When Yoko Ono first exhibited her art piece “Freight Train” — in Berlin on Oct. 1, 2000 — she expressed hope that the 21st century would bring better times to humanity than had the 20th.
Almost four years in, it’s not looking so good. But no matter how futile world peace and justice for all may seem, we can relish in the fact that at least Ono hasn’t given up. Since the early ’60s, she’s tirelessly challenged violence, cruelty and injustice. And now, at 70, she continues to recognize the possibility of positive change.
At a recent Detroit appearance, Ono was purely charming and effortlessly winsome in a leather jacket, creamy silk scarf, matching cap and ever-present sunglasses as she expressed her “deepest love” for those gathered on the front lawn of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“[I] appreciate your effort in creating such a beautiful society of very complex, multiracial situation. I think that I want to report to the universe of your effort,” she said.
Ono was on hand for a dedication of “Freight Train,” one of her latest works, which will be displayed on the DIA’s southwest lawn through next spring. It’s the train’s fourth stop after Berlin, Yokohama, Japan, and New York.
Ono created the piece in 1999 after hearing of 19 Mexican immigrants left for dead in a boxcar in Sierra Blanca, Texas. The single survivor told authorities that the man who smuggled the group across the border put them in the boxcar and locked the door.
“Freight Train” is a German boxcar, rising nearly 10 feet from a segment of track and stretching about 32 feet long. Its walls are riddled with bullet holes and a light shines from within, piercing the wounds and emanating in a searchlight-like ray through the roof of the train. The boxcar hums with music orchestrated by Ono — a haunting, deep-purr drone that fades into twittering bird songs, intended to evoke the “hope of the spirits trapped within,” Ono has said.
She calls “Freight Train,” “a work of atonement for the injustice and pain we’ve experienced in this century, expressing resistance, healing and hope for the future.”
She further explained to the crowd at DIA that during the 20th century, “human experiment in cruelty reached its height.”
“In other centuries, we still had an excuse maybe to kill each other either for self-defense or for our survival. In the 20th century, we as a human race were wise enough to not have to be cruel. Still, the strong need to be cruel to each other was passed on to us from the past century and acted on repeatedly. In fact, we created the most savage century in the history of the human race. In fact, right now we are so steeped in the psychodrama we have created, we can no longer see our true reality except through instances of various propaganda.”
At the same time Ono was speaking to a sizable crowd gathered outside the DIA, across the Atlantic tens of thousands of protesters were speaking out against war, brutality, dishonesty and corruption, expressing an overall feeling that shit’s falling apart.
While Ono’s inspiration for the train was specific, the piece can be interpreted in any number of ways. That it’s a German boxcar brings back horrible images of deportation trains during the Holocaust. Because trains suggest motion and the exhibit is traveling, it calls to mind the concept of a moving message, one that graffiti artists have long latched onto.
In Detroit, it has a different resonance.
“I think it has special poignancy here in Detroit because, of course, the idea of a freedom train means so much more than it may in other cities” because of Detroit’s participation in the Underground Railroad, said DIA Director Graham Beale.
A representative of the Mexican government at the dedication gave Ono a certificate of recognition, thanking her for advocating for civil rights and immigrant rights.
The exhibition was sponsored by Gilbert B. Silverman, a local art collector and DIA board member emeritus. Silverman and his wife, Lila, own one of the most comprehensive collections of the 1960s and 1970s Fluxus art movement, of which Ono was a part. Fluxus was a loose collective of painters, sculptors, composers, writers and others who identified with such notions as art being an idea rather than an object and changing the role of the artist. Silverman helped bring Ono’s piece to Detroit.
“We have here what I think is a real marriage,” Silverman said at the dedication. “I would like to thank everybody who did all the work in getting the freight train here, but particularly I want to thank Yoko, who I feel is one of the world’s great artists today.
“Actually, what I feel is the work of art, you can’t see. It’s the idea. And Yoko had the idea and inasmuch as you can’t see an idea, you have the freight train. But you have to look at the freight train and then get a feeling of what the idea is and then really feel the art. And I think that’s wonderful.”
Silverman lauded DIA director Beale, saying it took courage to display Ono’s conceptual piece.
“And I feel that what’s really happened here is a marriage has taken place between a great artist and a great museum director,” Silverman said.
Ono’s art is said to have been the thing that first attracted her late husband, John Lennon. Individuals “experiencing” Ono’s pieces often are invited to take part in their completion. Two months ago in Paris, as a post-Sept. 11 memorial/protest, Ono did a revival of her 1964 peace protest that required audience members to cut off her clothing. (Also this year, a remixed version of a song she recorded just before Lennon’s death, “Walking on Thin Ice,” hit Billboard’s No. 1 spot for dance track club play.)
During her Paintings & Drawings exhibition in 1961, she included “Painting to be Stepped On,” a piece of canvas laid on the floor to be walked across.
Perhaps her best-known installation is “Ceiling Piece,” where the “seeker” must climb a ladder to view text on a framed piece of paper on the ceiling. When one arrives at the top, a hanging magnifying glass is used to read the word “yes.”
In “Telephone Piece,” another installation popular in Europe, Ono would make calls from New York to a telephone, and speak to whomever in the gallery picked up the phone. A sign on the installation instructs passers-by to pick up the phone if it rings.
Closer to home is “Wish Tree for Detroit,” a living ginko tree and accompanying stone sculpture at Times Square downtown. The sculpture includes a plaque inviting visitors to “whisper your wish to the bark of the tree.”
Other works are described in Grapefruit, a book of instructions and drawings by Ono put back into print nearly 30 years after it was first published. One set of instructions reads as follows:
Light canvas or any finished painting
with a cigarette at any time for any
length of time.
See the smoke movement.
The painting ends when the whole
canvas or painting is gone.
Melissa Giannini uncovers the art world for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]