In February 2024, Tate Modern will present the UK’s largest exhibition celebrating the ground-breaking and influential work of artist and activist Yoko Ono (b.1933, Tokyo). Ono is a trailblazer of early conceptual and participatory art, film and performance, a celebrated musician, and a formidable campaigner for world peace. Spanning seven decades of the artist’s powerful, multidisciplinary practice from the mid-1950s to now, YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND will trace the development of her innovative work and its enduring impact on contemporary culture. Conceived in close collaboration with Ono’s studio, the exhibition will bring together over 200 works including instruction pieces and scores, installations, films, music and photography, revealing a radical approach to language, art and participation that continues to speak to the present moment.
Ideas are central to Ono’s art, often expressed in poetic, humorous and profound ways. The exhibition will start by exploring her pivotal role in experimental avant-garde circles in New York and Tokyo, including the development of her ‘instruction pieces’ – written instructions that ask readers to imagine, experience, make or complete the work. Some exist as a single verb such as FLY or TOUCH. Others range from short phrases like ‘Listen to a heartbeat’ and ‘Step in all the puddles in the city’ to tasks for the imagination like ‘Painting to be Constructed in your Head’. Each word or phrase aims to stimulate and unlock the mind of the reader. Previously unseen photographs will show Ono’s first ‘instruction paintings’ at her loft studio 112 Chambers Street in New York – where she and composer La Monte Young hosted experimental concerts and events – and in her first solo exhibition at AG Gallery in 1961. The typescript draft of Ono’s ground-breaking self-published anthology Grapefruit, compiling her instructions written between 1953 and 1964, will be displayed in the UK for the first time. Visitors will be invited to activate Ono’s instructions, concealing themselves in the interactive work Bag Piece 1964 – first performed by Ono in Kyoto, in the same concert in which she performed her iconic work Cut Piece 1964 – and bringing their shadows together in Shadow Piece 1963.
The heart of the exhibition will chart Ono’s radical works created during her five-year stay in London from 1966. Here she became embedded within a countercultural network of artists, musicians and writers, meeting her future husband and longtime collaborator John Lennon. Key installations from Ono’s influential exhibitions at Indica and Lisson Gallery will feature, including Apple 1966 and the poignant installation of halved domestic objects Half-A-Room 1967. Ono’s banned Film No. 4 (Bottoms) 1966-7 which she created as a ‘petition for peace’ will be displayed alongside material from her influential talk at the Destruction In Art Symposium, in which she described the fundamental aspects of her participatory art: event-based; engaged with the everyday; personal; partial or presented as unfinished; a catalyst to creative transformation; and existing within the realm of the imagination. Visitors will be able to participate in White Chess Set – a game featuring only white chess pieces and a board of white squares, with the instruction ‘play as long as you can remember where all your pieces are’ – a work first realised in 1966 that demonstrates Ono’s anti-war stance.
Key themes that recur throughout Ono’s work will be explored across decades and mediums. This includes the ‘sky’ which appears repeatedly as a metaphor for peace, freedom and limitlessness. As a child fleeing Tokyo during World War II, it was in the constant presence of the sky that Ono found solace and refuge. It appears in the instruction piece Painting to See the Skies 1961, the 1966 installation SKY TV, broadcasting a live video feed of the sky above Tate Modern, and the moving participatory work Helmets (Pieces of Sky), first realised 2001, inviting visitors to take away their own puzzle-piece of the sky. The artist’s commitment to feminism will be illustrated by key films including FLY 1970-1, in which a fly crawls over a naked woman’s body while Ono's vocals chart its journey, and Freedom 1970, depicting Ono as she attempts and fails to break free from her bra. In a section devoted to Ono’s music, feminist anthems such as Sisters O Sisters 1972, Woman Power 1973 and Rising 1995 embolden women to build a new world, have courage and rage, amplifying Ono’s works that denounce violence against women.
Ono has increasingly used her art and global media platform to advocate for peace and humanitarian campaigns, initially collaborating with her late husband John Lennon. Acorns for Peace 1969 saw Ono and Lennon send acorns to world leaders, while the billboard campaign ‘WAR IS OVER!’ (if you want it) 1969 used the language of advertising to spread a message of peace. The film BED PEACE 1969 documents the second of the couple’s infamous ‘bed-in’ events staged in Amsterdam and Montreal, during which they spoke with the world’s media to promote world peace amid the Vietnam War. Tate Modern will also stage Ono’s recent project Add Colour (Refugee Boat), first activated in 2016, inviting visitors to add paint to white gallery walls and a white boat while reflecting on urgent issues of crisis and displacement.
The exhibition will culminate in a new iteration of Ono’s participatory installation My Mommy Is Beautiful, first realised 2004, featuring a 15-metre-long wall of canvases to which visitors can attach photographs of their mother and share personal messages. Moving beyond the exhibition space, Ono’s work will also extend across Tate Modern’s building and landscape. Gallery windows overlooking the River Thames will feature the artist’s powerful intervention, PEACE is POWER, first shown 2017, translated into multiple languages, while the interactive artwork Wish Tree, first realised 1996, will greet visitors at the entrance to Tate Modern, inviting passers-by to contribute individual wishes for peace.