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Why War? Yoko by Yoko at the Serpentine

by Alexandra_Munroe on April 14, 2012

Originally published in Yoko Ono: To the Light. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

In a back hallway of Yoko Ono’s New York apartment a series of drawings by the obscure Polish artist Stanisław lgnacy Witkiewicz hangs salon-style in the shadows. Peering closely, one discovers fine pencil lines depicting monstrous figures emerging from a troubled imagination. A novelist, playwright and philosopher working between the First and Second World Wars, Witkiewicz conjured beasts whose deformities suggest horrific acts of some future calamity for humanity. The artist committed suicide by drug overdose in the days after the Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland in 1939. His suite of hallucinatory drawings resonates with Ono’s interest in Surrealism (Magritte is one her favourite artists) and in Expressionism (George Grosz and Egon Schiele in particular). An artist collector, she surrounds herself with these strange and agitated images of early modern art, portraits of existential pain and wonderment. The Witkiewicz drawings also resonate with her lifelong experience of war.

Ono’s work as an artist, poet and composer working alternately on the fringe and in the mainstream of culture for over sixty years often evokes a terrifying void — what she calls ‘white terror’.[1] She mines this primal essence especially in her music. Both her lyrics and what critics call her ‘delirious wail’[2] have an undercurrent of imminent obliteration. ‘If you were drowning you wouldn’t say: “I’d like to be helped because I have a moment to live”’, Ono once said. ‘You’d say, “Help!” but if you were more desperate you’d say, “Eioghhh,” or something like that. And the desperation of life is really life itself, the core of life, what’s really driving us forth.’[3]

For the Serpentine Gallery show, Ono selected the objects to include and then laid them out in the galleries like signposts along a journey. The exhibition is less a conventional retrospective than an essay reflecting her ongoing concerns, with each instruction piece, film, object and interactive installation connected in subliminal ways to a larger thematic body. In this sense, she arranges her life’s work in the same way she arranges the art with which she lives. What emerges as the connective tissue is her political consciousness, an intuitive empathy for the hapless victims of war and violence and a profound aspiration for peace, wholeness and humanity.

Born in 1933 and a resident of New York since the mid-1950s, Ono has emerged again and again as a forerunner of new art forms that mix and expand different media. Hers is a social art that relies on participants — not just to be appreciated in the abstract, but actually to be made real and completed by the viewer. She feels, by touching the world one person at a time, that she can effect social transformation. Her work arises in part from the radical Dadaist spirit that aimed to break down the boundaries between art and everyday life. The impact of John Cage’s idea that art and the means for its creation lie all around us promoted an open environment where borders between music, poetry, performance, and the visual arts no longer existed. But unlike those who framed the discourse in terms of the dichotomy of art and life, Ono’s idea of art has always been to arouse consciousness of the ordinary acts of living. She is not concerned with making art equivalent with the everyday, but rather with embracing the every day as a player in the act and experience of art.

Ono’s early scores and instructions — many compiled in her legendary 1964 anthology, Grapefruit — established the primacy of concept, language and participation that was central to Fluxus and Conceptual art. Expressing her ideas in a range of new art forms from interactive performance events like CUT PIECE (1964) to experimental films like Rape (1969), she was an innovative and provocative force in the New York, Tokyo and London vanguards throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Essentially a poet, she startled viewers with minimal, epigrammatic texts, using paradox, anti-sense and humour to provoke states of mind where, for a flash, we might encounter the other side of our own existence.

During this period, her work as an anti-war activist, like the global ads for peace that she produced with her husband John Lennon, amounted to a mass ‘instruction’ suggesting that the possibility to overcome belligerence lies in our own imagination: WAR IS OVER (if you want it). All around her, Fluxus-like anarchism became more radical and absurdist as the celebrated ‘affluent society’ erupted in political crises: the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, campus turmoil, racial unrest and rising protests against the Vietnam War. This milieu, combined with the violent anti-nuclear turbulence that she witnessed in Japan during her return there in the early 1960s, committed Ono to the notion of art as an agent of social and political change. From her notorious film documenting 365 bare human behinds, Film No. 4 (Bottoms) (1967), which she conceived as a ‘petition for peace’, to her 2011 show, The Road of Hope presented as the 8th Hiroshima Art Prize, Ono has developed what Kristine Stiles has called ‘a utopian social program of love envisioned in the imagination and enacted before the world’.[4]

Since Lennon’s assassination in 1980, Ono has ventured further into the realms of war, history and violence, both as the subject and material of her art-making and as the conceptual counterpoint to her other works that distil experience into up-close encounters with being alive. Her recent work confronts us with ghastly images of the real world, as in the newsreels of children being killed in war zones included in the video HAPPY XMAS (WAR IS OVER) (2003), and at the same time invites us to realise good through simple acts of imagination, like writing wishes and tying them to the branches of WISH TREES (1996/2012). Her activities throughout her long career as artist, thinker and peace activist are linked by a fundamentally existential quest into the nature of the mind in an age of perpetual rupture and sadness, and to engage us experientially in that search. For the Serpentine show, Ono circles around the questions that first appeared in the 1970 version of Grapefruit: ‘Why? Why violence? Why hatred? Why war?’[5]

As a reminder of the medium in which we all exist — life — she has wired a soundtrack of a heartbeat throughout the galleries, a realisation of her music score:

Listen to a heart beat.
1963 autumns[6]

Painting To Be Stepped On

Ono was born to a prominent banking family and raised between Japan and the United States during the rise of the Pacific War. Japan’s ascendance as a military and colonial power in East and Southeast Asia, perpetuated by its rightist totalitarian regime under the Showa Emperor Hirohito, culminated in the spectacular attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, when Ono was eight. This strike against the U.S. Pacific fleet pulled a reluctant United States under President Franklin Roosevelt into the Second World War. Four years later, after some fifty million lives had been lost in the deadliest war in world history, the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing about Japan’s surrender and the end of the war. While the subsequent Cold War is often cast as a conflict between Soviet spheres of influence and Western Europe and North America, the majority of military action continued to take place on the Asian front.

Shuttling back and forth between the two nations, Ono was acutely aware of being in-between East and West — and in-between the living and the dead. She often recalls a childhood memory dating to the final months of the war, when the U.S. fire bombings of Tokyo had forced her family to evacuate to the countryside for safety. Japan’s national economy was devastated, starvation and suicide rampant, and the cities from north to south an accumulating ruin of war. Ono remembers spending the afternoons hiding in a farmhouse with her brother. ‘Lying on our backs, looking up at the sky through an opening in the roof we exchanged menus in the air and used our powers of visualization to survive.’[7] Forging a consciousness identified with freedom that could transcend everyday reality, and transmitting that to others, became the guiding rule of her life and art. Early in her career, she wrote: ‘The conceptual reality, as it were, becomes a concrete “matter” only when one destroys its conceptuality by asking others to enact it, as, otherwise, it cannot escape from staying “imaginary.”’[8]

In postwar Tokyo, Ono was swept up by the euphoria of intellectual freedom as leftists and progressive liberals re-emerged from hiding or prison to promote the new ideals of democracy, individualism and the renunciation of war and the military. In this climate, pacifism replaced ultra-nationalism as the country’s ideological faith. Besides Marxism, existentialism dominated Japan’s postwar intelligentsia. As the first female philosophy student at the elite Gakushuin University, Ono read Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre, and was influenced by their understanding of ‘being’ as a phenomenological encounter with one’s concrete existence in time and pace. In a remarkable essay published in a Japanese art journal in 1962, ‘The Word of a Fabricator’, she struggles against the ‘falsehood of consciousness’ and ‘the high-minded types who feel they have achieved Satori’ to find an alternative means through ‘ritual … to rationalize the irrationality in us humans’. As her poetic thinking evolved, the power of ‘ritual’ to pierce through ‘the world of stickiness’ — to achieve transcendence in the existential sense — became central to her artistic practice.[9] In 1955, she broke her family ties to elope with the Japanese pianist Toshi lchiyanagi and moved to lower Manhattan, where she pursued her career as an artist in the proto-Fluxus community around John Cage. The ‘Fabricator’ essay concludes:

I cannot stand the fact that everything is the accumulation of ‘distortion’ owing to one’s slanted view. I want the truth. I want to feel the truth by any possible means. I want someone or something to let me feel it … I know no other way but to present the structure of drama which assumes fiction as fiction, that is, as fabricated truth.[10]

In an opening gallery of the Serpentine show, Ono recreates one of her first ‘Instruction Paintings’ called PAINTING TO BE STEPPED ON (1961/2012). Exhibited in July 1961 at Fluxus founder George Maciunas’s AG Gallery in New York, Ono’s ‘Instruction Paintings’ pioneered one of the central practices of Conceptualist art-making by shifting the definition of art from object to pure idea. The ‘Instruction Paintings’ were based on texts that she read aloud as directions to viewers who actually performed and completed the work. Smoke Painting, for example, called for the viewer to burn a sheet of canvas: the painting was completed when there was just a pile of ashes left. Shadow Painting, a blank piece of linen hanging beside a window, was completed when viewers registered fleeting shadows playing on its surface. PAINTING TO BE STEPPED ON was unique in this original group of thirteen works because it had a specific reference: to the history of Christianity in Edo-period Japan. In the seventeenth century, shortly after the first Portuguese Jesuit missionaries had spread Christianity in Japan, Christians there faced suppression and persecution. This culminated in mass martyrdoms by crucifixion in the central Catholic community of Nagasaki. The authorities forced suspected Christians to betray their faith through a test called Fumi-e (literally, painting to be stepped on): images of Jesus or Mary were laid on the floor and people were made to walk on them. Ono’s work recalling this act of mental violence consists of a sheet of torn blank canvas over which visitors are directed to walk. This work carries a great deal of meaning for Yoko, who at one point considered including in the Serpentine show photographs of the monument to the Nagasaki martyrs.[11] Her will to recall the barbarity of Edo-period religious suppression is complicated by the association of Nagasaki as the target of the second atomic bomb, which was dropped on 9 August 1945, killing thousands of Catholics among its 60,000 victims. Thus, early on our journey, Ono confronts us with her probing question: ‘Why? Why violence? Why hatred? Why war?’



Along with George Brecht and La Monte Young, Ono was among the first in New York’s downtown community in the late 1950s and early 1960s to explore the conceptual use of language as a form of art. Her ‘scores’ or ‘instructions’ for music, painting, events, poetry, objects, dance, architecture and films recast art from a finished object to an unfinished process, to be completed by others. Often written in the imperative, they are calls to action constructed around the phenomenological content of solitary actions, a concentration on the material of experience. Moving away from actually reading her instructions, Ono soon allowed her texts to stand for themselves as art on a gallery wall. Poetic, terse and sometimes defying rational thought, they could be visualised in the viewer’s mind, like the ‘Instruction Painting’, ‘Let a vine grow … till the wall vanishes’ (1961) or demonstrated as a performance before an invited audience, like CUT PIECE (1964), where audience members are invited to the stage to cut off pieces of Ono’s clothing until she is left partly naked. The anguish of CUT PIECE is a vivid theme in many of her scores and instructions that call for burning, bleeding, cutting, breaking, jumping off heights and disappearance. Taken as a whole, they offer a social commentary on the quiet violence that binds individuals and society, the self and gender, alienation and connectedness. The filmmaker Jonas Mekas, a longtime Fluxus friend, later commented on CUT PIECE and other performances:

[Ono] was very concentrated, very in herself, focused and intense. There was clearly something in her that had to come out, and in her performances she created explosions and moments of hysteria that were highly calculated and controlled.[12]

Ono’s scores and instruction pieces are designed to break through banal reality to recover, in an often deceptively simple act, a moment that she calls ‘wonderment’. Like other Conceptual artists of the 1960s, she uses language, but it is not language itself that is her concern, but experience. While artists like Joseph Kosuth and Hans Haacke devoted themselves to deadpan facts, statistics and information, refusing any transcendental dimension to their work, Ono has always declared that the imaginary is her empirical truth:

‘Idea’ is what the artist gives, like a stone thrown into the water for ripples to be made … 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.[13]

One of the impressive aspects of the Serpentine show is how Ono’s work spanning six decades remains so vitally interconnected and fresh. Unlike other retrospectives divided by chronology (including my own YES YOKO ONO, New York Society, 2001), where we enter the present after following a curatorial logic that is inevitably linear, here, time connects rather than divides her output. As Ono writes in ‘TO THE LIGHT’ for the Serpentine, ‘These pieces have no time.’ All things are equally enlivened. ‘Chronology has no meaning for me’, she recently commented. ‘I am moving on. The Serpentine is not concerned about the dramatics.’[14]

New instruction pieces are framed and hung on the gallery walls, many inviting us to imagine spaces purged of sorrow and filled with loving towards the world:

Take all the anger out of the room.
Take all the sorry out of the room.
Take all the shadows out of the room.
Open the window
Let everything in the room breathe
the ocean wind.[15]

Ono’s new iteration of her 1967 film score Smile is the most visible demonstration of an early work that leaps effortlessly into the present tense. In its 1968 form, Film No. 5 (Smile) records the face of John Lennon smiling, blinking and sticking out his tongue at a high-speed camera for 51 minutes. It evolved from her participation in Mieko Shiomi’s Disappearing Music for Face (Fluxfilm 4, 1966), which shows Ono’s smile gradually disappearing over several minutes. It also arose from her ‘ultimate goal’, stated in 1967, to ‘make a film which includes a smiling face snap of every single human being in the world’. At the Serpentine, Ono comes close to achieving her amazingly predictive notion for art ‘After the Age of Film’ (as she described it in Grapefruit) by using digital and online media to amass an archive of pictures that record smiling people from all over the globe. It starts by inviting visitors into a space inside the Serpentine Gallery and projecting their smiles onto a large screen. ‘Its like graffiti’, she comments. ‘You can add it anywhere.’[16] She originally imagined this massive archive of constantly new footage to be available via a ‘television network so that whenever you want to see the faces of a particular location in the world, all you have to do is to press a button and there it is. This way,’ she continued, ‘if Johnson wants to see what sort of people he killed in Vietnam that day, he only has to turn on the channel.’[17]


Three Mounds

Until 1960, most of Ono’s creative energy was devoted to work in music and poetry rather than to the making of objects. Her practice was part of a wider movement aimed at reshaping the artistic product into something more akin to process, a performance or an idea. But from the mid-1960s, Ono became engaged in the production of things. Like her work in other media, the radical operation inherent in her objects is her gentle but insistent push for realignment — of expectations, perception, position, action. She has returned to making objects and also installations throughout her long career.

Several of the objects on view in the Serpentine were originally made for Ono’s historic exhibitions in London in 1966 and 1967. It was at her Indica Gallery show that she met John Lennon, whom she married in 1969. One of the objects presented a white ladder that viewers were invited to climb, then to take a magnifying glass hanging from the ceiling and read the tiny letters printed on a framed sheet attached to the ceiling: ‘YES’. Lennon was relieved to find that Ono’s text was not an example of the ‘negative … smash-the-piano-with-hammer, break-the sculpture boring, negative crap’ that he associated with avant-garde art of the period. ‘That YES made me stay.’ [18]

In the late 1980s, Ono created a series of bronze versions of her earlier objects, drastically shifting their character and meaning. The light and crystal transparency of POINTEDNESS (1964/1966) gave way to the dull immutability of FORGET IT (1966/1988), at once monumentalising her own past and distancing herself from it. A related series, A FAMILY ALBUM (1993), uses bronze to comment on the horrible permanence of violence, especially around women. Ono casts and presents as police ‘exhibits’ everyday objects displaying evidence of some phantom murder: the twisted hanger used to abort a foetus, or the mirror riveted with bullet holes. One tiny object titled Mind Box is a black case oozing with blood. Ono’s text states: ‘One day, quite suddenly, after so many years, blood started to flow out of the little black mind box I thought I had discarded. y.o. 1993.’[19]

The Serpentine exhibition is laid out like a circle, and the opening and closing gallery presents an installation of three works: WAR IS OVER (if you want it) (1969/2012), THREE MOUNDS (1999/2012) and HELMETS (2001/2012). The most iconic of Ono’s advertising works using public spaces to broadcast her scores and instructions is the WAR IS OVER campaign. Launched in the Christmas of 1969, this campaign called for billboards and posters to appear across London, New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo, each in its own language, declaring in bold type ‘War is Over! If You Want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko’. It was the height of the Vietnam War when America, Europe and Japan were rocked by massive student riots and anti-war demonstrations. Their message of nonviolence aimed at the ‘meanies who spend their money to promote war’[20] culminated in the song that became the hymn of the international peace movement: ‘All we are saying / Is give peace a chance.’ The posters at the Serpentine, however, are not the freshly printed ones that lined the streets in the past. They have been left outside to deteriorate over time and their words are barely readable. The aspiration for peace is ongoing, and the battles are far from over.

On the floor in this opening gallery are three mounds of earth. They look identical but each is labelled as coming from a different part of the world at war. As with her earliest strategies for peace activism aimed at conceptualising a united humanity, THREE MOUNDS reminds us just how man-made our divisions are. Suspended from the ceiling is a collection of helmets from the Second World War, turned upside down like bowls and filled with puzzle pieces of the sky. Her instruction to visitors is to take a piece of the sky and then one day to reunite in order to put all the pieces back together.

Ono’s pacifism has been dismissed as naïve by the right and not militant enough by the left, for decades. The counter argument to ‘War is over if you want it’ is ‘War is over if you win it.’ But winning has never been Ono’s goal; provoking change is what she wants her social art to effect. By shifting our perspective just a little, by imagining good, her enduring creative vision opens a wider world of possibility for us all. Like a prayer for the suffering of the world, the giant ray of light beamed into the sky by her IMAGINE PEACE TOWER (2008) in Reykjavik, encapsulates the constant source of her inspiration: ‘the longing for peace’.[21]

Originally published in Yoko Ono: To the Light. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

“Why War? Yoko by Yoko at the Serpentine.” In Yoko Ono: To the Light, edited by Kathryn Rattee, Melissa Larner, and Rebecca Lewin, pp. 8-13. Exh. cat. London: Serpentine Gallery; Cologne: Koenig Books, 2012.


Download Complete Article: Yoko Ono To The Light

I am thankful to Connor Monahan of Studio One, Jon Hendricks, always, and to Yoko Ono for her inspiring love and friendship.

Some ideas expressed in this essay are based on previous writings found in the author’s retrospective exhibition catalogue Alexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks, YES Yoko Ono (New York: Harry N. Abrams and Japan Society, 2000).

[1] ‘White terror’ appears in the lyrics of Ono’s song, Kiss Kiss Kiss (1980).
[2] Carlo McCormick, ‘Yoko Ono Solo,’ Artforum 27, no. 6, February 1989, p. 120.
[3] Robert Palmer, ‘On Thin Ice: The Music of Yoko Ono’ in booklet in Onobox (1992), p.46.
[4] Yoko Ono, ‘Biography/Statement’ (1966) compiled in Jon Hendricks, ‘Anthology: Writings by Yoko Ono’ in Alexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks, YES Yoko Ono (New York: Harry N. Abrams and Japan Society, 2000), p. 301.
[5] Yoko Ono, ‘On Film No. 4’ in Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970), n.p.
[6] Ono, Beat Piece in Ibid, n.p.
[7] Ono (1997), quoted in Alexandra Munroe, ‘Sprit of YES: The Art and Life of Yoko Ono’ in YES Yoko Ono, p. 13.
[8] Yoko Ono, ‘The Word of a Fabricator’ compiled in Hendricks, ‘Anthology: Writings by Yoko Ono’ in YES Yoko Ono, p. 285. This essay was originally published in Japanese as ‘Kyoko*sha no gen’ in SAC Journal no. 24, May 1962. Translation by Yoko Ono, 1999.
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid
[11] Yoko Ono interview with the author, 19 April 2012, New York.
[12] Jonas Mekas quoted in Kristine McKenna, ‘Yoko Reconsidered,’ Los Angeles Times, 11 April 1993.
[13] Yoko Ono quoted in ‘Yoko Ono: Instruction Painting’ in Yoko at Indica, exh. cat. (1966), n.p.
[14] Yoko Ono interview with the author, 19 Apri12012, New York.
[15] Yoko Ono, ROOMS AND FOOTSTEPS (2012).
[16] Yoko Ono interview with the author, 19 April 2012, New York.
[17] Ono, ‘On Film No.4’ in Grapefruit, n.p.
[18] John Lennon quoted In Jonathan Cott, ‘Yoko Ono and Her Sixteen-Track Voice’ in The Ballad of John and Yoko (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982), pp. 107–115.
[19] Yoko Ono, ‘mind box’ (1993) in Munroe ‘Bronze Age’ in YES Yoko Ono, p. 252.
[20] Yoko Ono (1969) quoted in Kevin Concannon, ‘Nothing Is Real: Yoko Ono’s Advertising Art’ in YES Yoko Ono, p. 190.
[21] Yoko Ono (in collaboration with publishers) in Imagine Peace Tower (Reykjavik: Iceland Post, 2008), n.p.

Alexandra_MunroeWhy War? Yoko by Yoko at the Serpentine

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