she plans to make an entire feature length film with smiles as her raw material. Each amassed photo will be a single frame of the film. Her far from humble long-term goal? To capture the entire world’s population smiling. Yoko says smile, so I submit my smile willingly. I feel a bit like I’m in an amusement park as the Yoko on the monitor walks me through the process; (especially considering I am not ‘tall enough for this ride’ and must sit on a pile of books to get my smile in the frame.) And, apparently there’s an app for that: if you can’t be bothered or cannot make it to the Serpentine you can submit online to be part of the film. I leave feeling slightly over the smiley, feel-goodness and a bit afraid someone might try and sell me a commemorative mug with my photo as I exit. Happily, no one does.

Inside the Serpentine Gallery, a sense of hush washes over as viewers are faced with suddenly tragic installation upon entering. A dangling forest of WWII army helmets filled with blue puzzle pieces hang upside down, no doubt representing fallen soldiers. The puzzle pieces, broken into a cheerless pile, would, if assembled, depict a blue sky to which the fallen would traditionally ascend.  A hypnotic video showing the slow-motion burning of a single match, also evokes a haunting, unbearable violence as a charred anti-war poster crys out nearby. Identical piles of groomed dirt, labeled ‘Country A’, ‘Country B’, and ‘Country C’ point to death and burial, war’s arbitrary brutality and a senseless division with the fundamental sameness of the earth. The smell of the dirt in the dark space is quieting, balmy and stings with realism, and paired with the jungle of helmets, images of the Vietnam War are certainly evoked.

Yoko Ono, 'To the Light...' Installation 2012. Copyright Yoko Ono.

I reach my favorite room, which at first seems empty, containing nothing but the scrawled writing of the artist, whose simple declarations on the walls jolt me out of a stagnant reality. A long flat line along one wall is labeled ‘This is a circle’ and a white wall implores: ‘Stay until the room is blue.’ In the center of the floor, an Alice-in-Wonderland-like tag states, ‘This is the ceiling’. I look up, ‘This is the floor.’ Well, that makes sense at least. If Yoko says so, it must be true. The room itself seems to be talking, imagining itself as magic in some sense, infinitely larger, upside down or a different color. If a room itself can dream, we can certainly imagine ourselves in such a strange and wonderful place, where infinite possibilities are made by a simple pen movement.

Yoko Ono, Fly (1970), Film Still. Copyright Yoko Ono.

At the heart of the exhibition there are various videos from Ono’s career installed in the centre room around a human-sized Perspex maze, which again, is overrun by boisterous children. A few of the videos are famously a bit cheeky, Film no 4 (Bottoms) from 1967, in fact, includes 65 pairs. Fly (1970) shows a naked woman’s body in close up as a fly crawls along her exposed skin: on her eyelid, the tip of her nipple, and even along her public hair and genitals – sending a shiver or two up the spine. Strangely, the film seems a bit erotic, the viewer somehow identifying with the voyeur-fly as it brazenly explores the woman’s shape, one section of goose-bumped skin at a time. Around the corner Ono’s most celebrated work: the original 1965 video of her ‘Cut Piece’ performance is displayed face-to-face with her more recent re-enactment from 2003. In both performances, Ono sits on stage alone, accompanied only by a large pair of shiny scissors. Yoko says cut: she bids members of the audience to come cut her dress while she sits stoically. She is then slowly exposed, one peson, one act and one swatch of cloth at a time. The films embody the exhibition and perhaps Ono’s career as a whole: personal, interactive, challenging  – and vaguely violent.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, Film Still of 1965 Performance. Copyright Yoko Ono.

On my way out, a sad worn bit of canvas, Ono’s ‘Painting to be Stepped on,’ lies on the floor, surrounded by inquisitive yet hesitant viewers. Its amazing that Yoko Ono can easily convince people to display their faces on a five foot screen and expose their inner most wishes for all to see in public, but in a museum space, most people are still terrified to touch artwork, let alone step on it. There seems to be an impromptu and absurd battle of wits going on as viewers circle and dodge the scrap of fabric. Yoko says step on this painting. I give the little guy a stomp of my boot, slightly twisting it like a lit cigarette before walking away. It seems the more you participate, the more aggressive you become.

Ono’s simple conceptual challenges provide a forum for social discourse and interaction, from polite invitations to wish, imagine or love to more provoking dares that yield sundry outcomes. Bold or bashful – visitors should reach a better understanding of the artist’s spirit and intention with the sampling of her lengthy career on view. But, if you really want the full experience, have a bit of fun and play ‘Yoko says…’

Yoko Ono, ‘To the Light’ is on view at London’s Serpentine Gallery until September 9, 2012.

To submit your smile online visit: