In 2002, when Cheryl Sim was an art-crazed young woman in her twenties, she traveled from Montreal to Toronto to see an exhibition of her hero, Yoko Ono, at the National Gallery of Ontario.
The experience left a deep mark on her.
âI am also of Asian origin,â Sim says on the phone from Montreal. “I grew up in Canada in the 70s, and I didn’t really see a lot of people who looked like me in any type of mainstream. anything, so when I discovered this person called Yoko Ono through his music, I said to myself: “She’s a great lady!” I fell in love with his power, his strength, to be âout thereâ and to do a really cutting-edge job in the music world.
“And then, as I was also interested in things like video art, I discovered his multidisciplinary practice, and I was really in love with the daring and the free spirit that guided his work, then later I just found her message of peace and hope a real touchstone, you know. so a lot, but she always insisted unswervingly that we never give up hope. And there was his own quest, artistic and otherwise, for freedom – that’s what we all really want. We all want to be happy and free. “
Now curator and general manager of Montreal Phi Foundation for Contemporary Art, Sim is also co-curator, with Gunnar B. Kvaran, of GROWING IN FREEDOM: Yoko Ono’s instructions /The art of John and Yoko, a traveling exhibition opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery on October 9. The exhibition is divided into two parts, the first of which examines Ono’s artistic process, reflecting his radical and unconventional approach, and the second highlighting Ono and her late husband John Lennon collaborative art projects aimed at promote peace. (Two other works linked to the exhibition, OCCURRING (2013) and WATER EVENT (1971), will feature the participation of local women and Indigenous artists.)
In her role as co-curator of GROWING FREEDOM, Sim was finally able to meet and exchange ideas with his visionary idol.
âShe was really ahead of her time in terms of how she approached artistic creation,â says Sim. âFirst of all, what’s really cool is that all of his works are reproducible. She really thwarted the whole art market issue, because anyone can reproduce her instructions. It’s words, that’s it, so it’s not these inconspicuous things that travel in crates and need special temperature and humidity and that sort of thing. And then the other thing she did that was extremely radical for the time was to include we within the framework of the works. And by reading or experiencing the instructions, then using our imaginations to engage with them, the work is done through us. Without us, work is not work.
“So no one was doing that, and it was extremely unheard of at the time. And then she was interdisciplinary in a time when no one was interdisciplinary. You know, you were a painter, or you were a sculptor.–you did not mix the two. She did it all, and that’s how she was one of the first conceptual artists. In addition, she tackled the issues of women, violence against women and the body of women very early on.
“One of his ‘Cut Pieces’, which is probably the best known–and will have a great place in the exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery–is really intense. She was sitting on the stage, fully dressed, a pair of scissors next to her, and the instructions received when arriving in the performance hall were: âCome and cut a piece of the artist’s clothingâ. And you can imagine that back in the 1960s seeing an Asian woman in that type of very public, very vulnerable form was something you didn’t see every day. It was a challenge for so many sensitivities on many levels. “
Cut piece will be presented at VAG through a short film of a performance Ono performed at Carnegie Hall in the mid-1960s. It is part of “Instructions from Yoko Ono”, along with works such as Repair part, 1966 and Paint for driving a nail, 1966.
âInstructional work is really a major series that’s still going on for her,â Sim explains, âand it’s basically words put together as instructions to follow. They manifest in different ways. Sometimes they really don’t. than text on the wall; sometimes they have a physical action that goes with them. Paint to drive a nail, for example, that’s the instruction, but there’s a canvas-shaped wood panel that’s been painted white, and nails, and a hammer, and so you’re participating by sort of doing this work of art by hammering your nail in.
“And there’s another song called Repair part where there are all these broken pieces of dishes that are on a table and you are invited to take pieces and then make little works, little sculptures, using tape and glue and string and transforming these pieces into something. Sort of doing something positive out of the destruction. So there is action, participation and imagination, it all comes out, and that’s it we-we can do anything. We end each of these works in the first part of the show. “
Sim thinks the second part of GROW IN FREEDOM, “The Art of John and Yoko”, is perhaps the only exhibition to date that has succeeded in making it clear that Lennon and Ono were making art together as collaborators.
âIt wasn’t more John than Yoko,â she said, âit’s more the opposite. It’s what she had been working on for years before the collaborative work began that informed the work they have. made together, like The war is over, the advertising campaign for peace, where she had been working for a long time with language and words and signs and posters. I mean John Lennon’s power at that time was really engaging politically with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement–all these things that happened in the late 60s–and when they met and started to exchange ideas, they were both unstoppable.
âSo in part two we explore that. We explore the Montreal bed-in, but we looked at it rather than just being this media event; we saw it as a work of art. C was a performance work. They did the same thing. in Amsterdam a few months before, after their wedding. And they had done this thing called Acorn piece where they each planted acorns on the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral, one to the east and one to the west, to show that if a woman from Japan and a man from Liverpool could come together and make it work and unite their forces for good, then we can do anything. “