The Object as Concept: Exploring the Role of Materiality in Yoko Ono’s ‘The Riverbed’— Margaryta Golovchenko

Mend Piece_Yoko_Ono

Image: Yoko Ono – Mend Piece, 2018 via The Gardiner Museum

Margaryta Golovchenko is an undergrad student at the University of Toronto, an editor for Poached Hare, and a book reviewer for Alternating Current. Her work has appeared in publications such as Acta VictorianaGlass: A Journal of PoetryContemporary Verse 2Metatron, and others. She is also the author of two poetry chapbooks. Her academic interests include art nouveau, ceramics, and Eastern European art.

The Object as Concept: Exploring the Role of Materiality in Yoko Ono’s The Riverbed

The definition of art as it relates to content, medium, and exhibition method has changed over the years. Today, the viewer’s engagement with a work of art begins even before they go to see it in person — previews and descriptions on gallery websites generate a sense of anticipation and expectation, creating distance between the concept and the physical object. A similar disconnection is found in Yoko Ono’s The Riverbed, which engages in a dialogue with the past and the present, Japan and the West, attempting to find a balance between the two. The exhibition balances the material and the interactive components in such a way that visitors begin to question which of the two is more important, drawing attention to the gallery space and bringing it to the foreground. In doing so, The Riverbed challenges the role and significance of the material object in conceptual installation art by redefining the idea of the artist as a maker.

The viewer becomes directionless immediately after entering the exhibition space, for although the main gallery walls and smaller interior ones break up the room into smaller sections for each of the three Pieces, there is no real “starting point” to the viewing experience. Ono invites the viewer to engage with the space in a way that transforms it from a formal gallery space to a familiar and almost intimate one, as “all really inhabited space bears the notion of home.”[1] Considering that the exhibition was previously exhibited in Galerie Lelong and Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York,[2] the role of material objects is twofold: as contents that fill the space and bring people into it, and as a means of facilitating interaction between viewer and space, so that it becomes an “[i]nhabited space [that] transcends geometrical space.”[3] The Riverbed questions the concept of time and permanence; will the cups of the Mend Piece be moved from the shelves once they are filled, or the strings of Line Piece taken down? The uncertainty in answering these questions is implicit in the recreation of the exhibition in different galleries, the components remaining the same but the arrangement always slightly different. The absence of a linear progression through the room at the Gardiner, as well as the fact that there are no strict exhibition guidelines that literally transpose the exhibition from one gallery to another, means that viewers experience the material object anew each time, implying that distance can exist even within the confines of four walls as well as be contained within a physical object.

Before considering how each of the three Pieces— Stone Piece, Line Piece, and Mend Piece — individually challenge the conventions of material culture and the notion of the art object, it is worth looking at how Yoko Ono introduces a tension between tradition and modernity in her decision to exhibit according to Western conventions. While the entire space emphasizes simplicity in form and color, there is a uniformity to it that is a stark contrast to the “ever slight […] difference in color as in shade, a difference that will seem to exist only in the mood of the viewer[,]”[4] found in traditional Japanese spaces. Most importantly, it “betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows,”[5] which Tanizaki describes as one of the main differences between Westerners and the Japanese. It is not in the scope of the paper to discuss this difference,[6] yet the distinction suggests that space, as a concept that relies on the physical walls to manifest itself, is not, and should not be, uniform. It is a surface just like physical objects such as porcelain are, subject to categorization in order to compare it to space in other cultures. The space of the gallery is a “frame” for each of the three Pieces in the same way that a frame suspends a canvas on a wall for easy visual consumption. However, the difference lies in the fact that the “frame” of the exhibition space is not passive nor merely a by-product of exhibiting work. Instead, Ono makes it a vital part of her work, an active rather than liminal component of the visitor’s experience that is integral to understanding how the material object is to be understood.

It is difficult to characterize the medium of the three Pieces. In the booklet that accompanied the New York exhibitions, the materials for Stone Piece, Line Piece, and Mend Piece were listed as “local variable rocks”, “materials variable”, and “ceramics, glue, tape, scissors, and twine”,[7] respectively. Ono’s refusal to confine herself to strict, familiar categories is a contrast to what occurred with the Japanese crafts movement, where “mingei was discovered, defined, and promoted by networks of urban, middle-class, male intellectuals,”[8] writing a convenient narrative despite the innate complexity of the subject.[9] The absence of uniformity is a rethinking of the term getemono[10], “roughly translatable as ‘low-grade things’”[11], by introducing the possibility of redefinition, both in the handling of objects as well as in the decision making process of choosing what is placed into the privileged context of the art object. The Riverbed gives the unconventional purpose through repurposing — while the broken ceramic shards of Mend Piece read according to the traditional understanding of mingei, then Stone Piece and Line Piece are more akin to Surrealist readymades. This is mainly because Ono favors creation as opposed to static display, “appreciation emerg[ing] from the intimate depths of the artist (or his patron) and not from any scrutinizing at a distance.”[12] The inability to classify eliminates the rigidity found in a regular gallery setting, as interaction encourages personal reflection and recontextualization.

In the three Pieces, Yoko Ono redefines the object by returning to the fundamental characteristics of form, colour, and function,  updating the qualities of “true mingei[13] for the present-day Western audience in the process. Of the three categories, form has the strongest material connotationas it determines what kind of dialogue is supposed to occur between the viewer and the object. Mend Piece, for instance, challenges the idea of “completion” by forcing visitors to create rather than recreate. It suggests a modern, almost commercial rethinking of “the Buddhist worldview of life and death as an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth”[14] by using mass-producible teacups and plates. Line Piece takes this further by introducing the idea of predecessors and lineage, where the visitor chooses whether a string will intertwine with the others, whether to continue the line from where it ended in the notebook or to begin on a clean new page. In both Mend Piece and Line Piece , the physical object loses the void-like existence that art objects often have due to their untouchable nature in the context of Western art galleries, “copying functions as part of a complex, multilayered process of socialization regulation and commodification.”[15] Each person assumes a dual role of master and apprentice to the point of bringing the already existing form of the stone in Stone Piece into being through touch, the stones not altered physically as much as they are metaphorically in the visitor’s mind. Form varies in the three Pieces, creating an intertextuality that “stimulate[s] the reordering of ‘conceptual complexity’ […] help[ing] [the viewer] to see art in unaccustomed ways.”[16] Such connections would not be possible if the viewer simply relied on sight, suggesting that materiality is an extension of the individual experience that relies on physical presence and a full use of the senses.

Colour, as mentioned earlier, is deceptively simple in The Riverbed. Minissale’s argument for the “[i]ntegrati[on] [of] brain, body and world”[17] describes the interconnection of colour and form in the material aspect of the exhibition. This is especially true for Mend Piece, where the whiteness of the ceramics “contain[s] temporal and spatial principles like ma (an interval of space and time) and yohaku (empty margin).”[18] Instead of separating colour from the object by considering it an aspect or feature, Ono makes it another focal point in the exhibition. Invoking the fluid classification of eighth-century Japan, where ideas of colour were association-based rather than adjective-based,[19] she explores the very same questions of creation, destruction, and impermanence that the physical object conveys through its tactility. White becomes a meeting point  for  the traditional and the contemporary: on one hand, the ease with which it is stained and ruined captures the Japanese wabi aesthetic, which “recommends the appreciation of an austere beauty and a serene and accepting attitude toward the cold vicissitudes of life”[20]; on the other, it captures the sanitized cleanliness that present-day Western society strives for in the commercial realm. It is not an attribute as much as it is a kind of underlying function, capable of conveying significance without relying completely on the form. The material object acts as a vehicle for visually conveying whiteness — the effect is more immediate, and familiar, by using visuals rather than words. Once again, the interactive nature of the exhibition, in which visitors grasp “whiteness” physically and emotionally, is emphasized, prioritizing contemplation and subtlety over passive visual and aesthetical evaluation.

Function has a similarly dual nature, much like colour, and can be separated into the “practical” and the “metaphorical”. Together, the two components bring together the practical realm of the real and  the artistic, created realm. It is difficult to classify each of the Pieces as practical. At the same time, they refuse the stereotypical passive gaze of the viewer, as mentioned earlier. Instead, the viewer is integral in defining functionality by making use of different areas of the brain — “memory, rational induction, linguistic processing and the imagination — in order to produce a conceptual way of seeing.”[21] Ono makes use of the fact that “[m]uch Japanese craft production and consumption is only made intelligible through the intangible social and cultural formations expressed in corporeal form”[22] — despite defining the desired outcome, the release of emotions and the creation of an intimate setting is not achieved through the object alone when it is static and isolated. Rather, it is a conductor through which the visitor is to perform the required actions. Multiplicity is therefore the final challenge to materiality, emphasizing personal meaning over cultural and erasing the boundary between original and copy in the same way that, in Japanese culture, “[i]f the copies are preserved the cultural object is not considered lost even if the original is long gone.”[23] An art object is not functional because it is unique — the material object of Yoko Ono’s The Riverbed is the reverse. The atmosphere of the kitchen table created by Mend Piece, the community created by the pathway visitors choose for their threads and by their hand-drawn lines in Line Piece, the words of affirmation like “Heal” and “Love Yourself” written on some of the stones in Stone Piece — each of these is a goal as opposed to a by-product, and in each of them, the object is a way of bringing the gap between the conceptual and the visual.[24]

The Riverbed is not unprecedented in Yoko Ono’s oeuvre, as the catalogues Instruction Paintings and Touch Me demonstrate, yet the role of materiality can be further questioned by considering language and words to be another form of it. Ono’s recollection of how a man questioned her emphasis on the instructions for how to construct a painting instead of displaying instructions and canvases side by side[25] demonstrates that words and the fleeting physical action can be made permanent, confined to the material realm through the linguistic and semiotic systems. Ono’s instructions are often filled with imagery — in “Painting for a Broken Sewing Machine”, for example, the visitor is told: “Place a broken sewing machine in a glass tank / ten or twenty times larger than the machine. / Once a year on a snowy evening, place the tank / in the town square and have everyone throw / stones at it.”[26] Ono places more emphasis on the physical destruction and, as a result, on the material object itself — it does not act as an entry point for emotional change the way it does in The Riverbed, where the goal is not to alter the physical as much as it is to use the physical to achieve the emotional. In other works, like touch me III, physical change is overlaid with emotional implications, as Ono “chose[ ] to leave the damage visible as a sign of the violence women experience through life.”[27] Among the three works, The Riverbed gives the individual the most room to define the material object by leaving very general instructions, from asking the viewer to “[c]hoose a stone and hold it until all [their] anger and sadness have been let go”[28] in Stone Piece, to “[t]ak[ing] [Ono] to the farthest place in our planet by extending the line”[29] in Line Piece, to simply making a statement that one should “[m]end with wisdom mend with love [,] [i]t will mend the earth at the same time”[30] in Mend Piece. The material object is stripped of its physical properties and becomes indefinite, even infinite, as the numerous actions and outcomes possible in The Riverbed show that the material is not the central fixture of the exhibition as much as it is a means of drawing people into the space and getting them to actively engage with the exhibition.

Yoko Ono’s The Riverbed plays with the categories of the art and material object but ultimately surpasses both. She demonstrates that materiality is a means of achieving a space of dialogue, where questions can be raised, themes explored, and people can engage in self-reflection. While the separation of the cultural and practical spaces has proven to be essential for the preservation of various craft techniques in the postwar period,[31] Ono creates a new set of conditions for the twenty-first century in which the visitor merges the two together. The multidisciplinary nature of The Riverbed ultimately makes it an experience rather than  a spectacle that one merely goes to see; the artist steps back and makes room for the visitor, who is in turn placed at the very center of the work, fulfilling a double function as a recipient and a vital component for the work’s completion.

 

Endnotes

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 2013), 5

[2] “The Riverbed.” Andrea Rosen Gallery. Accessed March 23, 2018. http://www.andrearosengallery.com/exhibitions/the-riverbed_2015-12-11.

[3] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 2013),47

[4] Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (London: Vintage Books, 2001), 30

[5] Ibid., 29

[6] For Tanizaki, shadows are both a thing of beauty and a quality that brings out the beauty of an object. His example of the unseen scroll, a temple treasure hidden in the shadows, is a notable example of this. See Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (London: Vintage Books, 2001), 30-31

[7] Yoko Ono, The Riverbed (New York: ARG Publishing and Galerie Lelong, 2015), 19

[8] Kim Brandt, Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 39

[9] Part of this was due to the vision of “Japaneseness” that was pushed by Yanagi and his followers, painting a nationalistic challenge to the West that undermined the very diversity of the craft movement. See Kim Brandt, Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 57-59

[10] The fact that the term getemono was often interchangeable with the term mingei undermines its position as a defining category. See Kim Brandt, Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 49-51

[11] Ibid., 49

[12] Donald Richie, A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (Berkley: Stone Bridge Press, 2007), 24

[13] Brandt lists the ten qualities as: functionality; use in the daily life of common people; produceable in large quantities; inexpensive; produced in a cooperative or collective manner; handmade; produced with natural and local materials; production involved traditional techniques and designs; produced by anonymous artisans without individualistic aesthetic intent; and simplicity. See Kim Brandt, Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 52

[14] Christine M.E. Guth, “The Multiple Modalities of the Copy in Traditional Japanese Crafts”, The Journal of Modern Craft 3, no. 1 (2010): 9

[15] Ibid., 10

[16] Gregory Minissale, “Conceptual Art: A Blind Spot for Neuroaesthetics?”, Leonardo 45, no. 1 (2012): 44

[17] Ibid., 46-47

[18]Ken’ya Hara, White (Baden: Lars Muller Publishers, 2010), 8

[19] See Ken’ya Hara, White (Baden: Lars Muller Publishers, 2010), 5-6

[20] Donald Richie, A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (Berkley: Stone Bridge Press, 2007), 46

[21] Gregory Minissale, “Conceptual Art: A Blind Spot for Neuroaesthetics?”, Leonardo 45, no. 1 (2012):47

[22] Christine M.E. Guth, “The Multiple Modalities of the Copy in Traditional Japanese Crafts”, The Journal of Modern Craft 3, no. 1 (2010): 14

[23] Kida Takuya, “‘Traditional Art Crafts (Dento Kogei)’ in Japan: From Reproductions to Original Works”, The Journal of Modern Craft 3, no. 1 (2010): 28

[24] Another interpretation of this is Bachelard’s statement that the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world”, thus the material can also be considered as a form of miniaturization with the purpose of simplifying. See Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 2013), 148-182

[25] Yoko Ono, Instruction Paintings (New York: Weatherhill, 1995), 5

[26] Ibid., 61

[27] Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: Touch Me (New York: Charta Art Books), 54

[28] Yoko Ono, The Riverbed (New York: ARG Publishing and Galerie Lelong, 2015), 9

[29] Ibid., 13

[30] Ibid., 17

[31] Kida Takuya, “‘Traditional Art Crafts (Dento Kogei)’ in Japan: From Reproductions to Original Works”, The Journal of Modern Craft 3, no. 1 (2010):31

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