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You Can Call Me Yoko

Ring, ring.

"Hello?!?"

"Welcome to the Yoko Ono show!!! How do you like my shoooow?"

This was the greeting that emanated from the white telephone perched atop a pedestal that was, for most SFMOMA-goers, just a stationary object to be glanced at before moving on to the truly interactive displays of the recent "Yes Yoko Ono" art exhibit. But for a handful of others, the phone provided an opportunity to talk to the legendary Ono.

In a manner of speaking.

For those of you who missed the Ono show, let's start at the beginning. "Yes Yoko Ono" is a touring retrospective of her decades-long (and until recently, underappreciated) exploits in the visual arts. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art show was received with mostly rave reviews, but what may have been the exhibit's best piece wasn't covered in the press, or planned by the curators, or experienced by the vast majority of museum attendants, or even created by Ono.

The white telephone art prank started out innocently enough when a couple of friends at the show grew curious about the phone, which was accompanied by a sign that read something like, "Wait for Yoko Ono to call." Never content to wait by a phone, one of the friends -- let's call him "Erik" -- picked up and got a dial tone. But with a stern-faced docent looking on, he quickly hung up. Undaunted, Erik's roommate, "Cooper," grabbed the receiver and dialed his own cell phone. Up popped the white phone's number on Caller ID.

"So, of course, I called," says Cooper. "It rang, and a crowd immediately gathered around the phone, but the docent, a Filipino woman, saw what was going on and was like, in her broken English, 'How did you get that number? How did you get that number!' I just sort of pretended not to understand her and walked away."

The next day, a few friends were at Cooper and Erik's for brunch. On a whim, they decided to call. Using a speakerphone, "Megan" -- who, fortuitously enough, happens to be a very funny comedy writer -- launched the first "You Can Call Me Yoko" performance art piece.

"Oh my gawwd!" cried the woman who answered the phone, apparently unaware that Yoko Ono doesn't really have a Japanese accent. "Your work has been such an inspiration to me!"

Megan quickly had museumgoers doing their own performance art pieces: In keeping with Japanese tradition, she told one callee to remove her shoes.

"I'm taking off my shoes and running around barefoot because Yoko Ono told me to!" shouted the callee to the gathered crowd, phone receiver still in hand. A cheer went up.

"You Can Call Me Yoko" was such a smashing success, the group decided to turn it into a regular Sunday gig. Word of the performance spread and the following week's assembly at Cooper and Erik's was considerably larger.

"I made a fabulous champagne brunch," says Cooper. "The only rule was that you can't laugh out loud, and that wasn't always easy to do."

In due time, Megan made a point of actually going to the show, which she hadn't yet seen. "Before the first call, I didn't know much about it. When I saw all the interactive displays and that Yoko really has a sense of humor, I realized how appropriate our piece is."

One exhibit consisted of piles of rocks. The display instructed people to pick up a rock and move it to another pile, thus rearranging the piles to make a new formation.

This make-art work was not quite interactive enough for Megan, who called the white phone and instructed the listener: "I want you to go to the rocks and bring one back to the phone." The callee obliged. "Now go get another one."

Other tele-dupes were exposed to Yoko's "dragon lady" persona. Megan interrupted one star-struck, yammering phone-answerer with this non sequitur: "I hate Donatella Versace. I asked her to exhibit a gown at the show, and she refused. She's such a bitch. Don't ever buy her stuff."

Several more "You Can Call Me Yoko" brunches ensued, with ever larger audiences assembled around the speakerphone until, alas, the show closed. Not a single callee seemed to have the least bit of skepticism about who was on the other end of the white phone.

"I think Yoko would really appreciate it," says Cooper, who nonetheless doesn't want his real name used, just in case the museum's sense of humor isn't as irreverent as Yoko's. "She's all about impromptu art, and so are we." -- Lisa Chamberlain

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