If the value of a life isn’t measured by its content, but rather by its expanse, Yoko Ono does seem a lot closer to the full measure of hers than most. “I have a very large storage area in the house,” she was once reported as saying, “just so I can store all the way through all my ideas.” Some may see her as a destroyer of objects. Others may see her as a creator of images. She is both of these things.
If Ono was always one for an exhibition, it was in fact the Beatles that made it possible. Yes, of course it was the Beatles who redefined popular music, with a sophistication far beyond what had come before or since. Yet the gift for flamboyance for which they were initially said to be so parochial is now remarkable everywhere and noisily obvious.
It was a gift of a more recent vintage that inspired Ono’s wry, trashy and altogether fabulous version of Let It Be here. One of the things that made Ono “the artist”, perhaps the most fundamental contribution that art and film could make to the shift of attitudes and a spirit of openness we have seen all too rarely of late, was a sense of pop songs that existed outside the singer’s ego. Her insistence that a song be a song is vital to understanding what music was supposed to be. “Are you ready to be touched?,” she’d often ask them. It was an inflexible precondition of creating and loving a pop song in the early 60s. Now, it’s all about momentum and drive.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Ono’s show isn’t a retrospective or, unless you are actually looking very hard, are guided by memory, a high-tech stop-motion recreation of her 1971 song Women (Don’t Cry). It is, first and foremost, a celebration of Ono as a performer, which she could be in any number of ways, and none of them better than her fitting two seemingly immaterial acts – a piano and a child – into a single show.
The piano, a big piano surrounded by shelves of her records, has a strange ungainliness, constantly wobbling and shaking with a mixture of spontaneity and rigour that would make anyone heave with a sense of childishness and wonder. Then comes a child, a doll, beaming so bright there seems to be firecrackers in her hair. “These are my people,” she tells us, one of the few times she mentions them in the catalogue. “They’re my children. And what I’m making is my children.”
Piano as vehicle: Yoko Ono’s Let It Be album cover. Photograph: VASRI/REX/Shutterstock
The most immediate effect of having children in the show is that it gives this curious show weight and self-consciousness. The immense red guitar from the album Plastic Ono Band is a curious addition to the show – she rarely uses it – but doesn’t quite square with the larger gathering.
It isn’t supposed to. But it is a bit disconcerting. As a performer, Ono is simply astonishing: a little wild, a little funny, a little hard-on-the-audience-and-hard-on-the-gallery. In the midst of this she creates the most glamorous and airy set, two spacious stages with all the ambience of a tea dance, and two musical performances, one of which is a chancy flight of melody built around a haunting score she composed specially for this show, and the other a loose (and, in fact, a bit scary) number mixed and matched with a gnomic and frustratingly mysterious delivery.
At the first one, she is hardly interacting with the performers around her. Her piano fiddles on its own, but never communicates with anyone. As she plays on, she makes it obvious that she is not really addressing the crowd at all, in any way. Her words are irrelevant to what is happening. And the conversation she chooses to have with the audience is curious rather than intimate. “There are three ways of doing things,” she tells us later, without a hint of irony, “and we have chosen to do them this way.” It’s a tricky balance for any artist to achieve, and the only real admission that they may be on thin ice, but an outstanding one nonetheless.