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18 Jun 2021 / by William Smith

Staring at the Sky: Yoko Ono Connects the World on Zoom

Photograph of a blue sky with white clouds.

Photo: Dmitry Makeev via Wikimedia Commons (CC-SA-4.0)

On 21 June at 8:42pm Hong Kong Time, a stationary camera pointed at the sky over M+ will begin a 24-hour livestream on Zoom. The video will appear alongside those produced by other arts and cultural institutions around the world, all simultaneously contributing to an artwork by Yoko Ono titled T.V. to See the Sky.

Though none of the city’s landmarks or distinctive topography will be visible in the shot from M+, the changing image of the sky will nonetheless reflect our location in Hong Kong. When the stream begins, the illuminated facades of nearby buildings will cast their typical ambient glow—perhaps making it hard to see any trace of the strawberry moon expected to be visible that night. The livestream will continue through the following day’s sunrise at 5:15am and sunset at 7:10pm—one of the longest days of the year—and conclude an hour and thirty-two minutes after that, as night falls and Hong Kong’s skyline lights up again.

Photograph showing a cluster of buildings in shadow. Behind them, the sky is a dull blue with an orange sunrise hue emerging from the horizon. In the foreground, a streetlamp is still lit. The arm of a construction crane is just visible on the right-hand side of the frame.

Sunrise over West Kowloon Cultural District in 2015. © M+, Hong Kong

Organised by the Los Angeles-based Getty Research Institute and the Feminist Center for Creative Work, T.V. to See the Sky is inspired by the artist’s pioneering closed-circuit television works of the 1960s. Ono envisioned SKY T.V. 1966 (furniture piece) as a ‘closed circuit TV set up in the gallery for looking at the sky’. For a 1967 exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in London, she proposed SKY T.V.: ‘a TV just to see the sky. Different channels for different skies, high-up sky, low sky, etc.’

Rather than different channels for different views, Zoom allows for many different skies—or at least many different views of the sky from different locations—to appear all at once as part of a grid. The M+ feed begins at night, but it could be presented adjacent to a livestream from the organisers, which starts just as dawn breaks in California. The precise form of the visual patchwork in the Zoom window will depend on ever-changing meteorological and atmospheric conditions: cloud cover in Eastern Europe, haze in South China, a bright, sunny day in Mexico City.

Zooming into the Skies

Zoom software launched in 2013, but the video conferencing service truly entered popular consciousness during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the verb form of the company’s name became synonymous with socialising through isolation. Zoom kept many in touch with friends and family, but it was also the conduit for the drudgery of remote work. For those spending long days in home offices, close friends and insufferable bosses could switch places at the click of a button.

The platform offers instant virtual connection, but it also came to carry a reminder of an unbridgeable distance to those on the other side of the screen. If the notion of Zoom fatigue became a COVID-era cliché, Ono’s work offers both an imaginative antidote to virtual burnout and a meditation on technology that has come to seem prosaic.

T.V. to See the Sky infuses the regularity of the grid interface with chance and indeterminacy—the artist herself has no control over the final form of the image. The work will be a steady presence throughout the day, highlighting a sense of temporal disjunction through the simultaneous experience of nights and days, dawns and sunsets. Zoom’s apparent ability to span global distances, bringing together anyone, anywhere, will be countered by the opportunity to consider, at length, the specific qualities of the sky in each place.

A Practice of Participation

Though the livestreamed T.V. to See the Sky is very much of our time, it also embodies a spirit evident throughout Ono’s art. Like fellow video art pioneers Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota, Ono was drawn to the creative possibilities of television just as technological advances in the 1960s made the medium of mass communication accessible to individual artists.

Photograph showing a closed-circuit television on a pedestal against a plain background. On the screen is an image of blue sky with white clouds.

Ono's SKY T.V. was one of the earliest works to harness the instant feedback capability of the video camera. Pictured: Sky T.V. for Washington, 1966/2014. Closed-circuit video installation. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund 2016. Photo by William Andrews

T.V. to See the Sky also develops broader themes evident in the poetic, conceptualistic experiments Ono created alongside the international Fluxus group in the early 1960s, many of which were activated by participant involvement through a series of instructions. Her 1964 volume Grapefruit features her lyrical instruction art, prompting readers to drill a hole to see the sky or engage it as a musical instrument:

Painting to See the Skies

Drill two holes into a canvas.
Hang it where you can see the sky.

(Change the place of hanging.
Try both the front and the rear windows,
to see if the skies are different.)

1961 summer

—Entry from Yoko Ono's Grapefruit

The instructions in Grapefruit partially resemble those given to institutions participating in T.V. to See the Sky, though in this case, they call for practical action. Technicians at M+ will help to position our Webcam and devise a system to ensure uninterrupted streaming after office hours. The invitation to participate in Ono’s piece further extends to viewers, who can post their own images of the sky and link them to the broader project with the social media hashtag #TVtoSeeTheSky.

A Bookend for M+

Many of Ono’s works in the M+ Collections are likewise participatory, or at least imply some degree of interaction. The original version of Painting to Hammer a Nail In (1961/1966) invited viewers to complete a ‘painting’ by hammering nails into its surface using a hammer attached to a panel by a chain. (In an ironic twist, Ono later froze the piece permanently by casting it in bronze, the form of many of the works by Ono in the M+ Collection.)

T.V. to See the Sky is not the first globally networked Ono piece in which M+ has participated. Six years ago, on 21 June 2015, the nascent institution took part in Morning Peace, a dawn gathering repeated around the world, timed both to the summer solstice and the artist’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The event was inspired by Morning Piece, a 1964–1965 action in which the artist sold, at sliding scale, mementos of mornings past, future, and imagined.

Photograph showing a stack of small circular mirrors reflecting the sky with folded pieces of paper stuck between them.

These mirrors attached to paper for attendees' dawn messages, part of Choi Yan Chi's artwork at Morning Peace in 2015, recall the shards of glass marketed by Yoko Ono at her performance of Morning Piece in the 1960s. © M+, Hong Kong

Like many of her early participatory works, Morning Peace came with instructions:

On the solstice at sunrise
celebrate mornings of
past, future, and now.
Listen to the world.
Touch each other
when the sun comes up.

—y.o. spring 2015

Photograph showing a woman playing a flute. Behind her the sky is blue with white clouds reflecting the orange glow of sunrise. A cityscape is in the background.

Leung Chi Wo's Before Sunrise, 'a performative work with a musician, dogs, and people at sunrise'. © M+, Hong Kong

For the event, a small crowd gathered on the roof of a temporary M+ site building in West Kowloon Cultural District to witness the sunrise. The area was then a construction zone on a spit of reclaimed land. Hong Kong artists Choi Yan Chi and Leung Chi Wo performed for the event, and images of the gathering were shared on social media with a special hashtag, celebrating Ono’s globe-spanning work.

It is appropriate that these Ono projects—with their flexible, generous invitation to participate—bookend the construction of the M+ building, which is now complete and set to open later in 2021. Even though it will not be visible in the frame, the M+ campus affords an elevated vantage, perfect for staring at the sky. T.V. to See the Sky marks the passing of a day, but, for M+, it also serves as a moment to reflect on the institution’s formative years as it prepares to open as a physical site dedicated to fostering the kinds of global connections that Ono’s art inspires.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

William Smith
William Smith

William Smith is Head, Digital and Editorial Content at M+.

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