Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind


Yoko Ono with Glass Hammer 1967 from HALF-A-WIND SHOW

 Lisson Gallery, London, 1967

Photo © Clay Perry


Tate Modern




15 February - 1 September 2024



 'The only sound that exists to me is the sound of the mind. My works are only to induce music of the mind in people. In the mind-world, things spread out and go beyond time.’ Yoko Ono (1966)



A Feature by Mary Fox Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


In the nearly twenty years I've been writing about Art, I've never left the Press View of an exhibition with paint on my hands and a piece of one of the artist's works in my pocket, until I visited Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind. This welcome participation between artist and viewer, an integral part of Ono's works, a form of call and response, in itself, makes a case for her being in a class by herself. Over the years, I've looked at art and felt outside of it, an admiring or repulsed viewer, I've savoured art, and felt it was somehow, above or beyond me and I've even identified with some aspects of certain artists' work and wondered if I had its means of expression within me. But during my observational foray to Music of the Mind, I had the proverbial rug pulled out from under me more than once, as I alternately felt for, heard out, laughed along with in recognition, messily played like a child, and basically, lived with Ono's art and life. I include life in that statement as each and every one of Ono's artworks has been lived, and experienced by her in real time, becoming a memory to be shared with viewers, via film, sound, and/or photos rather than simply an object left in the void of finished works. The D.I.Y. ethic Ono pioneered in relation to her works, objects included, enables participation leading to the pieces' completion, a bona fide collaboration between artist and audience.


Yoko Ono first reached my consciousness in that era of happenings in the U.S., the late '60s, when I was coming of age in Philadelphia. And even though Ono doesn't see herself as a creator of happenings, terming her performance art as events instead, in the context of my then young teen unawareness, happenings, as singular, one-off events, in which I never knew what to expect, invariably left an indelible impression on the more impressionable persons observing them from within at the time, so the term would have seemed apt to me. With that in mind, the morning I attended the press view, I was considering the ironies of it being staged on Fat Tuesday aka Pancake Day, a day on which Mardi Gras and many other carnivals and celebrations of pre-Lenten revelry and excess were taking place worldwide.  


Born in Tokyo in 1933 to a well-to-do family, Ono spent her early life in her homeland, with intermittent shorter periods in America, when her father was sent there for work purposes and his family joined him, firstly, San Francisco, when she was a baby, and in 1940, New York City, returning to Japan the following year when her father was transferred to Hanoi, then part of French Indochina. Surviving the chaos of WWII in Japan and its subsequent hardships was an experience Ono would later credit with spawning her 'aggressive' side and awareness of the 'outsider'. When the family moved to Scarsdale, New York in 1945, Ono stayed on in Tokyo to complete her studies which included lieder, poetry teamed with classical music. But after two semesters studying philosophy at University there, as the first female student to do so, Ono left Toyko and joined her family in New York, in 1952, taking up poetry and music composition at nearby Sarah Lawrence College. As she was an admirer of the work of avant-garde composer Schoenberg and other twelve-tone practitioners, Ono's teacher introduced her to the music of John Cage and other avant-garde musicians telling her that 'they are doing what you want to do.' Ono left the college in 1956, eloping to New York City with Tokyo experimental composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, then a student at Julliard in 1957. Supporting herself with secretarial work and the teaching of Japanese traditional arts, Ono wanted to rent and open a space where she and other artists could perform and display their work. In 1960, she found an inexpensive studio loft at 112 Chambers Street where she lived while performing and showing her work, inviting other artists to do the same. Although her marriage to Ichiyanagi didn't last, she continued to work with him, La Monte Young, and other artists of various genres. George Maciunas invited her to join his group, Fluxus but she preferred to remain independent. Visitors to the space included luminaries such as Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and art collector, Peggy Guggenheim, among others.


There were a couple of Tate firsts for me regarding this exhibition, one being that it is not being staged inside of the Tate proper but on Level 2 of its adjacent annex, the Blavatnik Building, which actually seemed more suitable for a number of reasons, among them being that it offers a very large area within which to show what Tate terms the 'heart of the exhibition', namely Ono's time in London from 1966 - 71 before she and then-husband John Lennon relocated to New York City. And the fact that it is a bit off the beaten path also suits the work of an artist who for many years was seen as an outsider aka off the radar of the mainstream. Also, I didn't see any numbers on any of the rooms in this exhibition, though our able guides referred to them numerically. Once inside, it was not always easy to tell where one room ended and another began, fittingly oblique for such an individualistic artist.


Firsts within the exhibition itself include showings of previously unseen photos of Ono's first instruction paintings, displayed in her loft studio at 112 Chambers Street in NYC in which she and artistic composer La Monte Young hosted experimental concerts and events. Many art appreciators over the years have at one time or another seen instructions alongside conceptual artworks on how to view them, but Ono made her Haiku like instructions themselves art, indicating early on that first and foremost, hers was (and is) an art of ideas. Also here are photos from her first solo exhibition at AG Gallery NYC in 1961, as well as the typescript of her self-published book, Grapefruit, a compilation of her instructions 1953-64.


For me, among the emotions stirred as I made my way through the exhibition were intermittent moments of poignancy, initially via Cut Piece (1964) in which Ono invited members of the audience to come to the stage she was silently seated on, dressed in what she said was her best suit, and cut pieces of it off to take home as souvenirs. In the final photo from that performance, she looked so fragile, holding shredded pieces of cloth to herself, that it touched me deeply, as it brought to mind feelings of the vulnerability of all women, myself included. But it is Ono's ability to unexpectedly affect our emotions, be they sadness, unity, humour, compassion, anger, and/or vulnerability through her art that is one of her most affecting and enduring qualities as an artist.


Yoko Ono, Cut Piece 1964. Performed by Yoko Ono in ‘New Works by Yoko Ono’, Carnegie Recital Hall, NYC, March 21, 1965

Photo © Minoru Niizuma


As those familiar with Ono's canon might expect, there are representations of her influential London exhibitions at Indica and Lisson Galleries, among them, Apple (1966) consisting of a green apple on a plinth, which future husband and co-collaborator John Lennon is famously said to have taken a bite out of, and the inexplicably moving, all white installation, Half a Room 67 with its assortment of familiar domestic objects, all cut in half. Credited with both Lennon and Ono's names is a work entitled Air Bottles, conceived in 1967 and finally realised this year, consisting of empty jars with labels on them, which among them read, 'half a wind', and 'half a life' originally conceived to be shown as part of Ono's Half a Wind Show at London's Lisson Gallery in 1967.



Yoko Ono with Half-A-Room 1967 from HALF-A-WIND SHOW, Lisson Gallery, London, 1967

Photo © Clay Perry


Though, to its credit, this exhibition does not attempt to capitalize on Ono's most famous creative coupling with late husband, Lennon, instead allowing her own varied expressions of creativity room to expand, highlighting her strengths and diversity as a unique solo artist. That said, I must add that seeing she and Lennon together in the film, Bed Peace, filmed in Montreal in 1969, looping here on a large screen is a reminder that that event was possibly one of the most potent examples the world has ever known of the use of fame as currency for change. I was feeling the passion and iconicness of it all over again, as I observed viewers of all ages, among them, many much younger than myself looking on in fascination, perhaps for the first time absorbing the Ono Lennon message of peace. That in itself was a beautiful thing well worth the price of admission, as they say. How well I remember when the pair's first musical collaboration, Two Virgins, featuring them together in the altogether on its front and back covers, showing the fronts and backs of themselves respectively was sold in record stores in plain brown wrappers, in Philadelphia where I then lived, which perfectly leads me into the next observational work of Ono's I spied in this showing...


Among the variety amidst Ono's creative repertoire, you couldn't miss Film No. 4 (Bottoms),(1966) also showing on a large screen here. When I first inadvertently saw it in 2013, looping on a screen above the stage in the Royal Festival Hall during the Meltdown Festival Ono curated there that year, just prior to the Plastic Ono Band Concert featuring she and her and Lennon's son Sean, I thought it a harmless, whimsical little film showing bare derrières, fairly close up, in the process of seemingly, walking in place. But it's the 'it's just not done' inappropriateness of the settings some of Ono's art is shown in that adds to its humour. Seeing this once x rated film here, almost seemed like seeing an old friend to me. Ono's defense of the film at the time of its possible first showing to the Censors via her statements that it didn't contain any sex or violence, while handing out daffodils to members of the Press made perfect sense to me, simultaneously highlighting the exhibition's title Music of the Mind, initially the title of shows staged in Liverpool and London 1966- 67.


Ono's White Chess Set (1966) shown in the Lennon/Ono film, Imagine and also on display in the marvelously comprehensive exhibition, Double Fantasy - John and Yoko at the Museum of Liverpool in 2018 advising you to 'play as long as you remember where all your pieces are' with its white table and chairs, is on show in multiples here, allowing viewers to sit and experience its anti-war stance for themselves. Ono and Lennon's collaborative War is Over! (if you want it) campaign, in the form of large billboards proclaiming that fact placed around the world is represented here by a photo of the striking billboard placed in London's Picadilly Circus. Though I never saw any of the billboards in person, I remember seeing them on the news at the time and feeling inspired by their messages of peace.


Try as I might, I couldn't get into the listening area, with its four stations with headphones, where mainly younger participants were seemingly hooked on sampling Ono's musical outpourings for themselves. Having similarly indulged myself in recent years, firstly ahead of the 2018 Liverpool exhibition, Double Fantasy - John and Yoko where there was an actual soundproof listening room, complete with floor cushions and other seating, album-covered walls, and a large variety of Ono/Lennon and Ono or Lennon audible creations to choose from, I didn't blame them. While waiting to gain access to that area in vain, I made a mental note to revisit this exhibition when I have more freedom to linger there...


A recording of a rehearsal for a concert Ono performed in at Royal Albert Hall on February 29, 1968, also a leap year, A O S, nearly blew my mind as I savoured the previously unheard of (in any sense) sound of Ono, making what seemed like very free form, rather ethereal vocal music with jazzman Ornette Coleman and contemporaries following along. The recording was released in 1970 on the album Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band on Apple Records .


I had to laugh, not just at Ono's nerve, but at the concept of the piece for which she had flyers printed for her imaginary solo exhibition, Museum of Modern (F) Art at the Museum of Modern Art aka MOMA in NYC in 1971. There's a short but enjoyable accompanying film here showing the varied reactions of those attempting to see the exhibition. The most expressive reaction ironically came from a woman from Liverpool who dubbed Ono, 'bonkers'! whereas many of the locals seemed either bemused, philosophical or resigned to the fact that to them at least, Ono was just being herself. The film of the people's reactions is an integral part of the artwork, of course, as in that way, it's inclusive, as the exhibition itself only ever existed in their and Ono's minds. It made me chuckle to think of what the art establishment may have made of it at the time. Ono irreverence at its best!


The next section, Surrender to Peace references Ono's manifesto of that name, published as an advert in the New York Times in 1983 in which she passionately wrote about our 'need for unity despite the seemingly unconquerable differences.' Artworks from the mid-1960s to 2009 are gathered here, all taking the sky as their inspiration. A Hole to See the Sky Through (1971) forms a powerful centrepoint, a simple yet effective pane of glass, shattered by a single gunshot. Helmets (Pieces of Sky) 2001, consisting of military helmets, suspended high and low on varying levels, pieces of sky which are shaped like puzzles for visitors to take home and instructions inviting us to do so is a contemplative experience and while I was standing nearby, absorbing it, a little girl silently walked up to one of the helmets and put her hand into it to take out a piece of sky, which I found very moving. Visitors are invited to do so, as we are all part of the whole.

Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono, Helmets (Pieces of Sky), 2001, from ‘Between The Sky and My Head’ at Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 2008 

Photo © Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art


By now famous Add Colour (Refugee Boat) sloped on the floor of its own room, encourages viewers to add their voices to the artwork, 'in two shades of blue, like the ocean', in support of the many refugees who risk their lives in overcrowded boats, travelling across seas in hope of finding a freer life. There is a poignancy to the installation, as its white boat sits empty in an all-white room, as though it had been abandoned mid-journey due to its heavy cargo. Art markers are here for those willing to voice their feelings on the scenario, for many, way, way outside of their norms. But that is the part of this work that is its most valuable asset, its ability to help us empathize. By the time I reached this room, there were already quite a few comments and slogans scrawled on its walls and floor and on the boat itself, but not nearly as many as on the completed installation pictured in the photo below.


Yoko Ono, Add Colour (Refugee Boat), 2016, at MAXXI Foundation 

Photo © Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini


This exhibition's final work, Whisper (2013) is a powerful one indeed. Filmed at Sydney Opera House, showing on a screen here with seating down front. In it, Ono exudes a power that is at once, controlled and uncontrollable as she bends and arches her voice in a way that is evocative of a primal scream that seems inner, rather than outer. At the same time as it captivates, it frees. It is as inexplicable as it is shattering as it culminates in what seems like a painfully deep release. While the performance is taking place, there is, accompanying it, the warming vibe of love exchanged between performer and audience that I know is so much a hallmark of Ono live. I happily experienced that exchange myself when I saw her perform, both with son Sean and Plastic Ono Band and, again, during the first-ever on-stage performance of the entire album, Double Fantasy Live, at the culmination of her interactive, very eclectic Meltdown Festival in London in 2013. The exchange of energy between performers was also a vibrant part of the whole throughout, especially as Ono and Siouxsie collectively doubled the power of Thin Ice. Both concerts were unrepeatable, unforgettable experiences.


I found Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind, the largest exhibition of her work ever staged in the UK, spanning seven decades, with 200 works from the mid '50's to the present day, surprising, diverse, and informative, especially in relation to the self-reflection that it inspires, alternatingly poignant, humorous, revealing and always, imaginative. If one of the main functions of art is to act as a mirror for its viewers, in my case, it's been an at once, thought-provoking and experiential journey retracing Ono's creative steps via her artistic expressions. Channeling the wannabe hippie kid I was back in the late '60s, I found myself festooning a tag with my wish for peace, love, and happiness for the people of the world with peace symbols, hearts, and flowers before tying it on one of Ono's Wish Trees for London near the entrance of the exhibition as I left.


I once saw a video clip of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on a U.S. chat show in the '70s, in which Lennon proclaimed them 'naive' to think that their Bed In(s) and other events for peace could have made any lasting difference. But, truth prevails, as this year, 50 years after their song, Happy Xmas (War is Over) was released, a short animated film, with Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon as Executive Producers, produced by Peter Jackson’s Wētā FX using Epic Games, entitled War Is Over! with the bi-line, 'based on the music and message of John and Yoko' has been shortlisted for an Academy Award. So, it seems that their message of peace, the one that Ono still actively promotes to this day lives on.


Yoko Ono and John Lennon during Bed-In for Peace, Amsterdam, 1969. Courtesy Yoko Ono

Photo © by Ruud Hoff. Image: Getty Images / Central Press / Stringer.(c) Yoko Ono


Trailer  https://www.electroleague.com/film!


As Ono herself stated in a 2017 interview with Times Talks which could easily apply to her current exhibition at Tate Modern: 'We artists have a time machine...because we can go to any time...(today) we went to all different times, just remember that feeling. Instead of thinking about one part of the past or something like that, artists can go to any time...you just go to the future, now, and the past.' Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind has been that type of journey for me, as I traveled along her creative trajectory, reliving moments, in many cases, through her artistry, and in others, such as Bed Peace (1969), through my own youthful wishes and admiration for the joint message for peace that she and John Lennon shared with the world. The experience of visiting Ono's work through her own eyes as well as my own left me thankful for her example, as a relentless practitioner of truth and also, still wishing along with her that we could just once, give peace a chance...


Yoko Ono, Sky TV 1966/2014. Courtesy the artist. Installation view courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Photo © Cathy Carver


Editor's Note: For the duration of this exhibition's run, the sky showing on the screen of Sky TV will be the one above Tate Modern...  


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