Yoko Ono at Leeds Arts University

A table with pieces of white broken porcelain. People are sitting at the table, just their hands can be seen mending and piecing items back together in new formations.
Yoko Ono, Mend Piece (1966/2019), installation view, Yoko Ono at Leeds, Blenheim Walk Gallery, Leeds Arts University, Leeds, England, 2019. Photo: Hamish Irvine © 2019 Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono at Leeds Arts University, offers a rare opportunity to see a selection of the artist’s interactive installations, including: Wish Trees (1996/2019), Mend Piece (1966/2019), Add Color Painting (Refugee Boat) (1961/2019), Skyladders (1968/2019), and one of her most recent political open calls, ARISING (2013-2019). All on display in the University’s new exhibition space within the Blenheim Walk building.

Wish Trees is the first installation visitors encounter and the most accessible and hopeful. The two indigenous trees stand in large pots in the entrance way and are draped with the wishes of previous visitors, ranging from simple and humble hopes, to grand and political optimisms.

Add Color Painting (Refugee Boat) and Mend Piece, invite more creative participation from visitors, with a selection of brushes and paints available and a seated area with a table for Mend Piece. During my visit, two people are busily painting on the disappearing small sections of white wall space, adding to the layers of text and imagery left so far on Add Color Painting.  Here too, there is a real mix of contributions- some philosophical, asking provocative political and ideological questions, as well as statements and observations riffing off the activism central in Ono’s work. There are multiple mentions of Ono herself, her celebrity reverberating around the room as her name appears daubed in paint on the walls. Some refer to her presence/absence as the artist, i.e. ‘Yoko Ono wrote this’, raising questions of authorship and authenticity.

Each installation within this exhibition involves an open invitation to take part. Ono provides the space within which the gallery audience can become the authors, artists and critics of the work. The real skill here is the way in which she focuses our attention, subtly commenting on subjects through her own curation of objects or calls to action, providing a platform and a space for voices that are not her own.

A series of printed paged pinned to a gallery wall. Each page has an image, mostly of women's eyes, and blocks of text.

Yoko Ono, ARISING (2013/2019), installation view, Yoko Ono at Leeds, Blenheim Walk Gallery, Leeds Arts University, Leeds, England, 2019. Photo: Hamish Irvine

ARISING is by far the most current and topical piece. With an ongoing open call, ARISING asks for women of all ages, from all countries of the world, to send a testament of harm done to them for being a woman. The wall of testimonies printed out, which must only be a fraction of those received, stretches out into the space in lines. The haunting soundtrack of the video creates a thick atmosphere within which to read these powerful and harrowing personal testimonies. There is also the opportunity for women to contribute their own testimony in the gallery space along with a polaroid camera, to take a picture of just their eyes. As Ono said in an interview in 2013, when ARISING was first shown at the Venice Biennale, focusing on the eyes safeguards the women who could potentially be at risk from further harm. It also allows a connection with each woman through her gaze. The eyes communicate so much, whether they be flooded with tears, focused, glazed, or angry.  ARISING prefigures the Me Too movement by four years, and reading the statements left by women then and now, is a pertinent and powerful reminder of just how widespread violent behaviour and abuse towards women is, was, and continues to be.

Given the live and interactive nature of the installations, this exhibition will evolve each day, and thus will become a more fascinating densely layered space to revisit at numerous points during the exhibition’s run.

Joanna Jowett is a writer, artist and producer based in Leeds and is also co-director of Copypages.org, an artist’s publishing platform.

The exhibition is open 10am – 4pm Monday to Saturday until 14 March at Leeds Arts University

Published 27.02.2019 by Holly Grange in Reviews

626 words