Saturday, 7 July 2012

To The Light - Yoko Ono at The Serpentine

I have to confess to not being as excited about this exhibition as I might be at any of the other significant shows in London at any given time. However, my involvement in the forthcoming production of Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht for Birmingham Opera fired my interest in this most famous advocate of the Fluxus movement. Stockhausen's aesthetic and compositional approach of the 1960s had much in common with the art group. Indeed it is likely that the composer met and worked with Yoko Ono on visiting New York in the early 1960s. To understand something of the approach of one of these sizeable figures of 20th century avant-garde art is to understand something of the other. Or at least that's the theory.

To The Light is largely a retrospective but it also has new work. In fact, much of the new work mirrors (if not 'updates') the original pieces of the 1960s. For example 'Cut Piece', the famous performance piece in which Yoko would invite an audience to snip of parts of her clothing as she sat impassive on the floor has a contemporary counterpart and both were on show.

There is also the famous piece by which John Lennon first made Yoko's acquaintance. Yes constitutes the word 'Yes' written on the ceiling. Being in such an unusual, inaccessible place and being printed in small lettering means that it is necessary to climb a step ladder and use a magnifying glass in order to read it. I liked the simplicity of a companion piece in the next room in which 'This is the ceiling' and 'This is the floor' are written on the floor and ceiling respectively (without accessibility aids).

At the centre of the exhibition is a maze constructed of perspex walls. It is possible to see right through the edifice - but, surprisingly, this makes it no easier to find one's way to the centre. It reminded me of Yayoi Kusama's mirror maze in Tate Modern's recent retrospective.

There's also a very new project in which visitors are invited to participate. Smile looks to collate photographs of everyone in the world smiling. This is a typically hippie conceit - impossible to realise but no less charming, or powerful for it. Unfortunately this one is hamstrrung by the photos actually on show, in which the British public manage to not look at the camera, do silly hand gestures or simply not smile at all!

The piece that got me though was Painting To Be Stepped On (1961). Like many of Yoko Ono's work it is concentratedly conceptual. A work with political roots, this piece of canvas left on the floor and designed to acquire the footprints of those who follow the instruction of the title has acquired another part - its date. Where, in 1961, Painting To Be Stepped On would have invited discussion about the uniqueness of the imprint of a shoe or about the acquisition of a record of neglect (those imprint being from passers-by), now the piece is also an artefact. It has moved from an object of little material worth inviting discussion to being an object in its own right - even if only as it represents the time of the the conception of the idea.

Painting To Be Stepped On records the unwitting 'beauty' of imprint and purpose in the footprint of someone walking somewhere - despite the piece's title, the instructions are less determinate, less inviting, the idea for the canvas to be left out to acquire footprints. Similarly, Stockhausen's text work of the late 1960s made an effort to strip away the composer as intermediary - even the performer-as-composer - and get the performer to play according to a more naturally realised instinct.

The ephemeral nature of music making means that creating an object that then remains as an artefact to help us get a grip on this is difficult. The point about Stockhausen's work in this area is that there is no score. However, the principals that such pieces fostered are carried over into the contradictory nature of later work such as the Licht operas, pieces at once formally highly prescriptive and yet peppered with instruction for approximation in both timing and pitch.

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