Yoko Ono’s 1996 FLY Exhibition: An Essay by Curatorial Research Intern Andy Mazzella

April 4, 2023

As the Curatorial Research Intern for The Anderson this spring, it has been my pleasure to bring more attention to the history of the space, specifically the artists that have utilized it. My last research project was Kendall Buster’s The Shell that Remains, a temporary sculpture from 1996. This essay will cover well-known artist Yoko Ono. Also debuted in 1996, Ono’s FLY exhibition piqued my interest as I had never been exposed to it nor realized Ono had shown at The Anderson. The exhibition ran from October 18th to December 23rd of the same year. Curated by Jean Crutchfield, FLY had a variety of different aspects and pieces that created one unified show, even including artworks displayed throughout the city of Richmond. 

While researching this particular exhibition at The Anderson, I recognized that it wasn’t widely investigated. I had the opportunity to go to James Branch Cabell Library here on campus to learn more and look at certain components from FLY. While in the archives, I got to see photographs, polaroids, newspaper clippings, and the catalogue from the exhibition. I had access to a very helpful essay, The Many Forms of FLY, written by Veronica Parker who graduated from VCU with a Masters in Art History in 2020. I also got to take a look at research done by Chloe Abbadessa, the past Curatorial Research Intern from the Fall 2020 school year who graduated with a BFA in Craft & Material Studies. Like much of Ono’s work, FLY is a strong conceptual production. With conceptual art, the “idea” takes priority. The materials that make up the physical aspects of the work are used as a vehicle in which the artist can communicate the idea to the viewer. With this in mind, Ono utilized the environment provided to best communicate those ideas. 

Installation of Wish Tree outside of The Anderson, 1996

As previously mentioned, the show was composed of many different works that surrounded the idea behind Ono’s FLY. The first piece was displayed outside of The Anderson. Wish Tree was an interactive work for the gallery-goers. With pencils and tags provided, people could write down wishes and place them on the branches of the potted tree. The potted tree was placed on a pedestal with two step ladders on either side. This installation encouraged the viewer to browse the tree for potential spots to place their tags and the ladders helped them reach areas that were not accessible from the ground level. The intention behind the placement of your wish on the tree is an important aspect to the work. The viewer becomes a co-author of the piece. Not only do the tags further drive the conceptual component of the work, there is something to be said for the aesthetic qualities as well. The tags’ presence produce the look of petals or leaves and the content of the wishes placed on the branches make Wish Tree unique to its environment. 

Some of many wishes that hung on the branches of Wish Tree, The Anderson, 1996

The exhibition continues to two other installations inside the gallery on the second floor in the grand room titled FLY and The Blue Room Event. When entering the room where these works were displayed, the viewer was met with what appeared to be empty white walls. An installation like this forces the viewer to create different meanings and ask questions of what exactly they are experiencing. In small writing at the entrance of the room, a title appeared: “The blue room event.” The viewers then encountered more messages written on the walls in blue ballpoint ink such as, “This room moves at the same speed as the clouds.” and “This room slowly evaporates everyday.” These were handwritten messages by Ono herself. The messages were placed with large amounts of space between them, giving the words their own power and presence.

Yoko Ono’s message from The Blue Room Event, The Anderson, 1996

There was a film titled FLY that was included in this exhibition and I found the installment to be both unique and funny. The viewer could only see the film if they looked through a peephole in the wall. The peephole was placed at a lower level so the spectator would have to bend over to glance inside. In an essay by Dr. Kevin Concannon on the exhibition, he wrote that there was a “parade of bottoms!,” referring to the viewers lined up staring at the film. In the gallery, the installation was set up in a smaller room behind the grand room on the second floor, where there is now a storage space. As far as the content of the film goes, an insect travels across an unmoving, naked female body. Along with the visuals, Ono included sounds of her own voice that moaned and screeched and could be heard in parts of the gallery, ultimately leading the viewer to the film. For Ono, the film spoke on women’s role in a male-dominated society where they were expected to be silent and lifeless. With that being said, the act of having to bend over to see the film reflects a certain level of labor on the viewer’s part. It forces the audience to get uncomfortable and to concentrate on the serious subject matter Ono is conveying. 

Stills from the film, FLY, The Anderson, 1996

Cleaning Piece was displayed in the same room as FLY and The Blue Room Event with a wall dividing the large room in half, just before the space where the film was located. This work consisted of river rocks placed in the center of the gallery room along with one black canvas and one white canvas hung on opposite walls facing each other. There were instructions on the wall in between both canvases. Visitors were to write either a note of happiness on the white canvas or a note of sadness on the black canvas. Once that task was complete, they were to pick a rock from the center of the room and place it on the side in which they made their mark. Like most of the works in this exhibition, Cleaning Piece serves as an opportunity to reflect on one’s emotions and state of being. The accumulation of stones on either side of the room echoed the aura of the community—again, making the work genuine to its environment. 

A Polaroid image from Cleaning Piece, The Anderson, 1996
Messages of happiness on the white canvas from Cleaning Piece, The Anderson, 1996

One of my personal favorites of the show is Play it By Trust. The installation was located across the hall from The Blue Room Event and consisted of a long white table accompanied by twenty white chairs. The table itself held ten chess boards with all the required pieces to play. What made these chess boards and pieces different from normal is that everything was painted white. For Ono, Play it By Trust is a message for no boundaries and for one day hopefully ridding the world of nationalism and competition.  

The installation of Play it By Trust, The Anderson, 1996

One last component of the show I would like to touch on is the billboards that Ono activated across the city of Richmond. In large black text on a completely white background read the word “FLY” on five different billboards spread out across the city. The purpose of a billboard is usually to advertise and sell. One may look at these FLY billboards as advertisements but if no one knew about the show happening at The Anderson, it would leave them to ponder what exactly the message was supposed to mean. I appreciate the extension of the work outside of the classic white-wall gallery space. This aspect expands Ono’s ideas to a much larger audience. Even if that audience does not know what to think of it, they have the opportunity to question something they may not have thought about before. And I think this is true about a lot of Ono’s practice and what I appreciate about it most of all. 

One of the billboards in the city of Richmond that Ono utilized, 1996

All photos courtesy of The Anderson Gallery Collection