Tate Etc

Choose Your Own Adventure

Yoko Ono often invites audiences to participate in simple acts of the imagination or more active encounters with her artworks and one another. Ahead of an exhibition at Tate Modern that will allow you to take part in many of her early and most well-known performances, one writer, Midori Yoshimoto, recounts her own transformative experiences of Ono’s art

Yoko Ono with Glass Hammer 1967 from HALF-A-WIND SHOW, Lisson Gallery, London, 1967. Photograph © Clay Perry / Artwork © Yoko Ono

I consider my shows like giving an elephant’s tail. When a blind man says ‘what’s an elephant,’ you lead the man to an elephant and let him grasp the tail and say ‘that’s an elephant’. The existing material in the gallery is like an elephant’s tail and the larger part is in your mind. But you have to give a tail to lead into it. The thing is to promote a physical participation that will lead you into this larger area of mind. What I’m trying to do is make something happen by throwing a pebble into the water and creating ripples.

Yoko Ono, 1967, quoted in Time Out, August 1971

On 25 October 2000, I attended a talk by Yoko Ono with the then director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, David A. Ross, at the Japan Society in New York. Even though I was still an art history graduate student, I had assisted in the research for Ono’s retrospective exhibition Yes Yoko Ono, which was on view there. After their talk, I was invited onto the stage, blindfolded by Ono, and sent back to the audience, as she announced: ‘This is Midori-san. She will be looking for a man with an elephant tail. She is shy. Please be kind to her.’

With that prompt, I squeezed through aisle after aisle, patting many men’s backsides in my search for the tail, saying ‘Excuse me’ repeatedly. While doing this (the first public performance in my life), my head was filled with concern about what people would think of my touching strangers, particularly the opposite sex, but I shook off that thought and tried to focus on my task. I was also unsure if I had interpreted Ono’s instruction correctly. Unbeknown to me, this scene was being recorded by a Japanese television company and was broadcast soon after. Both my sister and mother were surprised to find me appearing in a Japanese TV programme that they had found by chance.

Looking back, I see that Ono was referencing the ancient Indian parable of the blind men who touch an elephant for the first time and each give completely different descriptions of it, based on the body part that they have encountered. Since each man asserts a different perspective, they cannot agree on the nature of the animal before them. The moral is that humans tend to claim absolute truths based on their limited, subjective experience, although others’ subjective experiences may be equally true. Some have interpreted the elephant in the parable as a metaphor for God and the blind men as signifying different religions.

According to Ono’s statement above, her art is intended to be like an elephant’s tail – only a part of the greater whole that she believes to be in the viewer’s mind. Her work promotes a ‘physical participation ’that will lead the viewer into the ‘larger area of the mind’.

In light of this parable, let’s look at one of her performances, Bag Piece 1964, which also took place right in front of me at the Japan Society. Ono entered a black bag, then invited Ross to join her. After he did so, murmurs and chuckles could be heard among the audience, who were all guessing what might be going on inside the bag. After five minutes or so, both Ono and Ross exited the bag. The following ‘score’ for Bag Piece describes what might have transpired inside it:

After the curtain has gone up (or if there is no curtain, at a designated time after the announcer announced the piece) two performers walk onto the stage.

Performers may be two males, two females, or a mixed couple.

Performers carry a bag large enough for both to get inside of.

Bag made of non-transparent material.

Both performers get inside of bag.

Both remove all clothing while inside of bag.

Both put all clothing back on.

They come out of bag.

They exit with bag from stage.

From the 1950s, Ono began writing instructions or ‘scores’ which can be performed by anyone, or simply imagined in the reader’s mind. Fellow artists from the international avant-garde collective Fluxus also wrote scores for various events, which they exchanged, and often performed one another’s work. Ono presented Bag Piece as a participatory event during The Stone, a multimedia environment at the Judson Gallery in New York in 1966. After filling out a six-page questionnaire, visitors were given a large black bag, then asked to remove their shoes and enter a purpose-built structure in the gallery containing sound, light, film and painting, where they could get into the bag, take off their clothes inside it, and stay as long as they liked. The exhibition catalogue included an advert and order form for ‘a bagwear’. In her hand-drawn cartoon, Ono asked: ‘Is your wardrobe complete? No, not without a bagwear. Bagwear is for people who suffer from over exposure.’ The weave of the bag allowed participants to see out, though they could not be seen from outside. Hence, the bag became a cocoon-like, safe environment.

When I asked her where the idea of disappearing or hiding came from in my interview with her in 2001, Ono answered: ‘It’s not disappearing, but it’s becoming something that is different from what people perceive. Bag Piece has to do with creating a movement that is more spiritual than physical.’ Returning to the metaphor of an elephant’s tail, Bag Piece provides a viewer with a portal to another space where they feel free to perform and learn something previously unknown about themselves. In another interview with Gloria Vando Hickok in 1989, Ono stated: ‘All my things have to do with the inner life, inner communication and transformation.’ Inside the bag, people are expected to shed their normal role of being the ‘viewer’ and become an active ‘participant’ who goes through an inner transformation for a discovery.

Cut Piece 1964 performed in New Works of Yoko Ono, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, 21 March 1965, photograph by Minoru Niizuma

© Yoko Ono. Photo: Minoru Niizuma, courtesy Yoko Ono

The same can be said of all of Ono’s works. Cut Piece, which Ono performed almost simultaneously with Bag Piece between 1964 and 1966, invited audience members to come up to the stage, cut off a piece of the artist’s best clothes (whatever these might be at the time of the performance) and take it as a gift. This piece also prompted the viewers to leave their comfort zones and go on stage to perform the act of cutting. Under the limelight, they were the ones who were exposed and vulnerable, deciding where and how to cut, when to stop, and so on. Their personalities, attitudes and demeanours were reflected in their actions and became part of the performance. The sitter (who can be anyone, according to the score) became a mirror to reflect the minds of the participants.

Activating the viewer’s mind through physical participation is the key motivation behind much of Ono’s work. The first exhibition she held in London, at Indica Gallery in November 1966 – where she was, famously, first introduced to John Lennon – was titled Unfinished Paintings and Objects by Yoko Ono. The main concept was that all her works were ‘unfinished’ without audience participation. Mend Piece, first shown there, consisted of a smashed white teacup presented on a white pedestal with a tube of porcelain glue, a needle and thread. Visitors were asked to mend the broken teacup. After 11 September 2001, Ono attached an additional message to the instructions for this piece: ‘When you’re mending the cup, imagine mending the world.’ While Mend Piece was originally conceived as a way for participants to heal something within themselves, the act of mending became a form of wish to heal the world, too.

White Chess Set, which was also first shown as part of Ono’s show at Indica Gallery, consists of a white chess board and a set of all-white chess pieces. The work invites viewers to play a game in which the two players’ pieces are indistinguishable from one another. As the score states, this is a ‘Chess Set for playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are.’ It might just be possible to play, but it becomes extremely challenging. In this way, White Chess Set nullifies the traditional rules of the game – and the idea of opponents altogether.

Imagine Peace at Piccadilly Circus, London, March 2022, presented by CIRCA, photograph by Daniel Adhami

© Yoko Ono. Photo: Daniel Adhami, courtesy Cultural Institute of Radical Contemporary Arts (CIRCA)

Ono has consistently used her art to call attention to making the world more peaceful, even one step at a time. One may recall her billboard campaign with John Lennon – ‘War is over! If You Want It’ – which was put up around the world as a message against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Her later campaign, Imagine Peace, also prompts you to take an active role and seriously ‘imagine’ peace – to think about what it would take to make it a reality. For me, this transformation started in 2000, when I was initiated into performance by Ono, and for that, I’m forever in her debt. Perhaps you will also find your own elephant’s tail in Ono’s exhibition at Tate Modern and begin a journey of your own.

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind, 15 February – 1 September 2024. Exhibition organised by Tate Modern in collaboration with Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Curated by Juliet Bingham, Curator, International Art with Andrew de Brún, Assistant Curator, International Art, Tate Modern and Patrizia Dander, Head of Curatorial Department with Catherine Frèrejean, Assistant Curator, Kunstsammlung NordrheinWestfalen. Supported by John J. Studzinski CBE with additional support from the Yoko Ono Exhibition Supporters Circle and Tate Americas Foundation.

Midori Yoshimoto is Gallery Director and Professor of Art History at New Jersey City University. She is the author of books including Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York and recently guest-curated the exhibition Out of Bounds: Japanese Women Artists in Fluxus at the Japan Society, New York until 21 January 2024.