Review of Half-A-Room by Yoko Ono, 1967
Yoko Ono’s Half-A-Room is on display in a corner of her 2015 retrospective, One Woman Show, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The retrospective itself exhibits works by Ono made from 1960 through 1971– a crucial time both in Ono’s career as an artist, and in her formation as a public figure in Western popular culture. Drawing from an array of Ono’s works from this time period, the exhibition emphasizes Ono’s importance as an international artist crucial in the development of Conceptual art across media– making work through performances, found objects, instructions, sketches, video, photography, and music, among other forms.
Half-A-Room consists of household objects, mostly painted white, all cut directly in half with only one of the halves displayed, and strewn around a closed-off but conspicuous area roughly in the middle of the exhibition itself. The array of “half-objects” consists of two chairs, two shoes, a vase of flowers, a piece of luggage, a radio, a hung framed painting, a hat, two cupboards, various kitchen and cleaning utensils, two teapots, glass containers, the base of a globe, a brush, a radio, a bag, and a few small objects that are indiscernible except for the certainty that they are domestic in category. Half of the area, or room, is covered by off-white flooring, while the other half remains the exposed wooden floor of the rest of the exhibition’s gallery. Half-A-Room is closed off from the gallery space by a short glass border, allowing the viewer to walk up close while still being maintained at a distance, never truly being immersed in the room itself. The objects are placed in purposeful untidiness, a disarray made all the more pronounced both by their “halfness–” reminiscent of brokenness– as well as by their displayed ageing. Each of the objects recalls typical objects of a conservative Western home in the middle of the 20th century, or more accurately half of a mid-century home, left untouched through the years and left to rot in neglect. The painted whiteness of most of the objects is a faded whiteness, recalling yet opposing the stark, crisp white of other pieces by Ono where common household objects are painted white (see: White Chess Set, 1966).
Half-A-Room is displayed as it was originally displayed in 1967, accompanied now as it was then by John Lennon’s Air Bottles, which consists of a series of nine glass jars of various sizes each fixed with a hand-written label denoting a different displayed or assumed to be displayed half-object. The jars are on view high upon a thin white shelf next to the closed-off area housing Half-A-Room, and they read, from left to right, Half-A-Painting, Half-a-Music, Half-A-Door, Half-A-Letter, Half-A-Wind, Half-A-Cupboard, Half-A-Shoe, Half-A-Life, and Half-A-Jacket.
Half-A-Room is singularly intriguing among the rest of Ono’s exhibited works from throughout the 1960s because it echoes in a particularly comprehensive way many of the themes that Ono touches upon in her work. These various themes include, but are not limited to, the conceptualization of the everyday, domesticity, explorations of traditional femininity, the duality between the mind and the body, and the color white as a symbol of peace and a subtly expressed anti-establishment sentiment. Conceptually, however, the piece’s wall text in the exhibition prioritizes Ono’s own quote regarding the piece: “Somebody said I should also put half-a-person in the show,” she said. “But we are halves already.”
Ono created Half-A-Room as an installation for her 1967 solo exhibition Half-A-Wind Show at the Lisson Gallery in London, for which Lennon also contributed Air Bottles. Displayed alongside the piece, next to the wall text, is the promotional poster for Half-A-Wind Show, which consists of a white rectangle with a horizontal line seemingly hand-drawn in the middle. Below the rectangle is the question, “Have you seen the horizon lately?” The minimalist poster echoes the minimalism of Half-A-Room in its whiteness, its spaciousness and its undeniable emptiness despite the clutter. The wall text for the piece also emphasizes that this is the first occasion in which Half-A-Room is displayed as it was originally displayed. These various curatorial decisions to emphasize the piece’s original display in 1967 bring to the forefront the piece’s theme of time. Likely one of the original effects of the piece in 1967, its ruminations on time and tradition through the purposeful anachronistic reference to a traditional mid-century domestic environment are made all the more pronounced in its display today, as the objects themselves have visibly aged and faded. Despite the fact that the installation’s chosen objects together recall Western ideals of the domestic sphere, along with the conservativism and tradition tied to their ideology, the overarching and more literal themes of brokenness and disarray clash with the white calm of the homely room. Conversely, the jarring and messy brokenness does not quite take over, as there is an undeniable calmness and peace to the installation as a whole.
Half-A-Room’s physical placement in the exhibition speaks not only to the curatorial focus of the exhibition itself, but also arguably to the placement of Ono herself as an artist and cultural figure in the public consciousness. Directly preceding Half-A-Room are the pieces Plastic Ono Band, War is Over!, Bed-In, and Fly, while directly across from it, arguably sharing the space, is Film No. 5 (Smile). The common denominator in all of these pieces is Ono’s collaboration with John Lennon, with Half-A-Room not being an exception due to its inclusion of Air Bottles within its space. Ono is artistically, as well a culturally, intrinsically linked to Lennon due to their artistic as well as romantic involvement– both of them iconic figures in the artistic and pop cultural history of Western culture. Yet, just in case Lennon’s Air Bottles is overlooked by a hurriedly passing viewer (it is after all, rather secondarily placed high up in the space allotted to it and Half-A-Room), Lenon’s larger-than-life face is projected in Film No. 5 (Smile), directly overlooking Half-A-Room, slowly forming into a looming, temporary grin.