The Ballad of John and Yoko opened at the MMFA on Tuesday to media fanfare and huge crowds. In fact it was so crowded I barely made it in to the exhibition. Billed as a VIP event, in a brilliant turn of pr, half of Montreal turned out to the opening waiving their exclusive invites only to be left standing in the foyer while Yoko’s image was beamed onto a giant hovering TV screen like something out of The Prisoner.
From where I was standing she wasn’t seen and was barely heard (judging by news reports she talked peace, Lennon and giggled a lot), though a children’s choir singing “Imagine” came through a-okay. When we—my friend and Pin Pal, Sara, and I were dates—finally made it to the second floor we headed straight to the drinks and for one not-so-obvious reason.
While we waited patiently for over an hour to get into the exhibit, quite a few people who’d already viewed the show were leaving. One woman in particular took it upon herself to put us all out of our misery by shouting her thoughts to a friend in the waiting crowd. “It’s NOT that good,” she said with an exaggerated frown. “Definitely not worth the wait.” So wine in hand, we hunkered down and waited for the crowds to thin out before braving what we expected would be a disappointing exhibition. Contrary to the killjoy, and to the museum’s credit, it was worth the wait.
Curators Emma Lavigne and Thierry Planelle have succeeded in turning an overexposed, dated, baby-boomers-bathing-in-the-glory-of-their-youth subject, it into something genuinely clever, modern and interesting.
Part of what makes this exhibit particularly engaging and different, especially for the MMFA—a museum known for its look, don’t touch policy—is the inclusion of the viewer as participant. Audience interaction has always been a part of Ono’s work and here it’s invoked in just the right amount and in the right way.
The show opens with the piece “Hammer in Nail,” which was included in Ono’s show at the Indica Gallery in 1966 and as the title suggests involves you, the audience, banging a nail into a piece of wood. It’s a tactile way to draw attention to her as an artist, not as the woman who broke up the Beatles. Even if you ignore the piece, the sound of others hammering a way will call your attention back to it.
Newer works, like “Wish Tree,” which asks that you tie your thoughts to a number of potted plants in the room and “Play It by Trust,” a banquet sized table of 15 chess boards awaiting your next move, continue with the interactive theme. Ono too remains part of this interaction with “Yoko phone” and old rotary that, when dialed, will put you in direct contact with the artist once a day at an unspecified time. At the time of my call, however, I reached security.
The exhibit also includes album art from Lennon and Ono’s work together, as well as a replica of the white piano Lennon played in the “Imagine” video, all of which leads up to the Bed-in exhibit featuring posters, sketches and photos of the couples honeymoon-protest all surrounding a king sized bed (not the actual bed, mercifully, but a stand-in). Which brings us back to the centre of the exhibit, this high-profile relationship.
At its core the exhibition is about Lennon and Ono, the couple. Though it gives ample and deserved space their anti-war protests and Ono the artist, the exhibit is a meditation on their work together and apart and the influences they had on each other. Ono’s conceptual work is what makes this exhibit something more modern and contemporary, even if much of it was created in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s her creations that add the much needed element of the outsider, of an audience. Without it, it’s a look at a celebrity relationship with political leanings. But with it, a historical protest becomes contemporary art.