Yoko Ono: 70 Years Of Peace, Love And Understanding – Albertina Campbell

Yoko Ono Tate Modern Photo Abertina Campbell

Yoko Ono walked so that Marina Abramović could run when she and her brother Keisuke looked up at the sky on empty stomachs and imagined menus with their minds as a means of survival. It was through this “imaginary meal game” that the seeds of her artistic practice were sown. Often recognised as a vanguard of early avant-garde conceptualism, she challenges the viewer to use the infinite possibilities of their imagination through performance and participation at her Tate Modern retrospective exhibition.

The songwriter once said, “The spectator’s imagination receives a clear-cut image of the produced by the external.” – Charles Baudelaire, 1863

Some viewers may need help deciphering Ono’s avant-garde compositions, and the conceptual nature of Ono’s work may alienate those seeking more traditional forms of artistic expression. Despite its innovative approach, Ono’s work has its detractors.

 Yoko Ono, FLY (Film.13),1970-71
Yoko Ono, FLY (Film.13),1970-71 Tate Modern Photo: Albertina Campbell © Artlyst 2024

Four words, “Hello! This is Yoko,” from an audio piece titled ‘Telephone Piece’, 1971, set the tone for Tate Modern’s long-awaited retrospective, Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind. The survey covers 70 years of the artist and peace activist’s genre-defying practice traversing various art forms and promising to deepen our understanding of her work and perhaps reassert her identity as a practitioner before, during, and beyond her association with a particular “band member”.

A cacophony of sonic sounds tickles my eardrums as I enter the gallery space: the first wall instruction, ‘Lighting Piece’, 1955, commands the viewer to “Light a match and watch till it goes out”. The accompanying film ‘FILM NO.1 (‘MATCH’)/Fluxfilm No.14′, 1966, begins with the faint sound of a match being struck in slow motion, followed by the gentle crackle of the flame as it ignites in the darkness. As the game is lit, the camera focuses on a hand delicately holding the matchstick, the flickering light casting shadows on the skin. The action is captured in a trio of photographs titled ‘Lighting Piece’,1962, which shows Ono sitting beside a piano, possibly nodding to her classical music background.

Yoko Ono, EYEBLINK/Fluxfilm No. 15, 1966
Yoko Ono, EYEBLINK/Fluxfilm No. 15, 1966 b Tate Modern Photo: Albertina Campbell © Artlyst 2024

While a handwritten message, “This room moves at the same speed as the clouds,” is inscribed on the entrance wall, the art already began before entering the space–with Peter Moore’s black-and-white minimalist short film ‘EYEBLINK/Fluxfilm No. 15’, 1966. It features a single observing eye that slowly closes and fades to darkness, akin to a screen test–leaving just enough of the eye visible for recognition. Simultaneously, a polite, repetitive cough, ‘Cough piece’, 1961 punctuates the silence in the neighbouring room, its rhythm steady and unobtrusive. In the distance, the unmistakable sound of a toilet flushing can be heard; the flushing sound serves as a reminder of everyday life’s mundane and inevitable rhythms, juxtaposed against the fleeting, repetitive cough that blends seamlessly, creating a hypnotic auditory backdrop.

Following the upheavals of the end of World War II in Japan, she became the first female philosophy student at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. Then, she swiftly departed after two semesters to reunite with her family in New York. This proved prescient as she eventually attended Sarah Lawrence College to study poetry and musical compositions. Incorporating unconventional elements such as bird sounds into her musical pieces.

As an active supporter of fringe artist collectives involved in “happenings” at her rented loft on Chambers Street, New York, ‘The Chambers Street Loft Series, 1960-1, gives us a glimpse into Ono’s early experimentation as a Neo-Dadaist. The space became a hub for Fluxus Juggernauts La Monte Young, George Maciunas, and John Cage; other notable names such as Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg were regular attendees, which cemented Ono’s role as a central figure in the outsider art scene. Ono participated in the concerts of fellow artists and unveiled her instruction-based paintings for the first time.

‘Instructions for Paintings’, 1961-2, is an early work that spans the wall in Gallery 2. It comprises twenty-two pages of handwritten Japanese instructions by Ono’s husband at the time with a typed English translation.

Yoko Ono, FILM NO.1 (‘MATCH’)/Fluxfilm No.14’, 1966
Yoko Ono, FILM NO.1 (‘MATCH’)/Fluxfilm No.14’, 1966  Tate Modern Photo: Albertina Campbell © Artlyst 2024

Audiences are prompted to step on a painting, construct it in their mind, or paint to see the sky. They could also take home instructions, allowing them to manifest Ono’s ideas or perform them independently away from the gallery. Central to the exhibition is Ono’s seminal publication, ‘Grapefruit’, 1962, consisting of instructions that embody her artistic philosophy’s essence. Symbolised by cultural hybridity, these not-so-subtle plain scores, from practical to whimsical, catalyse creative exploration and introspection but can also feel like a waste of time.

Perhaps the most profound work in the show was the visceral impact of Ono’s performance art, exemplified in “Cut Piece’, 1964. It is a provocative work in which she invites audience members to participate by cutting away pieces of her clothing using metal shears. Ono positions herself onstage at the centre of the performance space, kneeling off-centre, clad in a simple black cardigan over white undergarments and fishnet stockings. Her expression is trite. With a snip here and a cut there as the performance unfolds, you begin to see how far people are willing to go when consent is given.

Yoko Ono At Tate Modern Photo: Albertina Campbell
Yoko Ono At Tate Modern Photo: Albertina Campbell © Artlyst 2024

One audience member in particular, a young, white male almost resembling a smug Teddy Boy, goes back on stage a second time, cutting away a significant portion of Ono’s clothing, even cutting the area around her bust and then snipping both her bra straps so that the top of her naked shoulders was exposed. At this moment, Ono’s composure is momentarily shattered as she scrambles to protect her modesty with both hands for the remainder of the performance. I am incensed, stunned by the somewhat predacious behaviour in the face of unchecked morality. The gradual disrobing becomes a metaphor for relinquishing power and control by willingly surrendering her garments to the viewer.

In the final gallery, a white ladder stands prominently at the centre, ‘Ceiling Painting’,1966, amidst the bustling activity of a beacon of first love. Novice Chess players gather around a white chessboard, deeply engrossed in their games. Meanwhile, crooners relax in the seating area, serenading the atmosphere with Ono and Lennon’s music tunes. ‘FREE PALESTINE’, ‘Saskia+Conner’, ‘PUSH PUSH PUSH’, and ‘Peace’ were just some of the messages scrawled on the once clinically white walls and floors of the space containing an actual boat ‘Add Colour (Refugee Boat)’,1960/2016. Defaced with blue and white marker pens of past and present by past visitors, the blue represents the sea, which is literal yet remarkable in this space.

Questions surrounding the harsh realities of displacement and human suffering and the urge for collective action to address the global refugee transforming into a call for solidarity and humanitarian action are realised. As I leave the space, I am overwhelmed by the mound of notes left for Mother on both walls, some nearly encasing the wall text. I feel compelled to leave a note, “For my Mother,” and write “Mother Bear” with a heart.

Top Photo: Yoko Ono, Add Colour (Refugee Boat), 1960

Yoko Ono ‘Music Of The Mind’ – Tate Modern Until 1 September 2024

Please be advised that this exhibition contains bare bottoms, art you can step on, and instructions!

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