4 minutes with MCA’s chief curator Rachel Kent

Image credit: MCA/Matthu Placek

This story was first published on former NRMA site Live4 on November 14, 2013. Image courtesy of the MCA.

The first Australian survey of legendary artist, activist and musician Yoko Ono opens this month at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The exhibition, titled War Is Over! (if you want it), showcases five decades of Ono’s work including sculpture, installation, interactive artworks, films, written texts and sound compositions. We spoke with the MCA’s chief curator Rachel Kent about how she approached the  project.

How would you describe Yoko Ono’s War Is Over! (if you want it)? What does it encompass?

War Is Over! (if you want it) is the first Australian survey exhibition by Yoko Ono. It encompasses five decades of Yoko Ono’s art, from her text and instructional works to her sculpture and installations, film and sound works. It is an immersive exhibition, inviting visitors to get involved in a range of works – not just by looking, but by interacting, making and doing. The exhibition takes its title from an activist campaign by Yoko Ono and her late husband John Lennon from Christmas 1969, in which they employed billboards in multiple cities worldwide to share their message of peace and hope with the wider world.

What themes does it explore?

The exhibition explores many ideas, with a particular focus on Yoko Ono’s participatory works. These artworks invite visitors to become involved through a range of hands-on activities from stamping world maps with the words ‘Imagine Peace’ to mending broken crockery to playing a game of chess together.

Yoko Ono’s artworks take their cue from short written texts or ‘instructions’, inviting people to use the power of their minds to visualise a range of possibilities. Some works exist as ideas only, but others take material form – sometimes years or even decades after the original instruction. Yoko Ono has been active in the world peace movement for many decades, and her message of reconciliation and participation opens up the possibility of a positive, shared vision for the future – one without violence and conflict.

This is the first major survey of Yoko Ono’s work in Australia. How did you approach curating a project of this kind?

This has been a very exciting project to develop. From the initial concept through to its physical realisation, this process has taken three to four years. I wanted to introduce a whole new audience to Yoko Ono’s art. There is no question that most people in Australia will know her name, but few will have an insight into her career as an artist. John Lennon once commented that Yoko Ono was the world’s ‘most famous unknown artist’. This major exhibition offers Australian audiences the opportunity to engage in depth and learn more about her extraordinary, decades-long artistic career.

What did you enjoy the most about working on it?

So many aspects of this project that been very satisfying. First, Yoko Ono has been enthusiastic and generous with her time. She has been involved throughout the process and visited Sydney for it in December 2011 to view our new museum construction and galleries – to plan her project especially.

Second, she has developed a number of artworks that are specific to this project and for Australian audiences – among them, the participatory work ‘Wish Tree for Sydney’. This work recalls the Shinto wish trees of Yoko Ono’s childhood. It invites visitors to write their private messages of peace onto small paper cards and tie them to the branches of six native Australian eucalypt saplings. No-one’s wish will be discarded at the exhibition’s conclusion; Yoko Ono keeps every single wish in her archive, which currently houses close to 1 million such wishes from around the world. I find this particular work visionary, respectful and generous. It demonstrates the power of our collective thought and a great hope for the future of our planet.

Do you have any personal favourite or standout works?

I have many favourites, including the ‘Wish Tree’ project, so this is hard to decide. One that stands out is a participatory work called ‘My Mommy is Beautiful’. It takes the form of a message wall in the gallery. Pencils and paper are supplied, and visitors are invited to write personal messages of love and thanks, forgiveness or reconciliation to their mothers. It offers an opportunity for reflection and acknowledgement, and Yoko Ono says that she was prompted in part to make this work as a way of thanking her own mother, in retrospect. Yoko Ono is herself a mother and a grandmother so this work is particularly meaningful for her. It is also meaningful for me as a mother, and I have seen some people cry as they write their messages.

How do you think Australian visitors will respond to the exhibition?

I hope that visitors to the exhibition will each take away something meaningful, something personal, from their experience of the exhibition, including a new way of thinking through their relationship to world peace and the end of conflict. It is about thinking about the future of our planet and what we wish to leave for the next generation – our children, and those who follow them. Yoko Ono has been a prominent peace activist for decades now, and her concerns extend to the environment also, to the ways in which we treat our planet. She is particularly outspoken on the issue of fracking. Her exhibition is a welcome reminder of the importance of community, of people working to achieve a better and safer future together.

Yoko Ono’s War Is Over (if you want it) is on at the MCA from November 15 until February 23.