Yoko Ono's advertisement published in the Village Voice, December 2, 1971.
In December 1971, Yoko Ono famously announced that she was to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The supposed exhibition was, in fact, a conceptual artwork, executed without the participation of the museum itself. This month, though, Ono will open a solo show at MoMA, which will feature her early works on paper, paintings, installations, performances, and audio and instruction pieces. Recently, Ono spoke from her apartment in New York about her unauthorized MoMA exhibition and being asked to realize a show there today, as well as the groundbreaking performances that happened in her loft on Chambers Street in the early 1960s. “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971,” is on view from May 17 to September 7, 2015.
WHAT I DID between 1960 and ’71 seems to have influenced more people than any other periods of my work. But I really don’t know how I survived. Whenever an idea for an artwork came to me, I would act on it. I would get so excited and make the work, and, at the time, it seemed nobody wanted to know. So, I always thought, “OK, on to the next idea.” I’ve gone through life like that; there was never any time to commit suicide or anything.
To drop out of school in 1960 was sort of an unusual thing to do, but for me, college was too much and so I left and went to New York City. It was an exciting time. I already knew a few people in the music world. Many of them had far-out ideas about art; they couldn’t just do a show in an ordinary gallery. Most were composers who didn’t fit in at Carnegie Hall. At the time it seemed there was no good venue to present work. I decided I would get a place and begin doing concerts there. I remember I first had this thought while walking on Broadway, around Ninety-Sixth Street. I noticed the second floor of a building, where you could see everything that was going on—ballet dancers were exercising. So I went up there, and I, perhaps witlessly, asked, “Is this place for rent?” They were very polite about it and said, “No, we’re using it.” Not deterred, I thought there must be a location like that, and finally a friend of mine told me to go downtown and check out the “lofts.” In those days people didn’t really think about lofts as places to live or work—they just thought they were dangerous. But I got a loft and it was really great.
Many people came to see the concerts, probably because there were no other loft concerts going on. Also, I think the fact that John Cage, Peggy Guggenheim, David Tudor, and others came to the very first show, right after a very heavy snow, was important. But every event was very exciting. I eventually did my stuff too, though I didn’t want to be the first one. I also ended up sleeping there. I felt that it was important. I don’t know why. I collected about six orange crates and put them together as my bed. It was right underneath the skylight. It was beautiful.
The incredible thing about this MoMA show is that in ’71 I staged my “first” show at MoMA from December 1st to the 15th. In those days the museum hardly presented women or Asian artists. Nobody thought much about it. I put an advertisement in the Village Voice for my “one woman show” at the museum. I also printed a catalogue titled the Museum of Modern (F)art. And I posted a sign on the museum’s entrance that said I had released flies in the museum, and that everyone was invited to find them throughout the city. What was great was that MoMA came to me recently and said they were interested in “my show” that I did there ’71. They said that wanted to do it now, as a real exhibition. And I thought, well that’s pretty hip, OK.
Again, this was something I had I mostly forgotten about, so I was glad when the curators said that we could transform the idea. People always say to me, “Yoko, you know we’re never going to have world peace, right?” And I think, Yes, we’re going to have it if you believe in it. So even from that point of view I can say, this happened and then forty years later it became a reality. It’s not going to be a reality the next day. But what you’re thinking of, what you’re envisioning now, is going to be a reality—so just be careful.
From the feminist point of view, it was important to me to be open about my experiences. There was a time, about five years ago, when people started to not want to talk about feminism—as if it was a dirty word or something. I think that some people successfully made sure that we became intimidated. But, logically, feminism should go on. It’s not natural to keep women down. For one thing, it’s essential to have women’s energy, and without it, there’s an incredible imbalance in the world. That’s why we have all this illness, violence, and war. It’s really basic, if you just think about it. It doesn’t have to be so complicated; things can be simpler than that.
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian artist based in New York. Her upcoming survey “Shirin Neshat: Facing History” takes a sweeping look at her output and will present her iconic black-and-white photographic portraits—which she discusses below—as well as her nonnarrative videos and her recent forays into cinema. Incorporating archival material to contextualize her practice, the show confronts Neshat’s decades-long exile from her homeland. It is on view at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden from May 18 to September 20, 2015.
I HAVE BEEN UNFAITHFUL to any one medium, and my work has gone through cyclical uses of more and less overt political references. In my earlier photographic series, such as “Women of Allah,” 1993–97, I addressed the philosophical and ideological principles related to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although these photographs were taken after I left Iran and well after the revolution, I was trying to face the pivotal moment of the Islamic Revolution. What was my place within this greater historical narrative? It had caused a long and painful separation from my family, which defined my path and life alone in exile. I want “Facing History” to offer not only a sociopolitical reading of Iran but also insight into the challenges of an Iranian female artist interpreting her personal and national history.
In more than one series, I explore repeated conceptual patterns such as the subject of martyrdom. If in the “Women of Allah” series we are faced with militant women who willingly sacrificed their lives for their higher devotion to their religion, in 2012’s “The Book of Kings” series, young activists also put their lives at risk—if not for religion, then for a call to democracy. In the second case, the Persian epic poem Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) covers the figures. In a way, all of my photographic work is inscribed with poetry. Poetic works allow us to say everything; they offer a subversive language that can transcend the law. When we were children, these stories were read to us. Both series are similar in depicting how the notions of patriotism, faith, and self-sacrifice always intersect with violence, atrocity, and ultimately death.
For me, “The Book of Kings,” “Women of Allah,” and 2014’s “Our House Is on Fire” are aesthetically and conceptually linked. They are all human portraits that are less about the identity of each individual character, and more about how the collection of images create a portrait of a country.
While working on my upcoming film, Looking for Umm Kulthum, I went to Egypt; during my time there, I also made the photographs for “Our House Is on Fire.” If “The Book of Kings” mainly focused on the youth who were in the foreground of the revolutions of the Arab Spring, in Cairo I specifically chose to photograph elderly people. They had endured the loss of their young children during the upheaval. This series captures the tremendous collective sense of despair in Egypt at the time. I set up a studio at Townhouse; people came one at a time. As my collaborator Larry and I photographed them, we asked each person to think of a tragic moment in their lives. I told them my story of exile, and Larry shared the recent loss of his only daughter. A human exchange began. Nothing was recorded, as we had no intention of making their private statements public. This project became one of my most important artistic experiences to date.
I no longer feel like I am in exile but rather I feel like a nomad. I am no longer as nostalgic about Iran as I was in the past, nor do I dwell on the desire to return home. Having worked in many other countries, in particular in the Arab world, I find that being a nomad has become an acceptable way of life.
Société Réaliste, Universal Anthem, 2013. Performance view, Szabadság tér, Budapest, April 26, 2015. Photo: Aknay Csaba, the Orbital Strangers Project and OFF-Biennale Budapest Archive.
Hungarian artist Ferenc Gróf and French artist Jean-Baptiste Naudy make up the Paris-based artist duo Société Réaliste. On April 26, 2015, the group organized a performance of Universal Anthem, 2013, which Gróf describes here as a “parody of contemporary musique concrète,” for the OFF-Biennale Budapest. As Gróf describes below, the event was performed with a brass band in front of a controversial monument. Gróf will also present a lecture-performance in Budapest on May 13, 2015, during the Former West conference. The OFF-Biennale Budapest runs through May 31, 2015.
WE COINED SOCIÉTÉ RÉALISTE as the name for an unrealized exhibition that would have analyzed parallels between contemporary art and socialist realism, which was the official artistic style of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. It was not meant to focus on the former Soviet countries but to excavate some of their underlying algorithms that are related to the ideologies of contemporary art. When we started this collaboration more than ten years ago, it was the high time of relational aesthetics, especially in Paris. So our practice was meant to be a kind of critical relational aesthetics, analyzing how economics, politics, and language modify or influence contemporary art.
For Universal Anthem, we developed software that can calculate the average of any number of musical scores, note by note. We created a database of the national anthems of the member states of the United Nations, ran it through the software, and then worked with a composer to clean up the result, which is almost unplayable by any human. The score is a parody of contemporary musique concrète—Stockhausen on LSD. Our goal is to deconstruct one of the main national symbols. It’s a vandalist attitude, but sometimes criticism itself is more pertinent than proposing a new construction, or a bright new future.
It was important for us to play Universal Anthem right now in Hungary because of the country’s recent nationalistic tendencies and its anti-Roma, anti-Semitic, ethnicist discourse of the last few years. The performance took place in Budapest’s Szabadság tér, or Liberty Square, where last year the government erected a monument to the victims of the German occupation. For many, the monument symbolizes a denial of the Hungarian state’s responsibility during World War II and the Holocaust. The organizers of a countermonument, the Living Memorial, have been demonstrating against it since then, a kind of sustained protest that has never before happened in Budapest. They invited us to perform Universal Anthem with a brass band in front of the two monuments as part of the OFF-Biennale Budapest.
The performance was a great moment with great coincidences. The organizers of the Living Memorial explained to me how to position the audience around the border of a fountain that is in the center of the square, which temporarily shuts off the fountain, so the noise wouldn’t overpower the musicians. The musicians stood in the middle of the audience. It was very powerful with the kitschy monument behind, the police circulating around, and this usually very loud, but now silenced, fountain near the musicians.
Right now I’m researching some of the cultural icons of central Europe. For the Former West conference, I will present a sequence of graphic works titled Švejk in the Third World War, 2015. It is an imaginary continuation of the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek’s novels The Good Soldier Švejk and follows Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 sequel play Schweik in the Second World War.
View of “Yuji Agematsu: Walk On A,B,C,” 2015. Photo: Paula Court.
Since the late 1980s, New York–based artist Yuji Agematsu has amassed a collection of photos and detritus assembled from his daily perambulations around the city. For inaugural programming at its new location, the Whitney Museum of American Art commissioned the artist to develop Walk On A,B,C, as well as performances with live sound improvisations that continue his investigations into the overlap between the forces of habit, dislocation, and trauma that structure everyday urban experience. Here he discusses his process and the show, which runs from May 6 to May 11, 2015, in the Susan and John Hess Family Theater at the Whitney.
PRIOR TO THIS WORK I HAD BEEN COLLECTING small objects for years. I don’t own a laptop or a smartphone, so I keep a notebook on me to record the location and atmosphere around objects at the particular moment I find them. Since I couldn’t physically take the shadows and the stains around them, I walked around the city with a camera. I started to shoot pictures around Times Square right before 9/11, and after that the atmosphere changed because of tight security, fears, and the police. People had gotten so nervous, so I moved to walking around midtown, shooting the ground or at people, their gestures, and their attitudes.
For the Whitney show, I started shooting in September 2014 and continued until the beginning of last December, while the new building was still under construction. On Fridays and during the weekend when I wasn’t at my day job, I brought a camera and took photos around the neighborhoods along the High Line area. I was drawn to the density—the vertical contrast between the artificial gardens lining the High Line and the mess beneath it. I divided the area into three sections, A, B, and C. I walk around in circles to see places again and collect things again at the same spot, but since nothing stays the same in the city, the pattern and the point of view change each time.
The photos I made were an attempt to equalize the contrast between the stains on the street and the manicured sections of the High Line. To create the slides of these pictures, I used a microscope and would occasionally layer an image with things I had found. With the microscope I could zoom in on all the flowers and trash to make the details visible but strange. People ask if I manipulate the objects or their shape, which is kind of a boring question to me. Transporting these objects from one point to another constantly changes them, so they’re always being manipulated.
In the theater at the Whitney I project the slides onto several plywood screens in two different sizes. One size corresponds to the size of subway kiosks and maps that tell people where to go while they’re waiting. The other size is based on construction site fences around which growth seems to metabolize. I’m showing my photos using ten analog slide projectors that all eventually phase out of sync with each other.
It’s really important for me to think about the conversion between analog and digital technologies in relation to memory. For example, when I go from this building up to the High Line, my memory is constantly exposing or experiencing both spaces, as if in a layering of film. My memories are constantly being double-exposed. When I recorded cicada sounds from my hometown in Japan in 1997, I remembered the sounds as being much slower than they ended up being on record. The BPM is too fast for me, so for my performances in this installation, I wanted to manipulate the frequency in order to hear the adjustments I make between the natural, the analog, the digital.
View of “Martial Raysse,” 2015. Photo: Fulvio Orsenigo.
Following Martial Raysse’s recent retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, the first major monographic exhibition of his works outside of France since 1965 is currently installed at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi. Here the artist discusses his nearly sixty-year career and his visionary use of neon. The show is on view until November 30, 2015.
WHEN GIORGIO DE CHIRICO was asked why his naked self-portrait from 1945 was his favorite painting, he answered, “Because it’s the best painted.” Ditto for my new paintings. In terms of progress, I feel that the paintings that I have submitted to the Palazzo Grassi are the most successful I have made. If I did not feel this way, I would not show them.
I probably bring more depth and emotion now to my paintings, or at least I hope so. Above all, art is a story and a practice. It’s about being able to translate a deep human poetic emotion into volume and color. To work with different media is absolutely natural. I may have the desire to paint or to film or to cut wood, but the subject is of primary importance. It imposes the choice of the artwork’s components. Before, I used neon as something to go beyond color, but the use of neon in recent years in the world of art is too commercial. The public salivates in front of neon like Pavlov’s dog, and it has prevented me from using it in my work.
My painting finds its expression in portraits, still lifes, and so on. I choose the same topics today because human feelings are always the same throughout history. It is a continuum. At every period of my life, I put all my resolve into producing accomplished works in the way that was mine in that time. I would not change my old paintings. I value them today as I do my own children.
Success is obviously a payback for all these years of working without being understood, but my goal is not to be applauded. Rather, it’s to succeed in painting a good work of art. My fundamental, lifelong need is to put beauty in the world. It is amazing to live the adventure of exhibitions such as the Centre Pompidou and now the Palazzo Grassi, but I also have to understand that time is running out, and it is imperative to express myself before thinking about all other considerations. It takes me several years to paint a piece. Since 1999, I have known the dates of these two shows, and I have been able to plan very far in advance the distribution of work between the two exhibitions. My way of working is impossible to hurry, and just one thing matters: that the result is close to what I hoped to do.
A great painting is ageless like clouds. Having said that, if you want to find your bearings, there are some milestones—schools of thought—that use of a lot of words ending with ‘’ism.’’ I have no regard for labels because, for me, modern and contemporary art that we know, that is being taught nowadays, is not the true history of art. It is only the story told by the art dealer.
C. Spencer Yeh is a New York–based artist and musician who is well known for his voice-based performances. For the past twenty years he has recorded as Burning Star Core and under his given name. His new ten-track record, Solo Voice I – X, was released this month by Primary Information as an LP in an edition of 500. He will perform the record in entirety at Artists Space on June 23, 2015, as part of a 2015 residency at ISSUE Project Room.
I’VE USED MY VOICE in a lot of other recordings, and for years I had been saying—or threatening—that I would do an all-voice record. A one-instrument album is a tradition in free jazz—the solo saxophone record being a common example. In musical genres like that, whatever instrument you get associated with immediately becomes your spirit animal in a way. Originally, I was more associated with the violin, which is the instrument I could never get away from. As a teenager I ignored it until it crawled to the corner and disappeared. The violin returned to me when I felt my training had sufficiently collapsed so I could build something new. I was never trained in voice but felt fascinated by it drawn toward using it. Pinballing between speaking English and Chinese as a child was my training, perhaps.
When I started using my voice, it was a lot more outward, animated, and physical than playing violin. I was pushing air out, and it was more about projecting. A few years ago, though, I started becoming interested in inward vocal sounds made by inhaling, or the sounds that are closer to yourself—incidental sounds. I was using a bunch of pedals and effects on the violin in my work, but then I thought, I feel like all I’m hearing are the effects. So I decided I wasn’t going to use any effects, and it became about volume, about using amplification as a magnifying glass and using the microphone as an instrument as well. It made for a very dry sound and pushed me to figure out how to work within that limitation. Sometimes a track sounds like a swarm of bees or a ghost ship pushing through ice, but it’s just my voice, unaltered.
C. Spencer Yeh, “Excerpts from VII and III,” 2015. From his album Solo Voice I – X.
I first got hooked on the use of voice when I was younger and into Japanese noise and noise rock à la Boredoms. Yamatsuka Eye was one of the first voices that hooked me, and I think part of it was that his approach felt particularly free. From there I moved into modern practitioners like Henri Chopin and Jaap Blonk, noted performers of text-based sound poetry and composition. Joan La Barbara, a vocalist and composer around New York––her record Voice Is the Original Instrument moves beyond typical speaking in tongues. To me, it seemed like she was trying to turn voice into just another sound, texture, or instrument.
I was thinking about how to abstract the voice without running it through some effects box, because, again, when you do that, it sounds like the box. I wanted to get rid of those brackets of breath between sounds that define a phrase, that define a unit of speech. Those pauses give the listener assurance that the sound is legible as language. I was interested in how you might dismantle language: How do you destroy it or disempower it? Vocals are usually number one in a mix, and they are supposed to be commanding, but why does this one thing always have to be the most powerful?