Yoko Ono, Cut Piece
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

Yoko Ono’s Controversial Work at Tate Modern

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind at Tate Modern is an engaging overview of the polarizing artist’s career, but her career didn’t end post-John Lennon and Fluxus.

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind
Yoko Ono
Tate Modern
15 February 2023 - 15 September 2024

Yoko Ono is a divisive artist whose work is laden with baggage from her celebrity. Her art, talent, and legacy are wrapped in her fame to the point where it becomes difficult to judge whether she’s a pioneering creative or an extremely fortunate dilettante. Considering her recent sold-out show at Tate Modern, Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind, despite Ono’s fractured legend, she has her fans. I’m very familiar with Ono’s contributions to pop music. Still, her work as a conceptual artist is more esoteric and, frankly, odd. As you stroll through the rooms of the exhibit, the clichéd tropes of conceptual art are everywhere: works of art so strange and pretentious that you stand back wondering what the point is. 

That’s the point when looking at Yoko Ono’s work. Her work will be pretentious, slightly ridiculous, and quite humane and poignant. There’s quite a bit of humour but also sadness in a lot of what’s displayed in the exhibition. The conceptual art of the 1960s gave way to the activist art of the ’70s, in which Ono used her art to articulate her feminism and anti-war activism. It’s this period when Ono’s relationship with the BeatlesJohn Lennon overtook and overwhelmed her own identity as an artist.

Lennon and Ono would collaborate on several works, including commissioning billboards and staging the famous Bed-ins, in which the pair, ensconced on a giant bed, field questions from a game – if sometimes bemused – press corps. These bed-ins look like the proto-form of celebrity activism, embodying all of the best and worst of Hollywood advocacy. Though well-meaning, Ono occasionally fumbled, especially when trying to reference the Holocaust as she spoke about collective action. 

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

Though Music of the Mind is touted as a retrospective of the entirety of Ono’s career, it’s clear that her work of the ’60s, particularly her collaborations with the collective Fluxus, is the most highly regarded. Ono was a significant figure of the Fluxus movement and worked with several of its artists, including composer John Cage, George Brecht, La Monte Young, and the founder, George Maciunas, who photographed much of Ono’s work. 

There are some readily identifiable performance pieces that are iconic, including Cut Piece (1965), a short work captured by Albert and David Maysles that features Ono clad in a beautiful suit that is systematically cut away in scrapes by members of the audience. The piece is striking and controversial: some read it as a treatise on violence against women (a topic Ono returns to several times in her oeuvre), while Ono has maintained that Cut Piece is the relationship between a performer and her audience – audience members get to take away scraps of fabric, as if Ono was the tree in Shel Silverstein’s 1964 childrens’ book, The Giving Tree, generously giving away parts of herself to her audience. As Ono sits on a stage floor, bits of her jacket, camisole, and brasier are cut away. Her face – young, open, strikingly pretty – looks directly at the camera, impassive and stoic. 

The other important work in Ono’s oeuvre, Grapefruit is also included. Scripts of her onstage performance art pieces, suggestions, and instructions are typed out; these texts are cryptic and quixotic, leaving it up to the audience to “fill in” the experience of consuming the art. For example, one piece, “Mirror Piece”, tells audiences that “Instead of obtaining a mirror / obtain a person / Look into him./ Use different people. / Old, young, fat, small, etc./” (1964 Spring). In another work, Ono suggests allowing guests to cut apart a work of art, removing their favourite colours or images until there’s nothing left. These are some of the most conceptual pieces in the exhibition and easy to mock – especially when the scores get murky and nonsensical, but there’s a kindness in them as if Ono is trying to make a genuine connection to her audiences by including them in the process; it’s not enough to look at her work, but to consume her work means getting involved. 

Walking through the spaces of Music of the Mind, visitors hear a hammer pounding as if exhibits were still being installed. In Painting to Hammer a Nail, guests can hammer nails onto a canvas. In other interactive pieces, members of the public play a game with Ono’s White Chess Set, described as a “chess set for playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are.” In Bagism, folks climb into black cloth bags and are encouraged to move around, dance, and mime, their bodies rendered into faceless, formless humanoids devoid of race, gender, class, or nationality. These works show an impish sense of play that underlines a lot of Ono’s work – yes, much of her work is informed by pain and anger, but it is also quite amusing.

Yoko Ono: Bag | Photo © Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Other pieces in Music of the Mind explore the political, peacenik persona that Ono cultivated. Some of her work has met with resistance, such as her short film Buttocks, a montage of buttocks, which was banned at one point by the British Board of Film Classification before getting an x-rating as a compromise. It’s a quirky film, almost quaint in its cheekiness (no pun intended). “It’s quite harmless,” Ono said of the film’s banning. “It is not in the least bit dirty or kinky. There’s no murder or violence.”

Of course, murder and violence are part of Ono’s work. She suggested her first work of conceptual art was an imagination game she played as a child, conjuring pretend menus to compensate for her experiences of food insecurity when evacuated from the bombings in Toyko during WWII. The album art of her 1980 release, Season of Glass, is also featured, with the striking image of John Lennon’s blood-stained glasses. Another striking piece, A Hole, is horrific in its simplicity: a large pane of glass marred by a bullet hole. (It’s tempting to link this piece – created in the 2000s – with Lennon’s murder, though Ono has refuted that interpretation.) Though one may try, it’s hard to divorce Ono’s life and work from her late husband’s tragic death. 

Though some may dismiss Ono’s pro-peace work as trite, it would be a mistake to undermine her attempts at promoting a utopia. The cover of her 1985 album, Starpeace, showcases a smiling, beaming Ono cradling the Earth in her palm. In one of the exhibition’s most moving pieces, Add Colour (Refugee Boat), guests take to a white cube of a room with blue paint markers and tag the walls and floors with messages of peace, love, and harmony. A boat lies on its side in the middle of the room as if beached. Like the rest of the room, the boat is covered in scribbled notes of kindness and peace.

Yoko Ono, Add Colour (Refugee Boat), 2016, at MAXXI Foundation. Photo © Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

A careful scan of the room will show wishes for peace and an end to war, with visitors pledging their support for Ukrainians, Gazans, Israeli hostages, transgender people, women, displaced children, refugees, and people of color. Some people have opted for drawing figures, including a couple of Jesus Christ-like figures. As with much of Ono’s work, Add Colour (Refugee Boat), much of its power of the piece lies not necessarily in the object-ness but in how its audience interacts with it and how that audience forges a relationship with the work (and the artist).

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind is an engaging overview of the polarizing artist’s career, but ultimately it seems incomplete. It focuses mostly on her work from the ’60s and ’70s and thus seems a bit reductive, short-changing her more recent work that is removed from her work at Flexus and her life with John Lennon. This decision could be because curators and audiences may have dismissed Ono’s work in the ’80s as a wealthy rock widow’s dilettantism. Or her latter work might be judged unsubstantial or light, as she adopted a more optimistic, peace-lover guise. Or it could be that her celebrity became so entwined with pop capitalism that it would have been hard to take her entreaties of peace and love seriously, as she became exponentially more wealthy as the steward of her late husband’s library of work. For whatever reason, Music of the Mind is lopsided and presents a picture of an artist who began with bright, fresh ideas, only to plateau in middle age. 

There’s also precious little about her musical output, her pop music relegated to a small alcove with listening stations, similar to the ones they had in old Tower Records. Ono said of her music, “It was the music that made me survive,” yet her curious discography is treated like a minor moment in her career. (At the very least, Zbigniew Rybczyński’s innovative music video of her 1985 single “Hell in Paradise” should have been represented.)

These quibbles may seem minor when taking in the monumental work displayed. The best of this work – which, admittedly, is primarily Ono’s earlier stuff – showcases a bright and inquisitive talent, restless and curious. The art of Music of the Mind can be silly and pretentious, but it’s still an admirable body of work.