War Is Over! (If You Want It): Yoko Ono

“[I hope] the audience will have fun, [that they will] engage with the work and go away feeling that they can change the world.” – Yoko Ono, Sydney, 2013

It was 1965 when Yoko Ono performed Cut Piece in front of a large audience at the Carnegie Recital Hall in New York City. Kneeling alone on stage, the then 32-year-old waited quietly as audience members were invited to cut away a piece of her clothing with a pair of scissors. In 2003, Ono, aged 70, reprised the performance at the Théâtre du Ranelagh in Paris as an expression “for world peace”. Both performances were filmed.

War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono – showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney – features the film recordings of the Cut Piece performances, one in black and white, and one in colour. They are side-by-side projections, and touch where the walls meet to create a corner: the perfect placement, and the perfect introduction to Yoko Ono’s world. Time hasn’t softened the shock of seeing the artist submit to the will of strangers – it is menacing and beautiful and somehow quietly violent, but symbolises, more than anything, Ono’s willingness to offer people the power to give meaning to the work she creates.

It’s ‘innocence to shock’ she once said upon seeing the works together. ‘It looks like someone went through a shocking life, which was true.’

War Is Over! (if you want it) is the first exhibition of Ono’s work to be held in Australia. Encompassing five decades of her artwork, it showcases the diversity and breadth of her ideas. Working closely with the MCA and the institution’s chief curator, Rachel Kent, Ono developed and reworked the content for the Sydney exhibition for almost four years – and what a treat it is. Featuring text and language pieces, and archival footage with John Lennon, Ono’s husband and collaborator for more than a decade, the exhibition’s many highlights include an impressive collection of Ono’s experimental films. From Fluxus and beyond, it is the abstract wonder of Film No. 4 (Bottoms), 1966-67, Film No. 5 (Smile), 1968 – starring Lennon, and the uncomfortable intimacy of Fly (1970) that best reflect her capacity for suggestion and insight.

Renowned instructional works, instillation and sculpture add to this superbly curated and imaginative exhibition – an extraordinary overview not just for its historic and cultural significance, but for the transformative effect Ono’s voice as a conceptual, performance and music artist continues to have across generations.

Ono, part of the 1960s vanguard and an enduring symbol of feminism and global activism, trained in music composition and philosophy, her intellectual approach to art practice defining a career that began in earnest in New York in 1961. Five years later, on the eve of her now seminal exhibition at Indica Gallery in London, she met Lennon at the behest of gallery co-founder, John Dunbar. Lennon was taken with many of her works including Play It By Trust, reprised for the Sydney exhibition with a new design inspired by the Sydney Opera House. Consisting of a white chessboard and white chessmen, players soon forget which pieces are theirs, and reconciliation (or negotiation) rather than competition, ensues.

My Mummy Is Beautiful (2004/2013), another notable work included in the Sydney exhibition, is a memorable exploration of the feminine and gender in art. Comprising a pink wall, paper squares, pencils and tape, this participatory work gives each visitor the opportunity to write a private message to their mother and affix it to the wall. From love and longing, to bitterness and loathing, the range of human responses is truly moving and confronting.

Other exhibition highlights include Balance Piece (1998) and Family Album (1993), which explore the precarious nature of the everyday, a selection of Ono’s haiku-like verse, We’re All Water (2006), a poetic statement about human existence, and Touch Me III (2008), a work that asks visitors to dip their fingertips into water and ‘touch’ the very life-like silicone body parts on display (including lips, breasts, and midriff). There is also a series of conceptual works reflecting Ono’s affinity with the sky. There are pieces of the sky, and keys to the sky; a Sky TV and the wonderful whimsy of sky puddles. Again and again Ono turns Flaubert’s quip “from form is born the idea” on its head; her ability to offer insight by contrasting ideas – often everyday, observable incidents or objects – is simply ingenious.

Ono, born in Tokyo in 1933, was just a girl when Japan entered WWII. She was 12 years old when the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred. No doubt her life as an artist, and campaigner for world peace developed from these experiences.

Many will recognise the title of this exhibition made famous in 1969 when Ono and Lennon, as part of their global peace campaign, had billboards in 12 countries erected with the printed message: War is over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.

It remains a poignant and heartfelt message.

War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until February 23, 2014 as part of the Sydney International Art Series.



1. Balance Piece 1998, War Is Over! (If You Want It): Yoko Ono, Mueum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2013 Photograph: Alex Davies © the artist
2. Installation view, War Is Over! (If You Want It): Yoko Ono, Mueum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2013 Photograph: Andy Stevens © the artist
3. Installation view, War Is Over! (If You Want It): Yoko Ono, Mueum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2013 Photograph: Alex Davies © the artist
4. Endangered Species 1992, War Is Over! (If You Want It): Yoko Ono, Mueum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2013 Photograph: Alex Davies © the artist
5. Sky Puddles 2011, War Is Over! (If You Want It): Yoko Ono, Mueum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2013 Photograph: Alex Davies © the artist



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