Photo: Tamsin Ross Van Lessen
The Museum of Modern Art’s first exhibition dedicated exclusively to the work of Yoko Ono surveys the decade that led up to her 1971 unofficial MoMA debut. “At that time, Ono advertised her “one woman show,” titled Museum of Modern [F]art,” reads the museum’s press release. “However, when visitors arrived at the Museum there was little evidence of her work. According to a sign outside the entrance, Ono had released flies on the Museum grounds, and the public was invited to track them as they dispersed across the city.”
Most of Ono’s earliest works were often based on instructions that she communicated to viewers in verbal or written form. And the exhibition that brings together approximately 125 of her early objects, works on paper, installations includes some of them. Take Painting to Be Stepped On (1960/1961) in which Ono invites viewers to tread upon a piece of canvas placed directly on the floor or Bag Piece (1964) in which she invites them to climb inside a black cloth bag and do whatever they want.
The EXBERLINER talked to her about her artistic process significantly focused on the creation of objects from instructions.
A lot of your work is concerned with this – changing the nature of objects. You provide instructions that, when followed, change the object.
That’s what I do, yes. For instance, there’s the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. People make wish trees and all the wishes are sent to the Tower. Some people are saying, “What you gonna do if the wishes are bad wishes?” And I’m saying that because the Imagine Peace Tower is so strong, and all the other wishes are coming from people wishing for world peace because that’s all so strong, anything evil that comes in there will change its character.
Can people change, do you think?
Of course. We can change ourselves; we can change the planet. One day, I think, we will be in a position where everything on Earth will be all right. And the only reason why we don’t get that is because we think, “What if it becomes boring?!” No, it’s not going to become boring. Because there will be so many things to do! We might even fly to another planet or something. Just to look, y’know. Just to check it out, or say hello, or whatever. And we haven’t even learnt all the languages on the planet – of the birds, of the elephants and the giraffes. You know, they’re all talking too. But we don’t understand them – at this point. So, it’s a kind of magic.
You’ve spoken before about the relationship between science and magic...
Well, I think that scientists have become deteriorated – at least some of them. Just as the rest of the world has. They started thinking logically about making money. And that is totally different from the actual thing science itself should do – and that’s to explore things: to reveal things for us. Not to just do research for money. And so they lost the magic. But if they just stick with their inspiration – because inspiration is very important – and do what they really love, then they will maintain and retain the magic.
What is magic?
Magic is something given to us that we do not have knowledge of before we get it. And even when we get it, we probably don’t know its actual power. But it’s given to us. That’s all I can say.
Can magic, in the wrong hands, also become a poison?
I’m not that concerned about that. You know why? Because evil does not have any power unless we put power in it. We put power into evil, by recognizing that it’s there – if we put all our energy in it, being concerned about it and being careful of it. You know? And that’s the only way that evil exists. If you know that, it’s just not there. The reason that I have so much love is because the whole world hated me. And sent me all these incredibly strong vibrations of hatred. And I thought, “What am I gonna do with it?” And I found a way of transforming that energy – such a strong energy – into an energy of love. So I have a lot of love.
How do you explain your strength? A lot of people would have crumpled under that kind of pressure.
Well, each time I’m up against a wall, I come up with this... I get inspired by how to get out of it.... Y’know? So, I could have been squashed by that incredible amount of hatred. But then I found a way of transforming it into love. And that’s big, it’s very big. I’m not a strong person. But I am a person who thinks.
What guides your work?
Inspiration. I don’t limit myself to one medium. Anything that comes in my mind, sometimes it comes in as music, sometimes it comes in as visual. So each time it comes in, I know what to do.
Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971 | The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Through September 7