Yoko Ono at the press conference for her first Australian survey show “War is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono” at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

War is Over! (If you want it)

Yoko Ono

Museum of Contemporary Art
Australia Japan

There’s a beguiling naivety to octogenarian conceptual artist, feminist and peace activist, Yoko Ono. At the media conference in November marking the opening of her first Australian survey show, “War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono,” at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Ono was like an elegant rock star—donning dark sunglasses, white fedora, skinny jeans and a physique of which any woman half her age would have been proud. 

“It is an incredible new show I’ve developed just for you,” says the artist in the show’s catalogue which includes 25 works, most of which have seen various iterations over the past several decades. Five of these have been revamped especially for the exhibition, drawing influence from the local environs of Sydney.

The staging of Play it By Trust (1966/2013), for example, where all-white chess sets face off on white boards for a game which becomes increasingly confusing as it progresses, was inspired by the white tile-clad sails of the Sydney Opera House. Similarly, Wish Tree for Sydney (1996/2013), on the MCA’s terrace, used local lemon scented eucalyptus saplings as the spindly branches from which visitors can hang their wishes.

War Is Over: (If you want it): Yoko Ono is named after the famous 1969 activist campaign in which Ono and late husband John Lennon pasted “War is Over” posters on bill boards across 12  major cities. Forty years later, the message remains the same with Ono consistently, and possibly futilely, continuing to espouse the mantra of love and peace.

“Some people say that nothing ever happened, but we are all still here trying to find a way of creating a beautiful life,” Ono said optimistically. “When John and I stood up very few people were activists. Now perhaps 90 percent are activists. By 2050 we will create a heaven on earth.”

“The 1960s was a turbulent time,” the MC’s chief curator Rachel Kent, who worked closely with Ono on the exhibition, agrees. “There was violent student unrest across Europe and American troops became involved in the Vietnam War.”

Ono is an artist for whom philosophy, activism and feminism have determined the course of her output. She was an early advocate of conceptual art, where a work’s manifestation remains subordinate to the idea.

Two videos of her performance, Cut Piece, from 1964 and 2004, stand out juxtaposed alongside each other. The tension between the audience cutting away her clothes and Ono herself, who remains immutable, is palpable and powerful.

It is easy to dismiss Ono as an artist who suffers from philosophical naivety, whose work  is imbued with with a curiously outdated view of the world. However the exhibition’s democratic credentials cannot be faulted; peace maps are there to be stamped, crockery to be repaired, messages to one’s mother to be written, pieces of a jigsaw of the sky to be plucked from World War II helmets, all in the vainglorious hope that one day they will be reunited when the world is a better place. Still, she keeps up with the trends; audience participation and involvement remain du jour.

“War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono is on view at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art through February 23.

Michael Young is a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.