Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou

The Brightness of a Single Instance

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind, Tate Modern, London, 15 February – 1 September 2024

It is apt that the first room of Tate Modern’s Yoko Ono exhibition features a film of her striking a match. Recorded by Peter Moore and directed by Ono, Film No.1(‘Match’)/Fluxfilm No.14 (1966) is a lesson in the power of duration, a study in the quiet potential of the everyday. Using a high-speed camera shooting at 2,000 frames per second, Moore captured this seemingly banal act in glowing, infinitesimal detail. Here, Film No.1(‘Match’) is played back at the ‘standard rate of 24 frames per second’ and totals to just over 5 minutes. Slowness and delay succeeds in transforming the mundane into magic, the ordinary into an extraordinary ‘happening’. We watch as the film crackles into action, counting down the flashing numbers on the wall until Ono’s commanding hand appears. The frame flickers from the sensuous curve of a thumb to the tip of the match burning white against black. It is a small conflagration grown large through projection, yet this slow burn of an image radiates in our minds and introduces us to Ono’s own incendiary imagination. Dazzling us with the brightness of a single instance, Film No.1(‘Match’) imitates the process of intellectual illumination whilst literally illuminating the beauty in the commonplace.

The brilliance found in simple acts, like that played out in Film No.1(‘Match’), is central to Ono’s oeuvre. Taken from one of her earliest Instruction Pieces – typed directives that read like poems but work like Wittgensteinian language games or thought experiments – Film No.1(‘Match’) could be seen as the ignition behind many of Ono’s subsequent works; the lightbulb moment for her innumerable performance pieces. Operating from and literalising her own instruction titled Lighting Piece (1955), where Ono incites the reader-viewer to ‘Light a match and watch till it goes out’, Film No.1(‘Match’) takes impetus from its linguistic origins by following its own direction, its own imagined embers turning thought into motion, words into action, a typed order into art. One of the earliest and simplest ‘Instructions’ to form the later published compilation, Grapefruit (1953-1964), Lighting Piece precipitated in many iterations: aside from the short film and some photographs, there was an earlier performance at Sogetsu Art Centre, Tokyo, in which Ono performed ‘inaudible sounds’ in a dark auditorium, occasionally striking a match to afford the audience ‘glimpses’ of things in order to ‘stretch their imaginations’. Sat next to an unused piano – a tantalising reminder of what the audience expected to hear in a work reminiscent of that by contemporary John Cage – a diminutive Ono lights a match and smokes a cigarette, marking the moment with the ‘music’ of her swift, ritualistic motions and the (con)notations produced in the minds of her spectators.

Lighting Piece is central then to a theme that runs throughout Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind: the titular mental music that both artist and viewer compose together. All of Ono’s instructions, many of which line the walls of the gallery alongside interactive recreations of works and videos of original performances, aim to flick a switch in one’s head and allow thoughts – the original musical accompaniment of life – to harmoniously flow. Tying together ideas about artistic collaboration with public interaction and engagement, as well as her love for music and her later harnessing of pop as an anti-establishment form of protest, Lighting Piece was the seed through which Ono’s radical conceptual work flourished; it was the first idea, the initial instruction that set all ablaze.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964. Performed by Yoko Ono in ‘New Works by Yoko Ono’, Carnegie Recital Hall March 21 1965. © Minoru Niizuma.

Yet music for the mind as opposed to solely the senses came about through a negation of sound, a renunciation of noise. As a caption in the exhibition tells us, child Ono later inspires adult Ono with her sensitivity to sounds – and quite possibly no ordinary resonances but the nerve-jolting clamours of war. Hiding in a dark room with sanitary pads held by gauze over her ears, a young Ono would repeatedly light a match and watch it consume itself until her mind was soothed and free of sound. Seen in this context, Lighting Piece is a form of absolution, a ritual of purgation from the terror of what lay beyond Ono’s door and control. Striking a match as a child, as an adult, on the page, in the frame, upon a stage, Ono not only recreated an act that kept her safe and sane, but reclaimed the light in the darkness of war, the flare amidst the bombed night sky. Lighting Piece and all instructional works that make up Grapefruit offer, therefore, alternative modes of being and thinking to warring ideas and war-ravaged eras. A childlike ritual matured into art, it is at once innocent play and knowing protest, a performance proffered to all who are scared of what goes bump in the dark. Comfort to her auditory discomfort, the birth of this future instruction was dissent in the making, a controlled explosion that flamed out into later years.

Though the germs for Ono’s instructions were formed during her childhood in Japan, it was her time in the US that saw her develop them into the artworks known to us today. Studying poetry, English literature and music composition at Sarah Lawrence College, she eventually moved to New York City, married the Japanese composer and pianist Toshi Ichiyanagi, and rented a loft at 112 Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan. In this creative crucible, Ono hosted artistic events and concerts with La Monte Young (which included guests like Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and Isamu Noguchi), and installed and performed her famous instruction-based paintings for the first time. Later shown at the AG Gallery by Fluxus founder George Macuinas and then in Japan, Ono’s Instruction Paintings and Drawings reveal a history not so dissimilar to Lighting Piece. Starting from the daring directive typed on a card, Instruction Paintings would again expand from the mental to the literal through performance and audience participation. In this, they blurred the role between artist and viewer, subject and object, the imagined and the real, as audiences would ‘paint’ the painting and ‘compose’ the music, whether in their heads or in the surrounding space. At 112 Chambers Street, Ono repainted the rubrics of painting and rewrote the rules of art; that is, pre-established ideas about what a painting was and could be, who had the right to create art and with what materials were all thrown into the air – or rather, set on fire. Striking a match really could cause an explosion in the art world – though many critics were unwilling to see Ono’s light.

Yoko Ono with Glass Hammer, 1967, from HALF-A-WIND SHOW, Lisson Gallery, London. © Clay Perry.

Some of the Instructions for Paintings remained just that: written commands, never to be ‘painted’ or realised in space and time. ‘Painting To See the Room’ (1961) directs us to ‘Drill a small, almost invisible, hole/ in the center of the canvas and see/ the room through it’. Although it was later literalised as a work, this ludic and anti-art imagining was typical of Ono’s Instructions, where conventions were shaken up, perceptions shifted and the constituting perimeters of a canvas were challenged. Other instructions were incisively poetic, both in shape, feeling and form: in ‘Painting for the Burial’ for instance, viewers are encouraged to bury or dismember a canvas on the night of a full moon. This moribund poetry bled into the sublimely and self-reflexively absurd, where the destruction of supposedly sacrosanct forms of art became an artistic form in and of itself. Ono’s earlier experiences of amateur dramatics and love of Japanese poetics all came to the fore here, but these influences were in no way exclusive to the typed Instructions for Paintings. In her subsequent ‘pieces’ – Shadow Piece (1963), Bag Piece (1964) and Cut Piece (1964) –poetry and theatre combined, the demonstrative and the demonstration united, seeing the metaphor of one being radically embodied and physicalized by the other.

In Shadow Piece, instructional metaphors materialise through the intervention of none other than the viewer. Originally created in 1963, the work moves across the plane of linguistic figuration into physical outlines of figures on a blank wall. ‘Put your shadows together until they become one’, Ono instructs in what was originally a commemoration of the eviscerated victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Emphasising the ritualistic import of the instructions, Shadow Piece becomes an act of defiance to political violence and erasure, a collective residue of the human spirit in spite of corporate devastation and corporal disintegration. Tracing the shadows through tributaries of line, the criss-crossings and confluences of existence, Shadow Piece attempts a reversal of the violent reprisal of life by instructing and instituting new lives into view, further forms from prior tragedy, a new congregation that at once condenses and communicates memories into active future lines. Shadow Piece is, therefore, a haunting of words upon actions; it is cross-generational meditation and re-visitation of life on death, the past made manifestly present and, once again, age-old poetry made fleetingly and feelingly real.

Transmuting the violence of war into messages and methods of peace is key to Ono’s practise. Later in the exhibition we see upside-down helmets containing jigsaw pieces of sky, a metaphor rooted in Ono’s childhood where she and her brother would contemplate the Japanese skyline during the war. Suspended from the ceiling, the overturned regalia of combat and conflict is transformed into and by the harmony of the imagination, the child’s ability to see light in the midst of darkness, play in the presence of threat, the elusive ‘peace of mind’ rarely afforded to civilian or soldier in the chaos that is war. Like Helmets (Pieces of Sky), White Chess Set (1966) again confounds the logic of brutality and the sinister strategizing of actual battles by making the chess pieces all white. Aside from obvious statements about who wields the apparatuses of warfare, White Chess Set becomes another overturned game board, another puzzle puzzled further by Ono’s genius, another uncanny inversion of the anticipated instructions. Taking a piece of sky from a helmet, moving a white queen which is as
indistinguishable in colour from your opponent’s puts us all on a level playing field and renders the vicious innocuous, the violent calm in the face of Ono’s harmless though no less meaningful jokes.

These later works succeed in sublimating symbols of strife into ones of unity. Others, however, sit in the force of their happening. Ono’s famous Cut Piece is one such work, where the violence of her passivity meets that of the audience’s avid activity upon her body. Kneeling on stage in a submissive position (one redolent of Japanese customs designated to women), Ono allows members of the audience to cut strips of her clothes, rendering her the master work of their own hands. Preceding Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (1974), where the audience was invited to wield objects at her, sometimes to brutal effect, Cut Piece also severs any conventional relationship between artist and viewer, subject and object by placing the instrument – here a pair of scissors – of creativity – or destruction – firmly in our hands. In the recorded performance, women tentatively cut a strand of cardigan or a sliver of skirt, whilst some men go all in, slicing through her dress and bra straps with animalistic relish. All the while Ono sits stoically, mostly unmoved – except for when the final man attempts to reveal her bare breasts and here, even she, must roll her eyes at his intent. In relinquishing her control, her form, her artistry to the vying spectators, Ono has described Cut Piece as a ‘form of giving’ made with the intention for people to ‘take whatever they wanted’. Though another enacted commentary about power dynamics in art and gender relations in life, Cut Piece takes us back to the agency and liberation of her earliest instructions, to the naked flame of the lit match, to the heat of the human imagination and the artist’s own highly flammable ideas. Kneeling in peace or protest, Ono asks us to pick up the scissors, the pen or the match so as to creatively strike out, seek peace and light up the dark.
Cover image: Yoko Ono, Lighting Piece, 1955. Performed by Yoko Ono on 24 May 1962. © Yasuhiro Yoshioka.
Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou
is a writer, the founding editor-in-chief and general arts editor of Lucy Writers, and has just completed her PhD in English Literature at UCL. She holds a BA in English Literature from Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, an MA in Eighteenth Century Studies from King’s College London and a Diploma in Fine Art from Camberwell College of Arts. She regularly writes on visual art, dance and literature for magazines such as The London Magazine, The White Review, Elephant, Art Monthly, The Arts Desk, Burlington Contemporary, Worms Magazine and many others. From 2022-2023, Hannah managed an Arts Council England-funded project for emerging women and non-binary writers from migrant backgrounds, titled What the Water Gave Us, in collaboration with The Ruppin Agency and Writers’ Studio, which resulted in an anthology of the same name. She is also working on a hybrid work of creative non-fiction about women artists and drawing, an extract from which is published in Prototype’s 2023 anthology, Prototype 5.

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