Yoko Ono

b. Tokyo, Japan | 1933

“Artists must not create more objects. The world is full of everything it needs.” – Yoko Ono

“After unblocking one’s mind by dispensing with visual, auditory, and kinetic perceptions, what will come out of us?” Yoko Ono asked in her 1966 essay “To the Wesleyian People,”“Would there be anything? I wonder. And my Events are mostly spent in wonderment.” In this FSA Inspiration, we highlight Japanese-American artist Yoko Ono, a formidable artist and musician, a forerunner of experimental and collaborative art forms within Dada, Happenings, and Fluxus movements. A new retrospective on her work, “Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind” is at London’s Tate Modern until September 2024.

A female immigrant tutored in Buddhism, Christianity, and piano, Ono has been a lifelong visionary and advocate for global peace and humanitarian concerns. Moving to the States at eighteen, she began her American education at Sarah Lawrence College, where she started creating her “Instructional Pieces,” publishing her story “A Grapefruit in the World of a Park” in the college newspaper, which would foreground “Grapefruit,” (1964) her earliest volume of scores. Remarks MoMA curator Christophe Cherix, “The grapefruit, a citrus hybrid, would soon become a metaphor for hybridity in Ono’s work, conveying both a personal point of view—her crossing of the Eastern and Western worlds—and a new artistic approach able to combine existing disciplines.” Entering New York in the 1950s, Ono’s “hybridity” was an ideal match for the current art world’s milieu of Marcel Duchamp, Allan Kaprow, John Cage, and George Machunas alongside D.T. Suzuki, a lecturer in Zen Buddhism at Columbia, frequented by her avant-garde circles.

Renting a loft on Chambers Street in 1960, Yoko Ono hosted artist gatherings and performances with La Monte Young over six months, where art world figures such as Robert Rauschenberg, Peggy Guggenheim, and Jasper Johns attended. While Ono collaborated with artists for the Chambers Street Loft Series, she featured her solo work at Fluxus Founder George Maciunas’s AG Gallery on Madison Avenue. Art historian Jonathan Fineberg remarks that Ono’s “works from this period were like Zen koans, instructions that confounded reason but evoked insight through intuition, transcending the intellect.” For example, in “SUN PIECE” (1962), she instructs, “Watch the sun until it becomes square.” These conceptual directives or Fluxus “scores” are highly poetic – “fabricating consciousness” with her primary art material – ideas. Not only does she form her artwork entirely in her mind, but she requires you, her audience, to complete it by imagining or participating in it with her, affirming the Duchampian imperative “that no work of art is finished until completed by the spectator.”


Founded in the early 1960s, Fluxus members innovated artistic forms of performance, video, Conceptual art, and minimalism.

Founded in the early 1960s, Fluxus members innovated artistic forms of performance, video, Conceptual art, and minimalism. Inspired by noted musical scores, artists created instructions for short actions, such as cooking a meal or lighting a match. Pushing against commodifiable objects, Fluxus concentrated on ephemeral experiences. Before Marina Abramović, Yoko Ono experimented with the body as an artistic medium; before Joseph Kosuth’s language-based conceptual works, Yoko Ono wrote Fluxus scores. Ono and other Fluxus artists were prophetic in their anticipation and critique of contemporary art’s current reflection of late-stage capitalism in this art market, objects are commodified with value as a form of real estate rather than relational and spiritual encounters.

Documented by David and Albert Maysles at Carnegie Hall, Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” (1964) not only marks a seminal moment in performance art but also archiving durational performance as film. The Maysles brothers were known for innovating a style of documentary film in America called direct cinema (otherwise known as cinéma vérité in France), which captures life precisely as it happens without intrusions or edits. Yoko Ono’s score for “Cut Piece” is as follows: “Performer sits on stage with a pair of scissors in front of him. It is announced that members of the audience may come on stage – one at a time – to cut a small piece of the performer’s clothing to take with them. Performer remains motionless throughout the piece. Piece ends at the performer’s option.”

Wearing her best clothes even when she could not afford to replace them, Ono reflects that this performance exemplifies “the Zen tradition of doing the thing which is most embarrassing for you to do and seeing what you come up with and how you deal with it.” A crucial feminist work advocating non-violence, many remain unaware that her inspiration for “Cut Piece” was from the legend of the Buddha. In The New Yorker’s “Yoko Ono’s Art of Defiance,” Louis Menand poignantly synthesizes this connection to “Cut Piece,” writing that the Buddha, who had renounced his life of privilege to wander the world, gave whatever was asked of him: “His soul achieved supreme enlightenment when he allowed a tiger to devour his body, and Ono saw parallels between the Buddha’s selfless giving and the artist’s. When addressing serious issues – in this case voyeurism, sexual aggression, gender subordination, violation of a woman’s personal space, violence against women – Ono invariably found means to combine dangerous confrontation with poetry, spirituality, personal vulnerability, and edgy laughter.”

Perhaps more socially famous as John Lennon’s partner, Yoko Ono was also inaccurately targeted for the Beatles’ disbandment. On the contrary, Peter Jackson’s recent documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” (2021) recovered footage of Yoko Ono as a supportive partner and musical collaborator alongside John, Ringo, Paul, and George during the creation of their final album “Let It Be”; it even captures her on set doing Fluxus-y things. As Amanda Hess observed in The New York Times, it’s “as if she is staging a marathon performance piece, and in a way, she is.’” Before his untimely death in 1980, Lennon was an artistic and musical collaborator with Ono, particularly regarding their shared commitment to pacifism. Even their honeymoon was a two-week series of non-violent anti-war protests, where they used their celebrity for art activism. Later that year, their peace campaign launched the “War is Over! If You Want It” poster and billboard advertisements, in 12 major cities, from Tokyo to Toronto to New York, echoing Ono’s 1966 artwork “White Chess Set.” Far from the Vietnam War’s conclusion, Lennon and Ono planted the seed for people to imagine another physical and spiritual reality – one of empathy; one of world peace. In 2009, Artforum published a conversation between Yoko Ono and Rirkrit Tiravanija, where Tiravanija asked Ono if she considered “Bed-ins for Peace” as a Fluxus score. She replies that forty years earlier she didn’t because she and John did not write scripts for the “Bed-ins”; instead, she reconsiders, that they performed the score without a script. “There are some things you must just ‘do,’” she remarks to Tiravanija, likening the artistic act of intuition to that of parenting – one discovers the script in the act of praxis.

In 2006, Yoko Ono featured a trio of installations inside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London: “Morning Beams for the City of London,” “Cleaning Piece: Riverbed,” and “Wish Tree.” Jonathan Cate reflects on the significance of these works inside a sacred space where visitors were invited to engage in simple acts of self-reflection: “Though some responded to the invitation with what seemed a perfunctory automatic action others found in it an opportunity to partake in a ritual action which touched them deeply and offered a new and unanticipated experience of the cathedral.” Mirroring other liturgical and meditative actions, one finds inside a Christian worship service; these individual actions gradually accumulate as a form of communal response. Cate insightfully observes in Ono’s work, we rarely find completion but rather an ongoing dialogue between the work and the viewer through the latter’s participation in the former, both in shaping its form and in responding to its ritual.” Likening Yoko Ono’s art within “relational aesthetics” (along with Félix González-Torres and Rirkrit Tiravanija), Nicholas Bourriaud’s description for artists who create work inspired by human relations and their social context. Typically “relational aesthetics” artworks necessitate a response from the audience, who in turn become co-creators of the work – by eating Pad Thai, removing a foil-wrapped candy from a gallery, or in this case, taking a stone from the riverbed and placing it upon the “mound of joy” or “mound of sorrow.” Bourriaud says that a contemporary work is no longer simply a space one moves through but becomes a time to be lived through. Thus, Ono’s work invites us to engage the world with empathy through “fabricating consciousness” individually in our minds, and collectively by activating objects and relational connections, which together pave the way towards global harmony. 


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