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An Interview with Tate's Curator of Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind, Juliet Bingham

By Polly Bates

@pollysportfolio www.pollybates.co.uk






A portrait of Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono with ‘Glass Hammer’ 1967 from ‘HALF-A-WIND SHOW’, Lisson Gallery, London, 1967. Photo © Clay Perry


Tate Modern’s current exhibition ‘Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind’ celebrates the trailblazing and influential work of artist and activist Yoko Ono. Born in Tokyo in 1933, Ono has established herself as a pioneer in early conceptual and participatory art, film, and performance. She is also a celebrated musician and a formidable advocate for world peace. The exhibition spans seven decades of Ono's powerful, multidisciplinary practice, from the 1950s to the present. Juliet Bingham, Curator of International Art at Tate, is the Curator of this exhibition and has traced the development of Ono’s innovative work and its lasting impact on contemporary culture. Conceived in close collaboration with Ono's studio, the exhibition brings together over two-hundred works, including instruction pieces, installations, film, music, and photography. It reveals a radical approach to language, art, and participation that continues to resonate with today's audiences.


I was able to speak with Juliet and discuss the impressive retrospective of Ono’s work and some of her curational decisions for the exhibition.

 

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind installation of Painting to Hammer a Nail

Yoko Ono, Painting to Hammer a Nail, concept 1961, installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND, Tate Modern, London, 2024. Photo © Tate (Lucy Green)

 

Polly: ‘YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND’ is a retrospective of over seven decades of Yoko Ono’s radical work, which tackles themes of peace, feminism, and activism. How did you approach selecting the works to be exhibited?

 

Juliet: The inspiration is to explore Ono’s conceptual practice, which foregrounds ideas over objects, alongside her ongoing campaign for world peace. In particular, the show seeks to trace her radical approach to art, language, and participation. Her work is a collective call to action and a provocation to change the world, one wish at a time. We want to invite people to participate and to dream together.

 

This exhibition offers a rare chance for visitors to experience works from right across the seven decades of Ono’s career. The role of the viewer is key - Ono has described her instruction works (or scores) as "seeds," activated individually and collectively in the minds and actions of those who receive them.

 

The show explores how Ono’s artworks can be read as a way of dealing with her own experiences of suffering and an ongoing wish to heal wider society.


Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind installation of Painting to Hammer a Nail

Yoko Ono, Painting to Hammer a Nail, concept 1961, installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND, Tate Modern, London, 2024. Photo © Tate (Reece Straw)

 

Polly: We can become so embedded within our routines and ‘societal norms’ that it can be hard to step outside these subconscious boundaries. Yoko Ono’s instructions from the 1964 book ‘Grapefruit’ are featured within the exhibition, some being easily achievable actions and others which imagine the seemingly impossible. Is this a contrast which often plays out in her work?

 

Juliet: Many of the instructions in ‘Grapefruit’ have been realised as physical artworks through performance, participation, film, painting, and sculpture. Others are intended to be carried out entirely in the mind. Within Tate’s exhibition, visitors are invited to carry out ‘Shadow Piece’ and ‘Painting to Shake Hands’, to perform inside a bag (‘Bag Piece’), to play a game of chess with all white pieces on an all-white checkerboard (‘White Chess Set’). In ‘My Mommy is Beautiful’ (2004/2024) Ono invites visitors to: “Write your thoughts of your mother. Or pin a photograph of her to the canvas.” The hope is that the work evolves over the course of the exhibition as an intimate homage to mothers. Equally, instructions exist only for the imagination.

 

In a lecture Ono gave in 1966, she commented that her early events had no ‘script’ but rather had something that starts it moving – the closest word for it may be a “wish” or a “hope” – and that transforms in the hands, minds, and words of others. Transformation is a key aspect of Ono’s practice. Ono’s ‘unfinished’ works are to be completed either physically or conceptually by visitors. During her talk at the Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966 Ono explained her participatory art as event-based, engaged with daily life, personal, unfinished, or partial, a catalyst for creative transformation, and existing within the realm of imagination.


Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind photo of performance

Yoko Ono, Bag Piece, 1964, installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND, Tate Modern, London, 2024. Photo © Tate (Reece Straw)

 

Polly: What is your favourite instruction featured on the 150 pages of ‘Grapefruit’?

 

Juliet: During her 2-year stay in Japan between 1962-64, Ono published her foundational book of instruction works, ‘Grapefruit’. It includes over 200 instructions – a hybrid form between poetry and score – written between 1953 and 1964, which aims to stimulate the imagination and unlock the mind. ‘Grapefruit’ was first published with 5 sections: Music, Painting, Event, Poetry, and Object – and later expanded in the 1970s edition to include two more sections of works: Film and Dance.

 

It’s hard to choose just one! Some of the instructions exist as just a single verb, BREATHE and FLY. They also exist as short phrases, for example in the ‘EVENT’ section: ‘Throw a stone into the sky high enough to it will not come back’ (‘Throwing Piece’) or ‘Draw a map to get lost.’ (‘Map Piece’). The section on painting offers playful tasks for the imagination: ‘paintings to be constructed in your head’. We’re including one instruction in Tate Modern’s collection displays which reads ‘Observe three paintings carefully. Mix them well in your head.’


Other works are realised as participatory moments within the exhibition itself, such as ‘Shadow Piece’ (put your shows together until they become one), ‘Painting to Hammer a Nail’ or ‘Painting to Shake Hands’ (‘Painting for Cowards’). In the MUSIC section, the cathartic instruction ‘Voice Piece for Soprano’ invites us to scream: against the wind, against the wall, and against the sky. Ono’s earliest instruction, ‘Secret Piece’, written in the summer of 1953, is a score that invites the reader to play a note ‘with the accompaniment of the birds at dawn’.



Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind instruction installation of a boat for people to add colour

Yoko Ono, 'Add Colour (Refugee Boat)', concept 7960, installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND, Tate Modern, London, 2024. Photo© Tate (Lucy Green)

 

Polly: There is a sense of freedom in Yoko Ono’s participatory works, but also instruction. For example, the restaging of Yoko Ono’s ‘Add Colour (Refugee Boat)’ which began as an entirely white boat placed within white walls, with the instruction for visitors to add colour with the provided blue markers.

Do participators in these sorts of performative artworks ever have true freedom in their contribution, or are the parameters of the instruction necessary to measure their freedom?

 

Juliet: Ono’s instruction for the collective, participatory work ‘Add Colour (Refugee Boat)’ reads, ‘Just blue like the ocean’. Participants are invited to add hand-written messages onto white walls and white boat, which accumulate and layer over the course of the exhibition. Ono conceived the work after being moved by international press coverage of the hundreds of thousands of refugees risking their lives to travel to Europe by sea. This participatory work invites reflection on this urgent and ongoing refugee crisis.

Ono made her first ‘Add Colour’ work at her Chambers Street loft in 1961, splattering sumi ink onto a long stretch of raw canvas. She developed the idea in 1966 at Indica Gallery in London, inviting her audience to add colours to small blank canvases to make a collective work of art. With ‘Add Colour (Refugee Boat)’, Ono invites us to consider the impact collective action can have. The work encapsulates her belief in human agency and her understanding that ‘we are sharing this world’ and sharing our responsibility for it.



Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind instruction installation of a boat for people to add colour

Yoko Ono, 'Add Colour (Refugee Boat}', concept 7960, installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND, Tate Modern, London, 2024. Photo© Tate (Reece Straw)

 

Polly: ‘Wish Trees for London’ invites visitors to write and tie their wishes for peace to its branches. Do you have plans for these wishes once the exhibition is over?

 

Juliet: Ono has been installing variations of ‘Wish Trees’ around the world since 1996. You are invited to write your wishes for peace and tie them to the branches of the trees. Over two million wishes have been collected by Ono to date. After every showing of this work, the wishes continue on in connection with the ‘IMAGINE PEACE TOWER’ in Iceland, which Ono established in memory of her late husband John Lennon. Ono has commented: “As a child in Japan, I used to go to a temple and write out a wish on a piece of thin paper and tie it around the branch of a tree. Trees in temple courtyards were always filled with people’s wish knots, which looked like white flowers blossoming from afar.”



Person hanging a wish on the Wish Tree at Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind

Yoko Ono, 'Wish Trees for London', 2024 installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND Tate Modern, London. Photo© Tate (Reece Straw}

 

These wishes translate Ono’s belief that the mind has the power to realise good through the act of visualisation and collective action: “Power works in mysterious ways. We don’t have to do much. Visualise the domino effect and just starting thinking PEACE. Thoughts are infectious. Send it out. The message will circulate faster thank you think.”



Wish Tree installation view at Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind

Yoko Ono, 'Wish Trees for London', 2024 installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND Tate Modern, London. Photo© Tate (Reece Straw}

 

Polly: Yoko Ono’s hope for peace is still incredibly strong today, as War and current conflicts continue to devastate the lives of an unmeasurable amount of people. A photograph of her billboard campaign ‘WAR IS OVER!’ from 1969 is the backdrop to tables and chairs with chess boards. The boards and pieces are completely white, which I found to be a powerful placement with the photograph. Visitors are invited to go head-to-head in a game which you could easily lose track of, leaving neither side the winner but both sides making moves.

Could you tell us about these works and how you came to curate the space?

 

Juliet: This gallery brings together works and performances Ono made in England between 1966 and 1971. During her five-year stay here, Ono connected with artists, musicians, and writers, including musician John Lennon (1940–1980), her future husband and long-term artistic partner.

 

Against the political backdrop of the US civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, and growing opposition to the American War in Vietnam (1955–1975), Ono’s campaigning work was gaining mainstream interest. Working in collaboration with Lennon, Ono used her art and global media platform to advocate for humanitarian causes and world peace. In the late 1960s, they wrote to world leaders, created billboard campaigns, recorded songs, and staged Bed-In events. Their message of nonviolence resounded in their song ‘Give Peace a Chance’, which became an anthem of the international peace movement.


Installation view at Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind

Yoko Ono, White Chess Set, 1966, installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND, Tate Modern, London, 2024. Photo © Tate (Reece Straw)

 

It was also during her time in London that Ono developed many influential works that continued her desire to heal or make whole through the viewer’s imagination. The solo exhibition she presented in 1966 at John Dunbar’s influential Indica gallery in Mason’s Yard, London, signalled a particular shift in her practice, with key works from this show restaged at Tate Modern. It featured predominantly white and transparent objects labelled as 'unfinished’, with visitors encouraged to participate by either physically or conceptually completing the works. This included ‘White Chess Set’ which was accompanied by the instruction: ‘For playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are’.

 

 

Polly: There are many audio works within the exhibition, how do you think Yoko Ono’s experience and perspective as a musician influenced her performative works?

 

Juliet: Ono began exploring the voice as an instrument during a series of radical performances in New York in the 1960s, which combined poetry, atonal music, vocalisation, and amplified sounds. From the late 1960s, she brought her avant-garde left-field approach to sound and composition into her work as a pioneering musician – creating tracks as a solo artist, in collaboration with Lennon and with the ever-changing Plastic Ono Band, featuring open-ended structures, improvised vocals, outtakes and sound effects. Many tracks connect directly to Ono’s artworks and amplify her activist priorities including an engagement with women’s liberation. It was important that almost every room in the exhibition includes audio works, such as ‘Telephone Piece’, ‘Toilet Piece’, ‘Cough Piece’, feminist anthems such as ‘Sisters, O Sisters’ and the use of her voice in the films ‘FLY’, and the performance ‘WHISPER’ that took place at Sydney Opera House in 2013, which Ono performed in her eightieth year. The exhibition also includes collaborative works such as the Ono’s soundtrack for Yoji Kuri’s animation ‘AOS ‘(1964) and ‘Aria and Solo for Piano with Fontana Mix’ 1957–8, recorded on the 17th of October 1962, performed by Yoko Ono (voice), David Tudor (piano) and John Cage (assistant performer) in Sogetsu Contemporary Series 18.


Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind people interacting with Helmets

Yoko Ono, Helmets (Pieces of Sky), 2001, installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND, Tate Modern, London, 2024. Photo © Tate (Lucy Green)

 

Polly: As you leave the exhibition, you are invited to reach into suspended retro military helmets to retrieve a single puzzle piece. Could you tell us about this piece?  

 

Juliet: One of the strands the exhibition explores is how Ono’s artworks can be read as a way of dealing with her own experiences of suffering and an ongoing wish to heal wider society. As a child fleeing the bombing of Tokyo during the Second World War, she found comfort in the constant presence of the sky, which is a theme she has returned to throughout her career. One of the works in which this is particularly evident is ‘Helmets (Pieces of Sky)’, 2001, an installation made of Second World War helmets, each containing blue puzzle pieces of the sky. The accompanying instruction reads: ‘Take a piece of sky. Know that we are all part of each other.’ Visitors are invited to take a piece of the sky, which she sees as a hopeful symbol of limitless imagination. The pieces are presented in German army helmets from the Second World War, referencing the violent fragmenting of hope through war. Despite being dispersed, the puzzle pieces are still designed to come together and reform the sky. They suggest the possibility for healing through collective action or thought.


Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind people interacting with Helmets

Yoko Ono, Helmets (Pieces of Sky), 2001, installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND, Tate Modern, London, 2024. Photo © Tate (Lucy Green)

 

In 1983, Ono had 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 to recognise that it is all right to be wearing different hats as our heartbeat is always one.”

 

Polly: There is also an exhibition book, what can we expect to find within the accompanying publication?

 

Juliet: The exhibition catalogue contains newly commissioned texts by six authors shedding light on various aspects of Ono’s practice – her formative years in Japan (Naoko Seki), key collaborative partnerships (Yasufumi Nakamori), her London years (Andrew Wilson), her reception in Germany (Patrizia Dander), and a transcribed and edited version of the ‘Recording Artists’ podcast from the Getty Research Institute. Interviews between Barbara Rose and Yoko Ono are discussed by Helen Molesworth and artists Catherine Lord and Sanford Biggers. The publication also includes Ono’s intervention ‘PEACE is POWER’, transcribed into 24 languages, as well as a reproduction of Ono’s text ‘To the Wesleyan People’ (1966) and a selection of her feminist lyrics, including ‘Woman Power’ (1973) and ‘Rising’ (1995).

 

Polly: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your curation of ‘YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND’ at Tate Modern. I would like to finish off with one last question – if you could offer one piece of advice to our creative community, what would it be?  

 

Juliet: Thank you! It would be great to offer Yoko Ono’s words:


"A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality." Yoko Ono

YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND is open until the 1st of September 2024 at Tate Modern, London.

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