What can we make of Yoko Ono’s Apple?
Given the work’s deceptive simplicity and literal labeling, one might reasonably think first either of the Magritte pipe piece at LACMA or of Apple Records. However, Ono’s Apple antedates by at least two years the formation of Apple Records in 1968, and Ono shares with Magritte little more than a sense of playfulness. Where, then, do we go?
It’s never a bad idea, as a starting point in interpretation, to steer away from high-falutin’ art jargon and simply to ask about the material things that present themselves to the senses.
Apple consists of a plexiglass stand bearing a brass plate that says “Apple” and, atop the whole, an apple. Brass is an alloy of naturally occurring metals, here wrought into an engraved placard. Plexiglass is a synthetic, transparent polymer. An apple is a naturally occurring fruit. It would be fair to suppose that bringing these elements together suggests a thematic contrast among natural, man-manipulated, and man-made.
Brass is quite durable. Plexi is fairly resilient but susceptible to scratching and fragmentation. Apples decay rapidly, having only their skin and sometimes a layer of wax to defer the inevitable. It would also be fair to suppose that temporality and entropy are themes raised by this set of juxtapositions.
A plexiglass presentation stand is a conventional means of elevating an artifact to facilitate viewing. A brass nameplate is a conventional, if somewhat special, means of raising semantic awareness to facilitate understanding. Both typically serve to frame and deliver a man-made or man-manipulated artifact, but Ono has placed on this contrived pedestal an apple, something that nature delivers unassisted. This breach of protocol calls attention to the formal characteristics of the apple even while denying creative or constructive intervention.
Viewing the fruit as if it were designed and crafted, one might become aware of the way it appeals to the senses: vivid, varying color and a complex texture and shape appeal to sight and touch. A whisper of scent and awareness of taste appeal to gustatory and olfactory capabilities, if only by way of memory and association. The fruit raised on a pedestal is silent; the connotations of sound abide only in a conceivable, contingent future in which the apple might fall with a thud or yield a crunch when bitten. Sound for the apple is a matter of potential that depends on human interaction– an interaction that consumes and destroys the apple.
There is irony in the way time inflects this multi-sensory presentation. Left alone, the apple decays, withers, dries, or otherwise succumbs to oxygen, moisture, bacteria, and other environmental factors. Sight, smell, taste, and touch thus remain fully in play during these gradual changes, but sound’s potential changes radically as the apple quickly becomes less crunchy and resonant.
Over time, the prized fruit changes from an instance of natural beauty to something repellent, leaving the stand and plate as they are. This is not how things go with conventional art, which is placed in a museum precisely to conserve its state. As the artwork-apple changes, though, human responses to it also change– something that also occurs relative to conventional art, but less quickly and according to less predictable patterns.
Setting the stage as she does by foregrounding an apple, Ono engages the viewer’s subjectivity as a vital part of the artwork itself. The pedestal no longer serves to hold up the apple for the viewer to regard with disinterest and detachment; the pedestal becomes a site where the dynamic and changing perceptions and tastes of the viewer engage the dynamic and changing state of the apple, and where the two dance in a complex dialectic of stimulus/response and nature/cultivation.
It’s never a good idea to force metaphors, but always a good idea to consider the ones that jump out at the eyes. Apple is decaying nature resting on man-manipulated and manmade presentational devices. Which is the human viewer more like, the pedestal or the apple? Like the apple, the human is organic, natural, and dying. Intelligence, distinguishing the fruit from the manimal, remains the driving force behind the more enduring monuments in brass and plastic. Ozymandias commemorates himself by impressing mind into stone and metal because they’re supposed to endure. Is it any wonder that he must finally seek to ambiguate the border between natural and manmade in a desperate effort to conserve not just his memory but himself? If you can’t beat nature, join nature and then declare victory.
The apple is relentlessly natural. The human who would objectify, emphasize, and even glamorize the apple demonstrates by those contrivances that she is relentingly natural, susceptible to the transhuman interpretive impulse that finally turns artist into art. Within a postmodern frame of reference, the artifact has much less relevance than the generation of artifactuality. In this respect, it turns out that Apple is a self-portrait.