Yoko Ono at Hungarian National Museum: Cynical or Sincere?

Art

The Yoko Ono exhibition at the Hungarian National Museum.

“War Is Over! If You Want It: Tribute to Yoko Ono,” the publicity line broadcasts. But the exhibition of the Japanese artist Yoko Ono’s paintings, sculptures, installations, and short films at the Hungarian National Museum has received mixed reviews, as David Holzer reports.

I had wanted to cover the exhibition anyway, but the mixed reports made me even more determined to write about it. So, on a cold, rainy Budapest Friday, I tap danced around the puddles to the museum.

“War Is Over! If You Want It: Tribute to Yoko Ono,” the exhibition title, is a nod to a two-year multimedia campaign culminating in the song she recorded with her late husband John Lennon, “Happy Christmas (War Is Over).” This made the upper reaches of the worldwide singles charts when it was first released in 1971.

Like much of Ono’s work, the campaign was somewhat more subtle than it seemed. “War Is Over! If You Want It” is both a statement and a question thrown back at us. We have the power to end war, despite what we’re encouraged to believe, but do we really want to use it? 

Speaking at the time, Lennon explained, “We decided to work for world peace […]. We’re selling it like soap, you know. And you’ve got to sell and sell until the housewife thinks, ‘Oh well, there’s peace or war; that’s the two products.’”

Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo City, Japan, in 1933. Her mother was highly musical. Her father’s ancestors were samurai warrior-scholars. Ono’s early years were shaped by the impact of World War II on Japan. Her aristocratic family was reduced to poverty and forced to beg for food. She has said that this helped make her aggressive enough to survive and conscious of what it means to be an outsider. Those are qualities that must have come in handy when she hooked up with Lennon.

Moving to the United States in 1953, Ono enrolled at the liberal arts college Sara Lawrence but eloped with Japanese experimental composer Toshi Ichiyanagi in 1956. Far from being the preposterous non-musical screamer of legend, she was schooled in avant-garde music such as that made by John Cage.

Inspired by Fluxus

In 1957, Ono moved to New York, where she became associated with the Fluxus group of experimental artists. Although she was never an official member, the group’s Dada-inspired approach to art profoundly influenced her.

It was art that brought Ono and Lennon together. They first met at the hip London Indica Gallery in November 1966. Ono was preparing her conceptual show Unfinished Paintings. One piece intrigued Lennon.

“Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting” consisted of a stepladder painted white underneath a square white canvas with a magnifying glass hanging from it. When Lennon climbed the ladder and squinted through the magnifying glass at the canvas, he saw the word “Yes” in tiny writing.

Characteristically for Ono, “Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting” is at once simple and tricky. It takes effort to read that “Yes.”

Ono appears to have set her sights on Lennon. It’s believed they became lovers in early 1968. They were married in 1969. Apart from Lennon’s notorious Lost Weekend, almost two years in which he lived with his personal assistant May Pang, Ono and Lennon were together until his death on December 8, 1980.

Ono has said that “Art is like breathing for me. If I don’t do it, I start to choke.”

Since Lennon’s death, she has made countless artworks and steadily released music that has sold respectably and received favorable reviews. Between 2003, when her songs began being remixed for clubs, and 2021, when she retired from public life, Ono had 12 number-one hits on the U.S. dance charts.

It’s impossible to say what Ono’s stature as an artist would be if she hadn’t been Lennon’s wife. But, today, her work is perfectly in tune with the sloganeering, aphoristic, meme (or “me-me”) world of social media.

Might be Worth It

As a filmmaker friend of mine who worked with her and Lennon on the short film “Erection” (1971) told me, “She was a strange girl who’d suddenly hit you with something really precious and the next moment something that, however much you thought about it, was profoundly stupid. But you had to give her the time because it might be worth it.”

Ono’s work also aligns with the fuzzy notion that posting platitudes online constitutes activism. But it’s important to remember that she has practiced art and real-world activism since the 1960s.

In March 1969, after their marriage, she and Lennon held a “Bed-in for Peace.” She paid for billboards featuring Lennon’s blood-spattered glasses to be erected in New York and Los Angeles in 1999 after the Columbine High School massacre. Since 2002, the annual LennonOno Grant for Peace has given USD 50,000 in prize money to artists living “in regions of conflict.”

When art seems powerless against military might, government repression, the threat from climate change, rampaging viruses, economic collapse, and asteroids hurtling towards us, Ono’s message of optimism in action is positively revolutionary.

For this reason, I would say that while the exhibition at the Hungarian National Museum might deserve the criticisms leveled at it, they relate to the context, not the art itself.

If the money from the entrance fee gets to the people who need it, Yoko Ono’s art has had a tangible impact. That’s good enough for me.

Proceeds from ticket sales will go to support Transcarpathian victims of the Russo-Ukraine war raging on Hungary’s northeastern border. According to the 2021 Ukrainian census, there were 156,000 ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, making them the third largest minority in the country.

“War Is Over! If You Want It: Tribute to Yoko Ono” will run until February 18, 2023, which is Ono’s 90th birthday. You can find out more about the exhibition at www.mnm.hu

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of December 16, 2022.

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