Yoko Ono

Music Of The Mind Review
March 4, 2024
Tate Modern exterior

The much anticipated exhibition begins with Ono’s voice in an early sound piece: gentle, melodic, answering the phone somewhere in the 1960s – “Hello. This is Yoko.” Next, her fingers strike a match, which gradually flares and fades on film in mesmerising slo-mo. Her left eye, lit like a sun, stares unblinkingly back at you from another screen until the light begins to die, whereupon the eyelid closes. Irreducibly simple, it is a performance of sunset (and perhaps more) in two perfect minutes. 

To say that Yoko Ono has the audience in mind, at all times, is the merest understatement. It would be hard to think of an artist more bent on universal public address. Tate Modern’s enormous and absorbing retrospective runs all the way from invitation to instruction to direct involvement, from headphones in sound lounges to beanbags slumped before hypnotic movies, from chunky markers for drawing on the walls to canvases on which to leave memories of our mothers.

There are the cloth bags into which Ono used to clamber with John Lennon, transforming themselves into ever-changing sculptures, no longer to be judged according to sex, face, race (or worldwide fame). Now you can do it too. Here’s a white canvas: add colour; here’s another: hammer it hard with nails. Bring a bare migrant boat ashore on a tide of blue-painted messages of hope. Hang your wishes on a tree. Come together, right now.

Ono, born in Japan in 1933, finds her first freedom with the New York and Tokyo avant gardes of the late 50s and 60s. Grainy old footage of Japanese artists “disrupting superficial happiness” in the postwar boom shows her – entirely ignored – attempting to sell the unsaleable joys of morning to passersby. In Manhattan she invites visitors to walk all over a canvas on the floor, or to fulfil the instructions in her famous 1964 Grapefruit book.

All 150 of its immaculately typed pages appear at Tate Modern, and they carry the full character of her art. Some are just about feasible: “Imagine one thousands suns in the sky at the same time”; “Cut a painting up and let it be lost in the wind”. Others are impossible dreams. “Send the smell of the moon.” This swing between reality and imagination, between the terse and the poetic, is at the core of everything she does.

It is pervasive in the show’s fluid soundtracks, from polite coughing to high ululations and sudden definitive silences. Just as you are thinking of the composer John Cage, perhaps, the man himself appears in photographs of evenings in Ono’s Manhattan loft, along with Marcel Duchamp, La Monte Young and Robert Rauschenberg. She performed with Cage across Japan; audiences were so stunned they called it the John Cage Shock tour.

So much surprises all through this show, especially for anyone who did not know that Ono’s family had to flee the bombing of Tokyo in 1945; that she studied philosophy and classical music; that she had three husbands. One of the works here is titled Half-A-Room (1967), every object in the tableau, from shoe to cupboard to chair to heater, cut in half and painted white; the severance of everyday life in a divorce.

In London, Lennon comes across a white ladder in an art gallery and climbs it to discover a magnifying glass through which he can make out the promising word “Yes” on a slip of paper. It is 1966. The ladder that led to the ballad of John and Yoko is discreetly positioned at the heart of this show. Soon Ono will become, in Lennon’s prescient phrase, “the world’s most famous unknown artist”.

This show is so comprehensive, and so carefully curated, that it is possible to see that there was art before and after Lennon – and that they were not quite the same thing. Ono’s word-based works of the 60s very often resolve into poetry. Her performances are both searing and dreamy. Cut Piece (1964) – in which a gracious yet defiant Ono suffers the clothes to be snipped from her body by strangers, increasingly aggressively – is such a classic of 60s art it is about as familiar to art students as the Beatles themselves.

When she marries Lennon, they send acorns for growing oaks to leaders across the world with a message of peace (Golda Meir’s reply, here, is especially grateful and thus poignant). The gift is purely conceptual, of course, but commuted into active politics by the couple’s international fame. Likewise, their honeymoon Bed-In, in which extremely serious conversations between journalists, politicians and the two artists took place in hotels in Amsterdam and Montreal: performance merging into live campaign.

The film of this bed-in runs well beyond an hour, on the beanbags, at Tate Modern. This survey both needs and deserves slow time. Ono’s mind is steady, firm, never hysterical, always principled. Her aesthetic is delicate, worked out in tiny pen and ink drawings, and almost unreadably small but elegant script.

It is amazing that some ephemera have survived at all – canvases that were made to be destroyed, photos of New York events in the dark hours after midnight. There may be too many relics for some (the blank reel-to-reel Ono was selling as “the sound of snow falling at dawn” in 1963); but others may want to see John and Yoko’s actual marriage certificate.

The most moving exhibit is the large glass (quoting Duchamp) pierced with a gunshot hole. Go round to the other side, the artist instructs, and you may be able to see through it. How has Ono managed to live all these decades without Lennon? The piece was made in 2009, already 29 years after his murder.

“War Is Over” reads their great joint declaration, on billboards and posters during the Vietnam war – and in much smaller letters below: “If you want it.” There is a tremendous sadness that the main declaration is never likely to be true, and the subtext a qualified whisper. But this is the moment where Ono’s leap of imagination turns into a leap of faith. Right at the end of this show, you are invited to dip your hands into a thicket of steel helmets suspended upside down, conjuring the dead of conflicts everywhere, and take away a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle that might help solve war. Ono, 91 today, is still living and working in a state of hope, still asking us to give peace a chance.


To book tickets, visit the official Tate Modern website here.

About the author

Acoris Andipa