Yoko Ono: Music Of The Mind

Yoko Ono: Music Of The Mind
The first woman to enter Gakushuin University’s Philosophy department as an undergraduate, Yoko Ono’s ideas are often expressed in poetic, humorous, profound and radical ways. She is a trailblazer of early conceptual and participatory art – exploring what it means to be human through the lens of a formidable campaigner for peace.


Spanning more than seven decades, Yoko Ono’s Music Of The Mind is the UK’s largest exhibition celebrating key moments in her career, from the mid-1950s to now – including her years in London where she met her future husband and longtime collaborator John Lennon. From Cut Piece (1964) to her banned Film No.4 (Bottoms) (1966-67), throughout this multidisciplinary journey of a lifetime, you are invited to take part in both simple acts of the imagination and active encounters with works like Wish Trees – planting your own seeds of hope.


Peaceful Participation

“This room moves at the speed of the clouds.” Ono moved to New York from Japan, rented a loft, and let the ideas grow a mind of their own. In the fertile experimental atmosphere of the city at that time, surrounded by like-minded creatives including John Cage, George Maciunas, David Tudor and LaMonte Young, Ono went about changing art, working at the speed of light.

She did it with performances and instructions. The opening walls of this exhibition are lined with note cards, each with a simple order: “light a match and watch till it goes out”, “let a vine grow, water every day”, “draw line, erase line”, “polish an orange.” Some instructions are meant to be performed, others (like “go on transforming a square canvas in your head until it becomes a circle”) exist only in your imagination.

Conceptualism often conjures up Duchamp and his urinal, but this is Ono getting rid of all the stuff of art – all the colour, form, the physical reality, and leaving just the core. To say that Yoko has the audience in mind, at all times, is an understatement – it would be hard to think of an artist more bent on universal public address.

The cloth bags into which Ono used to clamber with John Lennon, transform active observers into ever-changing sculptures, no longer boxed by sex, face, race (or the burdens of global fame). Objects appear too: a canvas with a hole for you to shake strangers’ hands, a steadily decaying apple, all-white chessboards for you to play until you can’t remember where your pieces are. In all of this, Ono gives the viewer the power to complete the work.

Three of the first artworks Ono created using ready-made objects include Forget It: an upright needle placed on a plinth – “once I give the instruction ‘forget it’, you never will”; Eternal Time featuring a ticking clock without an hour hand along with a stethoscope, which was originally used to “listen to the never-ending sound of time passing”; And for £200, the buyer of Apple could experience the “excitement of watching the apple decay.” John Lennon visited the exhibition the day before it opened and met Ono after taking a bite out of it instead.

Ono saw her instructions as encapsulations of ideas, and ideas as stones “thrown into the water for ripples to be made” – seeds for the cultivation of the “social imaginary”: an imaginary system of ideas, values, orientations and practices that binds society together. Beyond creation, Ono’s project is a catalyst for continuous social change, a process of co-construction that leads to an alternate world.

In this sense, her instructions lead to a social balance between the individual and the collective, through reflective everyday acts. These small disruptive moments draw awareness to the fact that society is socially constructed. They are “meant for others to do”. But precisely what kind of “doing” do they enable? Works such as Shadow Piece – “Put your shadows together until they become one” – and Film No. 4 (Bottoms) – “String bottoms together in place of signatures for petition of peace” – instruct people to play, but to play with, rather than against each other.

These rules of play require working in concert with the other and coming up with a new set of rules. Initiating new social relations that lead to radically new modes of thought and action. Engaging the social imagination can contribute to changing the drives and consciousness of individual people who could collectively change the world – by imagining it not as it is, but as it could be. In doing so, they can construct the world they dream of. As Ono puts it: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”


Soulful Surrender

The sky is Ono’s metaphor of choice for groundless freedom and limitlessness, along with her ambition to heal the self and the world as the bedrock of her underlying message for peace. In 1983 she placed an advert in the New York Times that took the form of an article titled Surrender To Peace. She wrote: “Our purpose is not to exert power, but to express our need for unity despite the seemingly unconquerable differences. We as the human race have a history of losing our emotional equilibrium when we discover different thought patterns in others. Many wars have been fought as a result. It’s about time that we recognise that it’s ok to be wearing different hats, as our heartbeat is always one.”

The concepts of trauma and healing run consistently throughout her practice. For someone so famous, so much surprises all throughout this show, especially for anyone who did not know that Ono’s family had to flee the bombing of Tokyo in 1945. As a child during this time, Ono found comfort in the constant presence of the sky – “even when everything was falling apart around me, the sky was always there… I can never give up on life so long as I can still see the sky.”

Deeply critical of violence, she believes that the world can start to heal when this aspect of our individual and collective nature is confronted. Much of her work around this topic is an invitation to see things from another perspective. In A Hole you are invited to broaden your view through a pane of glass shot by a bullet that reads: “Go to the other side and see through the hole.” It is reminiscent of Rumi – “the wound is the place where the light shines through.”

Ono has long explored the dynamics of power and vulnerability in both her art and music. Having married three times, she doesn’t shy away from sharing her own experiences and interpersonal struggles. One of the works is titled Half-A-Room (1967), where every object in the tableau, from shoe to cupboard to chair to heater, is cut in half and painted white; the severance of everyday life amidst divorce.


Feminist Flight

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

They settled in New York at the start of the 70s and continued to collaborate on projects such as FLY and Freedom. In these films, Ono engaged with the US Women’s liberation movement of the late 60s and 70s. Second-wave feminism moved beyond the first-wave focus on suffrage, advocating for far greater societal change. For Ono, this included explorations of power structures, women’s oppression through societal role and expectations, as well as discrimination and the nature of equality.

FLY is based on Ono’s 1968 score Fly (Film No.13) which reads: “Let a fly walk on a woman’s body from toe to head and fly out of the window.” It features actress Virginia Lust, real flies “supplied by New York City” and a multi-layered soundtrack that mixes Ono’s voice with guitar notes from Lennon. Ono described both the woman’s body and the fly as representations of herself. The fly carries associations of dirt and decay while also embodying the concept of a free spirit.

Freedom depicts Ono striving to break free from her bra. The film acts as a commentary on women’s struggle to escape societal constraints. Shortly after making the film, she wrote her 1971 manifesto The Feminisation of Society, noting “If we try to achieve our freedom within the framework of the existing social set-up, men, who run society, will continue to make a token gesture of giving us peace in their world.”


Mindful Music

This show is so comprehensive and carefully curated, it’s 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.

When she marries Lennon, they send acorns for growing oaks to leaders across the world in an act of koala diplomacy with a poignant message of peace. The gift is purely conceptual but is co-opted into active politics by the couple’s international fame. Likewise, their honeymoon Bed-In – in which serious conversations between journalists, politicians and the two artists took place in hotels between Amsterdam and Montreal – merged everyday performance with live campaign.

“War Is Over” reads their joint declaration and legacy, visible on billboards and posters during the Vietnam war – and still today 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 the show, you are invited to dip your hands into a thicket of steel helmets suspended upside down, conjuring the dead of conflicts everywhere, and taking 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.

Her distinct approach to the empowering social role of art galvanises people in many directions; To discover new constructive principles for creating spaces for critical thinking and artistic experimentation; For knowledge creation and political resistance; And to imagine an alternative world – because to imagine is to embark on a process of creation.