An exhibition by Yoko Ono is the first in a new gallery at Leeds Arts University. But it’s not the only time her work has been seen in the city, writes Chris Bond.
Back in 1966, a young experimental artist from Japan performed in Leeds. Many of those in the audience had probably never heard of her before, but by the end of the decade she was one of the most recognisable women on the planet. Her name was Yoko Ono.
Patrick Hughes, a surrealist artist, recalls the performance in the Vernon Street building at Leeds College of Art (now Leeds Arts University). “Yoko Ono visited with her then husband Anthony Cox, and their three-year-old daughter Kyoko. When we came into the lecture theatre, Yoko and Anthony were hidden in a large black bag on the dais and a full auditorium of students and staff looked at the bag for an hour.
“They did not move much. We could not see them, but we learnt that they could see us through the material.”
A leading proponent of the Fluxus movement, a group of avant-garde artists that rose to prominence in the 60s, Yoko has enjoyed high-profile exhibitions around the world.
And now her work is once again on show in Leeds in an exhibition in the new Blenheim Walk Gallery at Leeds Arts University, part of a £22m state-of-the-art building expansion which includes a 230-seat performance space as well as photography and fashion studios.
Dr Catriona McAra, the university’s curator, says the exhibition ties the past and present together. “Yoko is such a well known international name and I thought it would be a nice way to celebrate this and the new building.”
The exhibition – Yoko Ono at Leeds – features a series of installation-based works. “There’s one called Wish Trees, where visitors are invited to hang their wishes on two holly trees that are native to Yorkshire. This is how Yoko works, she tends to send the idea and we have everything on site. There’s also an installation called Mend Piece where people are invited to put crockery back together, and while they’re doing so they’re meant to consider mending the world.”
As well as famously being married to John Lennon, Yoko Ono has carved out a reputation as a successful multimedia artist and peace activist and her works in Leeds reflect her message of hope and optimism.
Other installations such as Add Color Painting (Refugee Boat) also highlight darker issues. “It’s a wide range of artworks from throughout her career. Some of the pieces date back to the 1960s, others are more recent,” says McAra. “We’ve been working with her representatives in New York and she did say she’d do the exhibition and that she had fond memories of her time in Leeds.”
The name ‘Yoko Ono’ will forever be synonymous with Lennon, however her reputation as a ground-breaking female artist has made her a pioneering figure in the eyes of many people today.
McAra is among those who feel she was ahead of her time. “She’s an amazing conceptual practitioner and perhaps people don’t know her work as much as they should, but it’s very DIY, it’s very down to earth and it’s nice that the audience are asked to help make the work.
“She was one of the initiators of that kind of art practice where art is less about something you sell and more about something you experience.”
Yoko Ono at Leeds, Blenheim Walk Gallery, Leeds Arts University, runs until March 14.