Bringing Back ‘Bagism’

Slipping a black bag over her head, the petite figure of Yoko Ono quietly unravels her black scarf and takes off her black jacket.

There is a sudden and simultaneous movement in the audience as a wave of people strain their necks and raise their cell phones to capture the peculiar moment. Her face hidden from view, Ono sits passively, slightly slouched and with her legs crossed, as Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden interim director and chief curator Kerry Brougher introduces the Damage Control Symposium on October 26, 2013.

There is something uncanny, yet relevant, about Ono’s mini-performance in which she proceeds to stand, stretching her arms over her head; moves to the floor where she holds her body in a plank position; and then sits on her knees for a few moments before finally receding to her chair where she takes the bag off her head, shakes out her short, black hair, and thoughtfully joins the conversation.

The term ‘Bagism’ was first coined by Ono and John Lennon during a press conference in Vienna on March 31, 1969. Married only eleven days earlier, the influential couple sought to create a situation of “total communication.”

The activist duo theorized that by literally submerging themselves in bags, they could remove all opportunities for prejudice based on race and gender. Because a person engaging with someone who had ‘bagged’ him or herself could not see that person’s physical appearance, he would be compelled to listen with full attention. There would be no opportunity for energy to be diverted away from content and re-directed toward judging appearance.

In the context of a panel discussion about destruction and destruction in art, the act of ‘Bagism’ captured the full attention of an audience of multigenerational art lovers. A sea of confused faces with excited, nearly feverish, expressions gazed at Ono, whispered to their neighbors and released a few giggles.

Though Ono’s bagging may be viewed as spectacle, as a bizarre act by a celebrity figure, it also maintains the 1969 intention of total communication. Though Ono was not speaking while under ‘bagism,’ her body language transmitted an expression of its own, a message of mindful meditation and strength.

Ono explained, in our current environment of destruction—destruction in consumption, destruction in climate change, destruction in corruption—it is increasingly important to maintain mental clarity, to continue to learn, and to preserve control of mind over body.

In her movements, appearing to suspend time with their drawn out stillness, Ono embodied clarity and control in the rigid geometric shapes formed by her body.

In many ways, Ono’s ‘bagism’ is an appropriate lens through which to view Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950, the Hirshhorn’s recently opened exhibition which addresses the way artists have dealt with damage and destruction in the decades following the atomic bomb.

The subject matter of the exhibition is heavy. The viewer is immediately confronted with video footage from the US Atomic Energy Commission of atomic bomb detonations. She views black and white photographs of car crashes, and encounters the eerie emptiness of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Koonig (1953) and the cremated remains of John Baldessari’s early works baked into “corpus wafer” cookies.

Videos of Raphael Montañez Ortiz smashing a piano, Yoko Ono kneeling submissively on stage as her shirt is cut off by male audience members, and Gustav Metzger spraying hydrochloric acid on nylon to dissolve the material in an act of auto-destructive art mark the beginning of the exhibition. This is only the 1960s.

To put oneself in front of these images and situations, to consider these artworks in a greater setting outside the museum walls, one must remove all prejudices, all preconceived notions, and instead, simply be open.

Learning from Ono’s ‘bagism,’ the viewer can begin to understand these artworks in their total communications. She can control her mind to focus on a single object, to in a sense, ‘bag’ the museum environment by mentally removing the quiet whispers and shuffling footsteps and instead, focus on absorbing the art object—its form, aesthetics, content, meaning, technique—in its most pure and sincere form. Doing so, one may discover not only the artwork—its subtleties, nuances and potentials for power, creation and destruction—but also decide on his relationship to the piece. Maintaining control and clarity, the viewer challenges herself to question her interactions and perhaps a revelation may occur, but in this exchange, he does not allow the object, the exhibition space or the greater social sphere control him.

As Ono says, “We should not be cynical but just keep learning.”

Bringing the Art in DC to You,
Roxanne Goldberg

Photo Credit:  http://www.beatlesinterviews.org/db1969.0331.beatles.html