Yoko Ono's The Learning Garden of Freedom

June 14, 2020 | Anna Zielazny

The exhibition Yoko Ono: The Learning Garden of Freedom, curated by Jon Hendricks and Philippe Vergne can be visited at the Serralves Foundation in Porto until the 15th of November. There the visitors will find different types of work such as installations, videos, archival materials, poems and more. Situated in the museum and park, it includes many art pieces created by Yoko Ono: new ones and some created during her rich artistic career.

The curators, together with the artist, take the viewer into a journey through the space of the museum, usually exclusive, reserved towards visitors. This time, however, at the beginning guests can read a message from Yoko Ono, who encourages visitors to interact with her art, play with it and become a part of it.

The latest was treated very explicitly: the exhibition starts with stairs, slides and holes through which visitors can pass. This unique kind of playground was created in a white wall. The idea of the white cube here becomes deconstructed: white walls that should serve as a neutral frame for a piece of art are becoming a frame for the visitors, who are creating the piece in the moment.

In "We are All Water", Yoko Ono sets a row of glass bottles with names tagged on them. Visitors can find names such as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Adolf Hitler, David Bowie, Gunter Gross or Amália Rodrigues, a famous fado singer. More or less in the middle of the piece are situated two bottles tagged with Yoko Ono and John Lennon stickers.

On the wall right next to the shelf with bottles, visitors can find Yoko Ono's description 'Water Talk': you are water/ I'm water/ we're all water in different containers/ that's why it's so easy to meet/ someday we'll evaporate together (...).

Through this piece, the artist saying that we are all water shows that in the core we share the same substantiality and because of that, as the water does, we can shape ourselves. Even if closed in a bottle, we are fluid, with the possibility to change.

This piece recalls the memento mori motif in a very original way - death may end our differences, but as water is forever circulating in the universe, humans do the same.

"Helmets/Piece of Sky" is an installation in which multiple helmets are hanging from the ceiling. While passing by visitors can hear cawing crows. This piece can be read as a tribute to soldiers' victims of war. Vulturous sounds remind of battlefields full of decay. However, inside each of them we can find jigsaw puzzle pieces in the colour blue. Scattered pieces can suggest that it is necessary to again find the meaning after an experience of war.

Anonymous helmets that cannot be affiliated to a particular person shows that soldiers are treated as a collective, never as individuals. What has to be fixed is the collective memory, scattered in the lost heads, lives and meanings.

Creating a full image out of jigsaws demands however time and also imagination. As Yoko suggests, we have to imagine things first and then everything can be possible.

In "Ex It", the artist sets multiple, wooden coffins in the room. The coffins have three sizes: for men, women, and kids. Their amount and the fact that they are in all sizes may recall the issue of genocide and innocent victims of all wars.

The title can be treated as the exit - getting out of somewhere, for example, getting out of life into another world. But can be also read separately as an ex it - something previous that became something else - corpses turned into trees. It is hard to not think about reincarnation while looking at this piece. Olives trees are growing from the coffins where we would normally expect for the head to be situated.

The olive tree is also a symbol of immortality and peace. It stands on the contrary to anonymous, simple coffins. Trees are turning the cemetery into the saintly grove in which we can hear birds singing. The new life is growing back from the box of death.

In the very last room, the curators set very moving pieces. While entering the room, visitors can hear a desperate woman’s voice, most probably experiencing sexual violence. In front of the entrance, on the wall, there are pictures of women’s eyes with text under them. "Arising" was made by the artist in collaboration with women who decided to share their "testament of harm done to them for being women". This collective action is in constant creation. Exhibited in many places is a statement for the "universality" of women experiencing violence all over the world.

Together with sounds which are coming from the video projected on the perpendicular wall, reading these explicit statements becomes a heartbreaking task. Women show just their eyes and describe experiences. Because of that, they can remain anonymous but also because of that their experience becomes a collective one. Participation in this experience is not only hard but also in a way purifying and inclusive.

In the dark corner of the room, there is a table. On it, a pile of blank paper is waiting for another testament and is a reminder of how many women remain in silence regarding their experience. Even though the chair is encouraging one to sit next to the table and write, there is no pen. As sometimes there are not yet words to describe something that is devoid of meaning.

Yoko Ono doesn't leave visitors by themselves: she gives them a hint on how to interact with a particular piece, how to use it, become a part of it. At the beginning of the exhibition, visitors are encouraged to interact with pieces. However, people are staying reserved. Unfortunately, the museum does not say clearly which pieces visitors can interact with (as some should remain untouched) and because of that experiencing this exhibition fully is impossible. There should be clearer instructions regarding that.

Learning Garden of Freedom can be also treated as an artistic intervention in the institutionalized idea of the museum. A space with rules, exclusive, becomes a playground, a garden in which we can learn about ourselves and others. Yoko Ono, connected with peaceful movements, is reminding us in each piece that the meaning of art and freedom can be in everyone's hands.

As the title mentions, we are in the Learning Garden of Freedom. Freedom is not something we have, but rather something we have to constantly learn.

I'm a polish art historian, specialized in Eastern European art. Currently, I am living in Porto, Portugal. I am a creative writer and an author of SlowMotionTravels blog.

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