June 26, 2002


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Ono's new age

THERE AREN'T MANY visual artists who can claim true celebrity status. Yeah, Tony Bennett usually gets ink when he shows his paintings, but it's unlikely you'd know about 'em if he weren't a crooner. Yoko Ono, on the other hand, is that rare breed who's an icon for merging her very real, very important contributions to modern art history, political activism, experimental film, and music with her high-profile, Beatle-infested personal life. So it makes perfect sense that the events surrounding the opening of Ono's retrospective exhibition, Yes Yoko Ono, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art should be a potent mixture of art people, academics, and those who worship in the cult of personality.

The Onofest started on Friday morning with a gallery press preview, where Ono was scheduled to complete an artwork at noon. Her plane was delayed due to S.F. fog, giving the healthy crowd of reporters a chance to really see the show, an elegant survey of her ephemeral, corporeal, and slightly New Agey work.

Ono herself didn't arrive until 12:40, to become the centerpiece of a press conference in the museum's Schwab Room. Like most icons, she seemed smaller and more human than expected; her hair had been lightened to an almost honey color, and she sported amber sunglasses throughout the event. She seemed chic, reserved, and surprisingly good-humored.

"I just came from the airport, so I apologize for being out of it," she cooed. On her way to SFMOMA, she said, she'd passed the resurrected version of the 1969 "War Is Over" billboard (which has been mounted by the museum at Howard and New Montgomery Streets), and she thought it was beautiful. (It's difficult, however, not to overlook the irony of the corporate Viacom logo just below the line reading, "Love and Peace from John & Yoko.")

"Don't you think you should put that up in front of the White House?" asked Peter Selz, the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum.

"I think that's too confrontational," Ono replied. "Besides, Bush said, 'Give war a chance.' " The rewording generated some laughter. "In the '60s we carried signs and maybe we helped stop the war a little bit earlier than it might have on its own. Now the situation is so complex. It doesn't serve to change people's minds when they're determined. We have to find another way."

At the opening that night, things went as expected. The crowds were thick, with a line snaking all the way down the stairways to get into the understated exhibition. The creative aspects came with the trimmings: white food (mozzarella balls and angel-food cake), electronic music performances in the lobby, and in the theater a peculiar piece that mixed sound sculpture with aromatherapy.

The latter perhaps prepared the site for the headline event, a long-sold-out (though there were many no-shows) Saturday-afternoon performance and interview. At the prompting of curator Paul Schimmel from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and with the protection of a beefy bodyguard posted at stage right, Ono regaled the adoring crowd with her memories of first visiting San Francisco, when she was, um, two and a half! After an hour the artist's memories had only gotten as far as her infamous 1965 Cut Piece. As a clip of the performance was projected on-screen, Ono nudged her beefy interviewer under a black cloth, where they partially disrobed. It was goofy performance art that didn't amount to much – Schimmel simply emerged flummoxed, grabbed his shoes, and ran offstage, never to be heard from again.

Ono then segued into the musical portion of her act. Accompanied by Zena Parkins on harp and surprise guest (and son) the strappingly nerdy Sean Lennon on acoustic guitar, Ono did a characteristic yelping, warbling number that bordered on self-parody and then performed another, more sedate piece, before having assistants join the entire audience in pale blue yarn and distributing puzzle piece-shaped fragments of New York sky imprinted with "Y.O. Spring '98." Then she fielded questions from audience members – a fair number of whom were adoring fans and/or uncomfortably self-revealing types. But the ever eccentric Ono seemed in her element. At the two-hour point she'd completely colonized the theater and commanded the stage with the authority of a lovably kooky talk show host with conceptual art self-improvement instincts. Some of us left with the unexpected idea that Ono's ultimate piece might be to serve as the replacement when Oprah retires. (Glen Helfand)