A photograph of Yoko Ono's Half-A-Room, taken at the Tate Modern.

Exhibition in progress — Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind at the Tate Modern

Running from 15th February 2024 – 1st September 2024 at the Tate Modern, Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind features more than 200 works, and “is the UK’s largest exhibition celebrating key moments in Ono’s groundbreaking, influential and multidisciplinary career”. Ono’s works — multisensory, interactive and imaginative — invite visitors to unlearn how we typically approach creating and viewing art. They prompt us to see these pieces in dialogue with each other, and perhaps even with the ones we’ve created in our heads.

As we walked into the first room, we were immediately greeted by Ono’s FILM NO. 1 (‘MATCH’) / Fluxfilm No. 14 (1966), where we were invited to watch a match slowly burn. Ono’s use of the multisensory does not stop here, however, and is present throughout the exhibition. As we looked at the Waterdrop Painting (1961), sounds of a toilet flushing — the Toilet Piece (1971) — played intermittently in the background. Ono’s Cough Piece (1961), an audio recording of her coughing forms the ambient noise of one of the rooms, which we initially did not notice. By tapping into sounds so common in everyday life, Ono not only challenges the perception of what constitutes art, but prompts viewers to pay attention to, and perhaps appreciate, the world around them. Many more videos and compositions are on display, but you’d have to visit the exhibition to experience them.

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind is set up such that imagination is very much encouraged with the visitors’ interpretations subsequently challenged (or perhaps coexisting with other possibilities). One of the first installations we see is Ono’s handwritten Instructions for Paintings (1961-2), and we begin to imagine how they might be physically realised in our heads. For example, the instructions for Waterdrop Painting (1961): “Let water drop. / Place a stone under it […]”. As we progress through the room, we become privy to Ono’s interpretation of this set of instructions. A second set of instructions features in the exhibition, this time, typewritten and more in number. One of our favourites is “[s]end the smell of the moon” from Smell Piece (1953). This set of instructions, seems to also include more abstract pieces, ones that become realised through the viewer’s interaction with them.

The exhibition reveals its interactive elements in the second room, where a piece of black material on the ground bears the dust and dirt of footprints. A recreation of Painting to Be Stepped On (1961), visitors are invited to step on the material “to complete the painting”. The idea of interaction between artist and viewer is one of the defining characteristics of Ono’s work. In an interview with Hans Ulrich in 2002, Ono describes how she “wanted to give an unfinished work for others to add to, not to merely repeat”. Throughout the exhibition, visitor participation shapes certain installations. Shadow Piece (1963) instructs people to “put your shadows together until they become one”. A once-blank canvas already bears the outlines of numerous shadows. It is surprisingly difficult to draw around your own shadow, and once we stepped away we could no longer find ourselves amid the overlapping lines.

Boundaries thus, are important in Ono’s work, and also in our experience of the exhibition. This is evident in the 1961-2 Instructions for Paintings, which features 22 works. The process of creation is brought to the fore: we see guiding lines and pieces of paper pasted over parts of the instructions. It is as much about recognising boundaries as well as collapsing and blurring them. Ono’s Striptease for Three (1964), contains three chairs. A sign warns us not to touch the piece, setting up a clear boundary between the viewer and the art. This is juxtaposed against the Bag Piece (1964), located extremely close by, prompting the question of what constitutes creating and when it becomes encroaching. In this piece, the visitor ceases being on the outside, and is instead invited to be part of the art by covering themselves in a bag and doing whatever they wish — be it moving about or striking a conversation. Bag Piece not only collapses the boundaries between viewer and art, but also in the way the viewers “become just a spirit or soul” — there is a formlessness, and yet also a sense of impermanence. 

Towards the end of the exhibition, a number of installations reflect Ono’s advocation for peace through artistic media. White Chess Set (1966) features only white chess pieces to articulate her “anti-war stance” – visitors may pause and play a game while BED PEACE (1969) is projected on a nearby wall. The film documents one of Ono and John Lennon’s “bed-in” events during the Vietnam War. A more recent project, Add Colour (Refugee Boat), first realised in 2016, asks visitors to create their own art. White walls surround a white boat, though both are already covered with splashes of blue ink. Blue footprints are the result of trodden-in paint and someone has written “Thank you Yoko for all the peace” on one of the walls. We can only imagine that by September, the room will be more blue than white. Just outside, German helmets from World War Two hang upside down, filled with puzzle pieces. Entitled Helmets (Pieces of Sky) (2001), the installation demands a deconstruction of sorts. Brought together, the pieces form an image of the sky, but this is the first exhibition we have been to that asks people to take a small part of the installation home. As the exhibition continues, the pieces will be further dispersed across the world, but a complete picture has already been made an impossibility. 

Whether hammering nails into the walls or drawing on them, the exhibition’s tactile and interactive elements are its greatest strength. We left with questions about viewership, given that we had spent the past couple of hours contributing as much as observing. Visitors to the exhibition add something – hand-drawn outlines of their shadows; drawings and phrases in blue ink on and around the refugee boat; and in the final room, messages to their mothers, fixed to canvases, in Ono’s My Mommy Is Beautiful (2004). If viewership tends towards the passive, this tendency is left at the door. But, visitors not only add to the exhibition; they also take away – two puzzle pieces left with us. A video in one of the rooms shows Cut Piece (1964), during which audience members cut away pieces of her clothing, taking the fabric with them. Ono defines stripping as “discover[ing] something hidden in humans”. Despite what is taken away, in the video and from the exhibition, the interactive elements mean that Ono’s installations grow more than they diminish. And, perhaps, you might leave not only with a puzzle piece, but having discovered something hidden in yourself.

Image credit: Photo by Liberty Brignall of Yoko Ono’s Half-A-Room, taken at the Tate Modern.