In 2002, when Cheryl Sim was an art-crazed young woman in her twenties, she traveled from Montreal to Toronto to see an exhibition by her hero, Yoko Ono, at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The experience had a profound effect on her.
"I'm of Asian heritage as well," says Sim on the line from Montreal. "I grew up in Canada in the '70s, and I didn't really see many people who looked like me in any kind of mainstream anything, so when I discovered this person named Yoko Ono through her music I was like, 'This is one kick-ass dame!' I fell in love with her power, her strength, her being 'out there' and doing really avant-garde sort of work in the music world.
"And then as I also got into things like video art I discovered her multidisciplinary practice, and I really was in love with the audacity and the free spirit that informed her work, and then later on just finding her message of peace and hope a real touchstone, you know. She's been through so much, but she would always unwaveringly insist that we never let go of hope. And there was her own pursuit, artistically and otherwise, for freedom--that's what we all really want. We all want to be happy and free."
Now the curator and managing director of Montreal's Phi Foundation for Contemporary Art, Sim is also cocurator, with Gunnar B. Kvaran, of GROWING FREEDOM: The instructions of Yoko Ono/The art of John and Yoko, a touring exhibition that opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery on October 9. The exhibition is divided into two parts, the first of which delves into Ono’s artistic process, reflecting her radical and unconventional approach, and the second highlighting Ono and her deceased husband John Lennon’s collaborative art projects aimed at promoting peace. (Two other works connected to the exhibition, ARISING (2013) and WATER EVENT (1971), will feature the participation of local women and Indigenous artists.)
In her role as cocurator of GROWING FREEDOM, Sim finally got to meet and exchange ideas with her visionary idol.
"She was really ahead of her time in terms of the way that she addressed art-making," explains Sim. "First of all, what's really cool is that all of her works are reproducible. She really thwarted the whole art-market issue, because anyone can reproduce her instructions. They're words, right, so they're not these discrete objects that travel around in crates and need to have special temperature and humidity and that kind of thing. And then the other thing that she did which was extremely radical for the times, was including us as part of the work. And by us reading or experiencing the instructions and then using our imaginations to engage with them, the work is concluded through us. Without us, the work is not a work.
"So no one was doing that, and that was extremely unheard-of at the time. And then she was interdisciplinary at a time when no one was interdisciplinary. You know, you were a painter, or you were a sculptor—you didn't mix the two. She was doing everything, and she was an early conceptual artist in that way. Also, she was early in addressing issues of women, violence against women, and women's bodies.
"One of her 'Cut Pieces', which is probably the most well-known—and is going to have a nice place in the show at the Vancouver Art Gallery—is really intense. She was sitting on the stage, fully clothed, with a pair of scissors by her side, and the instructions people received when they arrived into the performance hall were: 'Come and cut a piece of the artist's clothing'. And you can imagine that, in the 1960s, seeing an Asian woman in that type of very public, very vulnerable form, was something you weren't seeing every day. It was challenging to so many sensibilities on many levels."
Cut Piece will be displayed at the VAG through a short film of a performance that Ono did in Carnegie Hall in the mid-'60s. It is part of "The Instructions of Yoko Ono", along with such works as Mend Piece, 1966 and Painting to Hammer a Nail, 1966.
"The instruction work is really a major series that's still ongoing for her," explains Sim, "and what those are are essentially words put together as instructions to us to follow. They manifest themselves in different ways. Sometimes they are really just text on the wall; sometimes they have a physical action that goes along with them. So Painting to Hammer a Nail, for example, that's the instruction, but there is a canvas-shaped wood panel that's been painted white, and nails, and a hammer, and so you participate by kind of making this work of art by hammering in your nail.
"And there's another piece called Mend Piece where there's all these broken pieces of dishes that are on a table and you're invited to take pieces and then create little works, little sculptures, through using tape and glue and string and making these pieces into something. Sort of making something positive out of destruction. So there's action, participation, and imagination, all coming out, and it's all us—we get to do everything. We complete every one of these works in the first part of the show."
Sim believes that the second part of GROWING FREEDOM, "The Art of John and Yoko", may be the only exhibition so far to successfully drive home the fact that Lennon and Ono were making art together as collaborators.
"It wasn't more John than Yoko," she says, "it's more the opposite. It's what she had been working on for years leading up to the start of the collaborative work that informed the work that they made together...[like] War Is Over, the advertising campaign for peace, where she had been working with language and word and display and postering for a long time already. I mean the power of John Lennon at that time was really becoming engaged politically with the Vietnam War and civil rights movement—all these things that were happening in the late '60s—and when they met and started exchanging ideas the two of them together were unstoppable.
"So in the second part we explore that. We explore the Montreal bed-in, but we looked at it rather than just being this media event; we looked at it as an artwork. It was a performance work. They did the same thing in Amsterdam a few months before, after they got married. And they had done this thing called Acorn Piece where they each planted acorns on the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral, one in the east and one in the west, to show that if a woman from Japan and a man from Liverpool could get together and make it work and join forces for good, then we can do anything."