Review of Yoko Ono's "Touch Me" by Jim Feast
Yoko Ono's "Touch Me" at Galerie LeLong, April 1 to May 24, 2008 On first entering the Yoko Ono show, "Touch Me," at the Galerie LeLong, one is immediately struck by the presence of a young gentleman sitting on a chair at the edge of an enclosed small room. In that room is a small objet d'art, a high-heeled shoe, with bleedings of bubbly red paint on its edge and interior. It is Ono's "Family Album Exhibit M, High Heeled Shoe." It's worth thousands of dollars and, you would think, should be enclosed in a thick, bulletproof glass case. But it isn't. Instead, a young man is paid to sit there, bored out of his mind, and stare at the objet in case anyone might try to handle or, perhaps, steal the shoe. So, the first question to ask about the show - one which cuts to the heart of what Ono's art is about - is why does the gallery prefer to use a low-paid drudge rather than a lockbox to guard her art? A superficial examination might conclude this is done merely for cost effectiveness. The super-exploited gallery employees obviously earn little money and saves the cost of fitting an expensive box. Still, I think the choice is more ideological. By leaving the shoe outside the box, as it were, the arrangement creates an atmosphere of casualness, informality and freedom, which, as long as one studiously ignores the context, gives the work an aura of being unfettered. Let's go further and note that this attempt to establish such a gallery tone falls in with the (sad) attempt to recreate the feelings Ono's work evoked in her youth when she was a vital member of the Fluxus Group. This re-creation is done most diligently by playing contrasting videotapes of her Cut Piece, a performance in which she allows random audience members come forward and clip off pieces of her dress. It was done as part of a Fluxus event in 1965 at Carnegie Recital Hall. Then, it was redone as a nostalgic tribute in 2003. The two performances are as different as night and day or, more appropriately, life and death. Note these distinctive attributes of the Fluxus version.
1. It involves a small group of participants doing the shearing, as evidenced by the fact that the same people come on stage repeatedly, in other words, it is a community.
2. The participants are dressed in shabby elegance, wearing cast-off, shiny suits or out-of-fashion dresses, suggesting they are down-at-heels bohemians.
3. Each cut is done as a premeditated artistic act, some being more expressive or inventive than others, as evidenced by how a well-placed snip is applauded by the audience.
4. The camera woman or man is given unrestricted freedom, so that at times that person is training the lens on the back of Ono's head, at others, zooming in on a near-invisible audience.
All in all, one gathers that the interaction combines solemnity and a sense of shared adventure. The re-created 2003 version lacks all this and is, indeed, the diametrical and perverse opposite:
1. There is no sense of community among the cutters, who are all different.
2. They are all dressed well, though some casually, indicating they are socialites or well-off functionaries.
3. There is no finesse in the cutting, which seems almost perfunctory, the performance of a ritual that no longer has any meaning. (We'll come back to this.) No audience response is heard.
4. The camera work is rigidly conventional, that of a hired hand, not a fellow participant.
In sum, as the participants move through the sequence like automatons, there is no applause, no spontaneity, no real life. In fact, it is as if the participants were as dispirited and uninterested in what they are doing as the young man guarding the high heels. And this, I think, is what Ono is saying by presenting these two tapes. For both the 2003 re-creation tape and the pervasive unhappiness that pervades the gallery (perhaps a read-off of the sensibility of the exploited workers employed in them) are clear presentations to show that the New York City art world in our neoliberal, neoconservative era - whatever the skill or even genius of the artists that show in it - is largely inhabited by tragic zombies who fastidiously re-create works of a more lively era, only acting in this way so they can be dead a little longer.