On a visit to the United States at the age of two, a Japanese girl tastes grapefruit for the first time. This encounter leads her to associate the grapefruit, and the German language, with her often-absent father, who worked in the United States, spoke German, and was an accomplished pianist with a strong interest in German music. During her college years, the girl adopts this memory as a metaphor for her own hybrid experience between the east and west, and creates a self-identification with the grapefruit.
Steal a moon on the water with a bucket
Keep stealing until no moon is seen on the water.
-- Grapefruit (1964)
During a period of depression and exhaustion, Yoko Ono compiled a collection of instructions, drawings, scores and poems for the publication of, what was to become, a seminal text in the history of Conceptual art. Grapefruit –A Book of Instructions and Drawings was, according to Yoko, “like a cure for myself without knowing it. It was like saying ‘Please accept me. I am mad.”
On November 9, 1966, John Lennon climbed to the top of a ladder in Ono’s “Unfinished Paintings and Objects” exhibit at the Indica Gallery in London. Using an attached magnifying glass, he peered at a framed piece of paper on the ceiling. He saw a single word: YES. Following this encounter, Ono sent Lennon a copy of Grapefruit, and then a steady stream of letters, and for a period, daily postcards with instructions like “Dance”, “Breathe” and “Watch all the lights until Dawn.”
Her instructions are, according to Ono, “a real need to do something to act out your madness. As long as you are behaving properly, you don’t realize your madness and you go crazy.”
So perhaps it was madness that brought Yoko Ono and John Lennon together, and a seduction of the mind that brought the power of YES to the world.
YES defines with Zen prose and sly humor the essential character of Yoko’s body of work and her prolific 40-year career of defying traditional boundaries and creating new forms of artistic expression. Her film, sculptures, conceptual installations, songs, Bed-Ins, War is Over! billboards, and other public “peace projects created, first with John Lennon and then in his memory, are expressions of art as community; a revelation of shared pain, hope and redemption.
YES YOKO ONO, an exhibition featuring approximately 150 works from the 1960s to the present, offered the first comprehensive reevaluation of Ono’s work. Organized by Japan Society, New York, and curated by its gallery director, Alexandra Munroe, in consultation with Fluxus scholar Jon Hendricks, YES Is an upbeat exhibit full of humor that shows Ono as an important cultural bridge, injecting Asian thought into the international avant-garde. Munroe writes:
The exploration of Asian thought in American Art is linked to a broad intellectual and cultural movement that sought alternatives to modern Western rationalism and utilitarianisms. It also evolved from a desire to seek Jungian affinities among modern and indigenous cultures, to identify some common spirituality.
In 1964, following the publication of Grapefruit, Ono returned to New York and was immediately engaged in many projects both in and outside of Fluxus. Ono's early work with the Fluxus movement in New York was featured in GRAPEFRUIT: The Early Instructions, the first of five thematic sections in the YES YOKO ONO Exhibit. This section included conceptual paintings, works on paper and printed matter produced from approximately 1960 through the publication of Grapefruit, as well as her interaction with the Tokyo avant-garde during her residence there from 1962-1964.
Fluxus artist Dick Higgins has said of early Fluxus. “The principle ideas shared by Fluxis artist were derived from Zen Buddhism, the I Ching, Erik Satie, and Marcel Duchamp. Many Fluxus artist also favored the 'time structure' or 'temporal collage' method of composing musical and other temporal artworks, such as poems, plays, dances, happenings, and simultaneities.”
Performance artist Henry Flynt, described Fluxus work as 'Concept Art' in which the material which made up their art were concepts. Flynt explains, "Since 'concepts' are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language."
Central to the Grapefruit section, Ono’s Instructions for Painting, a provocative set of written directions for "paintings to be constructed in your head,” typify Fluxus art and Ono’s contribution to the movement.
PAINTING TO SEE THE SKIES
Drill two holes into a canvas.
Hang it where you can see the sky.
(Change the place of hanging. Try both the front and the rear windows, to see if the skies are different.)
-- Grapefruit (1964)
“The radical element of Ono’s Instruction Paintings, “ writes Munroe,” is the concept that painting can be separated into two functions—instruction and realization.” Using ephemera, humor and viewer participation, this series is among the first examples of pure language standing in for the material of art, and marks Ono as, not only an innovator, but an originator of Conceptual Art.
“Idea is what the artist gives, like a stone thrown into the water for ripples to be made. Idea is the air or sun, anybody can use it and fill themselves according to their own size and shape of his body...instruction painting makes it possible to explore the invisible, the world beyond the existing concept of time and space. And then sometimes later, the instructions themselves will disappear and be properly forgotten."
With Yoko’s art, like many Fluxus artist, “it’s not simply the realization that boundaries don’t count,” as Fluxus Artist Dick Higgins says, “but that in the most important issues, there are no boundaries.”
Ono’s suprasensible, metaphysical conceptualism was exemplified in Morning Piece. In this work, she brings a physical awareness of eternal time to the present moment with a series of spontaneous events to sell “future mornings”, shards of broken milk bottles, and later sea glass, tagged with random future dates.
Half-A-Wind: Early Objects, the second thematic section of the YES exhibit, includes works, like Morning Piece, made of common "found" materials often displayed with a linguistic element, juxtaposed in a way that combines intellectual wit, whimsy and paradox. Ono's subversive relationship with the official establishment and its notion of "art as a commodity” is further explored in this section with documentary photographs and publications. Also featured are all the remaining elements of Ono's Half-A-Room installation from her Half-A-Wind show at London's Lisson Gallery in 1967, an exploration in bisection. In this exhibit, all the modest furnishings of a one-room apartment have been cut in half and painted white. Ono writes:
“Life is only half a game. Molecules are always at the verge of half disappearing and half emerging…somebody said I should also put half a person in the show. But we are halves already.”
Ono’s incorporation of Buddhist thought in her work, especially Zen, counters modern Western philosophies with an embrace of spontaneous, unmediated experience and her ideas for events are often found in her “instructions” for actions.
“Event, to me” Ono writes, “is not an assimilation of all the other arts, as Happening seems to be, but extrication from the various sensory perceptions.”
FLY: Events, Performances and Films, the third section in YES, features enlarged documentary photographs and a video displays used to present images of Ono's early concert and performance work from 1961 and continuous projections of Ono's 1966-1970 experimental films, including Film No. 4 (Bottoms), Film No. 5 (Smile) and Fly.
In Being Undyed: The Meeting of Mind and Matter in Yoko Ono’s Events, Kristine Stiles writes:
The bridge from idea to act that links mind and world in an event may be approached through the German world Weltinnenraum, which names the inner ambient space of self-contained consciousness. Weltinnenraum describes those aspects of the self, knowable through language, and is also a name for the boundary of mind between that which can and cannot be accessed through logos, but nevertheless pervades the body at the level of cellular knowledge.
In Card Piece 1-IV, Ono Instructs:
Walk to the center of your Weltinnenraum.
Leave a card.
Cut in a hole in the center of your
Shuffle your Weltinnenraums.
Hand one to a person on the street.
Ask him to forget about it.
Place a stone on each one of the
Weltinnenraums in the world.
Together, the Weltinnenraum (a mental space) and the grapefruit (a material object) comprise the semiotics of Ono’s multicultural, intellectual and emotional experience. An “Event”, to Ono, is not “ a get togetherness” as most happenings are, but a dealing with oneself. She adds, “the closest word for it may be a “wish” or “hope”.
And a “Wish” or “Hope” defined her work with Lennon. Ono's belief in the ability of the mind to alter reality through a change in perception translated into a form of anti-war activism entailing organized acts of "wishing." During the height of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, much of her work with John Lennon used media to effect mass mind power towards the visualization of world peace.
The fourth section of YES, War is Over!: The Peace Movement and other Collaborations with John Lennon, includes documentary photographs and films of Ono and Lennon's numerous happenings and media campaigns staged for world peace.
Ono’s marriage to Lennon gave new dimension to her deeply philosophical art. She had always been engaged with transformation of consciousness via the medium of language and performance. Hers was a provocative art that reduced time, place and self to the material feeling of experience-- what she called the “world of stickiness”. Ono’s achievement during her years with Lennon was an enlargement of that concept into a social and political message for peace, itself the logical outcome of a kind of meditative state of bodily awareness that her instructions help induce. Her message both connected to and helped construct the cultural history of the international peace movement around the globe from 1969 through the 1970’s.
Clear references to Ono’s earlier instruction “pieces’, were the signs hanging over the couples bed in Ono and Lennon’s Bed-In for Peace. These “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace” signs transformed into the global language of the countercultural social movement to end the war in Vietnam. In this way, Ono’s aesthetic practice and philosophies reached an international audience and transformed an artistic Happening into a week long international media event. The transformative power of her positive YES had become a broad cultural and political statement that reached the world.
After Lennon’s death Ono’s work began to reflect a fundamental shift in her cultural sensibilities. Play it by Trust: Recent Work, the fifth section in the YES exhibit, includes a series of some of her 1960’s objects cast in bronze. Originally light, transparent and ephemeral, they are bronzed into solid material, representing a transformation of something that is no longer ethereal. Perhaps this is the culmination of her own life, in retrospect, a cultivation of her own peace with the grapefruit inside.
YES: YOKO ONO Catalog. Alexandra Munroe and Jon Hendricks. Published by Japan Society. 2001
Grapefruit-A Book of Instructions and Drawings. Published by Yoko Ono . 1964
San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art. YES: Yoko Ono Exhibition Website. 2001