YOKO ONO: Music of the Mind

15 February – 1 September 2024
Tate Modern, London

The exhibition works on the edges of several divides. Firstly, the exhibition might be read as a divide between the counterculture and the mainstream art world, and within this a divide between analytical conceptual art with all its schematic categories and a more amorphous, poetic mode of figuring of ideas. Then there is the more familiar divide between mainstream performative media and marginal, gestural networks. This marks a transition from softly spoken to loud and eruptive expression. Whatever way these divides also form orientations towards what type of artist the audience is paying attention to.

The preceding room in Tate gallery complex is a small exhibition of Jannis Kounellis which is tonal opposite to Yoko Ono in that it is dark, even brooding, extremely heavy in terms of both materials and mood, raw in terms of the appropriation of various forms of matter, and with all these features, expressive of deep, striated time. It is an altogether different form of poetics than the light, even whimsical poetics of Yoko Ono. But this is just a situational aside.

There is barely any use of colour in this survey, and when colour is employed, it signifies water or sky, so is literal, as opposed to expressive. Therefore, a whiteness prevails, or alternatively the black and white of the document or of the documentary film. Does white then operate as a governing code: sparse, bland, spiritual, de-materialised, empty?

The term slight might be employed looking at this exhibition. Lightness of touch, marginality, minor modes, non-systematic approaches to medium, are all components related to this designation. A soft form of surrealism, just a touch of Zen, poetic conceptualism, informality of gestures, hip politics, are all woven together into a loosely managed strategy of persuasion.

Jannis Kounellis, [no title] 1999

Like Yoko Ono, Yayoi Kusama was seen in the 1960’s as part of the counterculture circuit, as much as being in an art world network. This was in part due to the chauvinism of the white artworld structure and a desire to discover more congenial, even transgressive structures. In part the counterculture was structured by outsider philosophy that articulated the need for radical change in the social structure. Rather than being a hierarchical order of a perceived establishment, the counterculture was structured by informal networks and was largely ethically co-operative. The spaces which opened as venues for this network tended to suit improvised, cross media work outside of established genres. This then led to a fluidity of within forms of aesthetic expression which closed the gap on the distinction of art and life. The Fluxus movement, to which Ono belonged, was a mixture of this, informal venues, improvised structures of assemblage, and critical resistance to aesthetic hierarchies, but it was the epitome of the aesthetics of the in-between that was of its time that was a marked attribute of the projects that arose from this matrix of projects.

It is of interest how a relatively obscure event or happening which took place in 1964 in Kyoto and in 1965 in New York could have expanded its outreach to such an extent that it can be universally cited as one of the inaugural pieces within the history of that genre of live work. The ‘Cut Piece’ was based on the intuition that the body consists of curves, whereas the scissor cuts in straight lines, so the relationship between the two types of lines is one of disjunction. The conations of violence against women have also developed as part of the expansion of the effect of this work which is a demonstration of how the signified quality of a work is expressive of how an artwork is a becoming. As a work is still has resonance even despite the passage of time it has endured.


So, who is Yoko Ono? Many people have an opinion which is not necessarily based on the notion that she is first and foremost an artist. She might be famous simple because she is famous as icon, and that might be a clue to her way of projecting her persona is at the root of her project. This might be a way of saying that she doesn’t really add up, because none of the narratives which might be on offer form a coherent picture. One thing is clear though, is the way she is subject to rumour, gossip, and seemingly endless speculation. This exhibition is based partly on a desire to form a corrective to this noise by putting the work before the persona. It also announces a reality bereft of the interview or chat show formats, or another way of saying, the death of the author and the beginning of the work starts to come to the fore.
In terms of her relationship to music, Yoko Ono spans the influences of the avant-garde formulations and practices of figures such as La Monte Young, John Cage, and David Tudor and this being absorbed into the fringes of the pop world. This transition became one of the central narratives of her life with music even though some of this remains either obscure or a footnote in nonsense if one is sardonic in. One of the main questions which this transition raises is when is something music and when is it sound? It is a question that still reverberates today.

25th March 1969: A week after their marriage, musicians John Lennon and Yoko Ono receive the press at their bedside in the Presidential Suite of the Hilton Hotel, Amsterdam. The couple stayed in bed for seven days ‘as a protest against war and violence in the world’. Yoko Ono and John Lennon during Bed-In for Peace, Amsterdam, 1969. Courtesy Yoko Ono. Photograph by Ruud Hoff. Image: Getty Images / Central Press / Stringer

There is a late Modernist principle that the pre-occupations of the avant-garde and the mass media spectacle never really mix in any satisfying manner, except for Andy Warhol. The fact that he seemingly cracked the code of how to succeed with this schism is the source of much speculation, but it remains an exemplar of how truisms might not always ben born out of solid or reliable truth. Does Yoko Ono fit a case as one who has flirted with destroying the codes which undermine the desire to maintain the difference within this structure of culture to formulate new principles, or is it rather the basis of a passive drift that enforces a nihilistic drift within the culture that lacks the passion with which it might solicit resolutions? Overall, there is only a muted set of signs of persistence orientated toward to the engagement with such forces.

It is possible to claim that there have been a whole number of modernisms and that there might have been virtue in being touched by several of them without being weighted by anyone of them. Yoko Ono has traversed mediums and worlds, mixed talking too much with too little, raided the esoteric workshop of the mind with common speech, and attempted to introduce an ethics into the free play of form. She has above all else, survived the prison house of fame.



Text by Jonathan Miles



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