YOKO ONO AT THE HEONG GALLERY DOWNING COLLEGE
Looking for Yoko Ono? Not hard to find her. She is everywhere at the moment. Were you aware we are well into an entire year of Yoko Ono in Cambridge?
A sequence of events has already begun to span a whole twelve months celebration of her achievements as a conceptual artist .
There was a time when Yoko was the most unpopular woman in Britain. She was the marriage–wrecker and mysterious outlier, a way- out, super-hippy and influential intruder, she was the woman who had single -handedly broken up the Beatles – and the fans, always seemingly on the brink of hysteria in their devotion - did not like her. She and lover John Lennon had to run for cover, filmed constantly in flight from shouty journalists - or defiantly determined to stage their own personal anti-war protests against the Vietnam conflict: the Amsterdam sleep-in where they stayed in bed for peace, scored real notoriety was an idea from Yoko Ono herself. The two artists found a forum in 1969 in the rather unlikely haven of Cambridge University Lady Mitchell lecture room. It became the epicentre of Yoko’s filmic activity. Yoko and John’s happening there was so significant a plaque has marked it. The plaque was unveiled back in March but the homage to Yoko has really only just got going, promoted by the Heong Gallery.
A word about the Heong. Despite it’s rather bald name, Heong is a delightful small gallery right slap bang in the centre of Cambridge - just march through Downing College’s imposing main gates and boldly swerve sharp left and you’re suddenly off the roaring pollution of Regent street and in an exquisite peaceful space.
On my visit it was staffed by two or three friendly University students who exuded the kind of calm competence a cool exhibition like this one really needs. In fact with its delightful courtyard garden and simplicity of design the Heong is successfully achieving everything Kettles Yard does and with much less costly razzamatazz. As a venue, it deserves more acclaim.
Yoko’s work is consistently simple. The sky photographs are beautiful and the concept of the enduring, eternal canopy over creation clearly stands for peace, hope and a future communion with the whole of nature. Yoko began her fascination with sky when as a child bombs rained down on Tokyo and she left the city for refuge in the countryside. A calm untroubled sky is part of her vision. And like John Ruskin whose interest in clouds intensified to obsession in his later life, Yoko has returned to sky scenes to express her philosophy of international brother and sisterhood. Outside on the lush Downing lawns she shows us the way there – stark white stepladders of different sizes point the way up.
Outside the Gallery a wish tree opens its branches for ‘hopes’. The first label I read was someone who hoped for a resolutions of his taxation problem , a less than esoteric aspiration - but it did sharply remind me of the controversy over John and Yoko’s apparently spiritual message and their immense wealth – famously, racks of fur coats were in cold storage within their sumptuous New York apartment.
Yet there is something touching in the simplicity of Yoko’s art in this exhibition. where the serenity of her sky pictures is offset by a loud recording of birdsong - not nightingales or larks, the inspiration of poets from long ago, but the sharp cry of crows crowding together at dusk.
In this way, does Yoko Ono exhibit her hope and her optimism for humanity, and represent the echoes of bitter grief and of loss that have haunted her life. She finds it hard to travel at 81, ‘She is old now’ the youthful assistant tells me ‘ And it is dangerous for her to come here – the fame of the Beatles still’ she adds.