When the woman taking our admission into the Yoko Ono show in Venice called Brittney ‘bambino’ it confirmed a growing suspicion: everyone everywhere is reading my girlfriend as a boy, and a young boy at that, like maybe a fourteen-year-old, which makes me, a visible thirty-something hanging all over her/him on the vaporettos and in the streets, something of a creep, and this is why wherever we go we are met with stares, many of them scornful. And so it is with the relief of an annoying mystery now solved that we enter the show at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, a two-story gallery in Dorsoduro, outside a canal where during the week produce-bearing gondolas dock forming a floating, bobbing farmers’ market.
I love Yoko Ono. We have the same birthday for starters, which gives me hope that when I am in my seventies I too will be able to rock a micro-mini, stilettos and a massive pair of wrap-around sunglasses. Her song Revelations, with Cat Power, is my most favorite song even though it is not so much a song as a prayer. In Yoko I see the positive notes of Aquarius exalted — the constant hum of optimism, an embrace of humanity, of oddness, a certain poetic spaciness, a need for group participation, collaboration, a desire to make the mundane movements of a day the gestures of an ongoing performance work in progress. Take her book Grapefruit. Each page bears a little cube of text telling you to do something, haiku-like instructions that don’t demand or implore but airily suggest you engage in certain activities, like coughing or laughing or smoking (I really love that she included smoking) or cutting things or lying upon them. Brushing your hair. Sitting on each other. It’s whimsical but its also all sort of boring, which is part of the Aquarius gift I think, finding the deeper meaning or stupid joy in the everyday. Whenever I have a lover who suggests we collaborate on an art project the first thing I think of is Yoko and John’s Bed-In, the ultimate romantic art collaboration I think. I’ve never actually done my own spin on it, though I think my best idea was with a boyfriend with whom I fought constantly, that we record our quarrels, transcribe them and have a classically trained opera singer sing them back to us while we sit together in bed in our underwear in an art gallery. Wouldn’t that be awesome? I never shared the idea with him because it just would have triggered another fight..
Yoko’s show in Venice is called Anton’s Memory. The first bit is installed in the downstairs entry, a bunch of army helmets dangling upside-down from the ceiling filled with jigsaw puzzle pieces. It would appear that if arranged the puzzle picture would be the sky, blue and infinite. We could take a piece with us so we did. I love when you go to an art event and you get something. In the 90s the artist Harry Dodge staged a one-man show called Muddy Little River at Intersection for the Arts and upon exiting the audience received a damp envelope containing a germinated seed. I freaking loved that, and also it is worth mentioning that Muddy Little River remains my favorite solo show. But back to Yoko – I loved taking a blue piece of the sky stamped with her initials and shoving it in my wallet. Upstairs was the woman who called my girlfriend Bambino, and there’s the rest of Yoko’s show. A room where gallery-goers are asked to write down someplace they would like to go and put it inside some gorgeous, battered Louis Vuitton luggage arranged in the room’s center. I sit at a little roll-top desk and write Greece, With Brittney, and stuff it in a trunk. Another room asks people to draw a picture of their mother. The walls are papered with everyone’s efforts, pretty sentimental. A Plexiglas box enshrines some high end makeup. Another room holds a long black table set with tight black boxes containing marble fragments of a woman’s body. It’s so haunting and pretty. The marble bits are smooth and beautiful but a fragmented (dismembered?) woman is always an alarm. A pool of water with a bit of black ink oiling the surface sits ceremoniously atop a pedestal; we are invited to dunk our fingers and run our hands over the delicate dips and rounds of the marble woman. Are we molesting her? A long black curtain droops behind the work.
A tiny room shows Yoko’s short Freedom, in which a camera stays trained on her torso as she struggles to rip herself out of her bra. Finally, back in the main room of the gallery two screens side by side play Cut Piece, one in black and white from 1965, one from 2003. In 1965 the artist sits humbly on the floor while people approach her and snip away a bit of her clothing; in 2003 she sits on a chair while people do the same. Though Yoko’s demeanor is the same in both pieces – sort of open but removed, maybe the slightest bit amused but no more so than she’d be observing a cloud in the sky on a walk around the block – it is interesting to watch the participants. In 2003 everyone is aware they are climbing the stage to cut a piece of Yoko Ono’s clothes off. They get to touch Yoko Ono, who is now a legend, a famous mystery. Even people who don’t care about her wonderful work probably revere her celebrity, her onetime closeness to John Lennon. The participants also understand they are being recorded and it shows in their faces, they look a little sheepish. One woman proclaims to the camera, “I don’t want a piece of Yoko Ono’s clothes.”
In 1965 Yoko is some freaky art chic letting herself be undressed in public. The undertones are violent and uncomfortable. The piece ends when a man with an awful smirk takes the shears and slices the fabric between her breasts, cuts away all the fabric covering her bra, then snips her bra straps, leaving the artist holding her undergarments to her body, the same sort of serene look on her face the whole time, like a Madonna of the Avant-Garde, bravely allowing elements of misogyny to reveal themselves and play out for a moment upon her body.
I sit at the back of the room beside Brittney, who is reclined on a chair taking in the scene, the beautiful room with its chandeliers and moldings and decorative windows of thick round glass and iron rings. Brittney invites me to discuss to show and I blanch. Its awful to talk about art, I feel like a goon immediately, my response to everything is ignorant and intuitive, something either strikes me or it doesn’t, I respond like a child to a visual spectacle or else I’m bored. When I am lucky enough to be able to divine the intellectual oomph behind a piece I become unbearable and showy, so happy am I to have figured something out. But if I’m going to be writing an art blog I should get comfy jabbering about art. I don’t know what to say about Yoko’s show. I liked it because I like her so much, because she is able to do strong and vulnerable female things, not so much making statements as making the space for certain statements to reveal themselves. Brittney wonders how her status in the art world and her ability to have her art shown in such a beautiful place as this gallery, with its ornate ornamentation, affects the work itself, and maybe even her. I wonder about how her fame acts similarly upon her art. By asking others to participate in the show she aims to kill celebrity and equal us all as artists, people who wish to travel, who have mothers, but she remains Yoko Ono, an icon, and so lots of the offerings people made in the participatory rooms are messages to her, Hellos and I Love Yous, and even the ones who followed her instruction had to have done so with a fleeting, futile hope of impressing the artist, if even for a moment. I know I did. I imagined the Yoko Ono lifting my travel wish, Greece, With Brittney, and thinking, Oh this person loves another person, a person named Brittney, and wishes to travel to Greece with her, a romantic island land, how lovely. Probably all the pages of wishes and mothers will get stuffed into a bag and heaved out the gallery’s back door like a sack of biomass from a hospital, but the idea that we all could have a brief, anonymous audience with Yoko Ono is charming anyways. On the way out I contemplate buying a Yoko Ono tote bag sporting a pixilated close-up of a single breast, confirming for me that the show is about femaleness and physicality and vulnerability and the strength of simple unwavering presence. I worry that if I don’t buy it I’ll live to regret it, and I didn’t buy it and its weeks later and it’s true, I’m filled with regret, and I comfort myself with a tiny piece of the artist’s vast sky.