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'Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind' at London's Tate Modern

Britain's prestigious Tate Modern gallery honored groundbreaking artist and musician Yoko Ono with a huge exhibition exploring her Japanese roots and childhood.



Yoko Ono with Half-A-Room 1967 from HALF-A-WIND SHOW, Lisson Gallery, London, 1967. Photo © Clay Perry

Yoko Ono's lifelong quest for peace and freedom may stem from her early memories of firebombing raids on Tokyo, before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Born in 1933, Yoko Ono interviewed herself on this topic in 2013 for a book called Acorn, in which she inquired:

"Tell us when you first notice the sky. Tell us when you first noticed that the sky was beautiful." 

In reply, she wrote: 

Towards the end of the Second World War, I looked like a little ghost because of the food shortage. I was hungry. It was getting easier to just lie down and watch the sky. Since then, all my life I have been in love with the sky. Even when everything was falling apart around me, the sky was the only constant factor. I could never give up on life as long as the sky was there.

A major new exhibition of Yoko Ono's work at the Tate Gallery in London — Music of the Mind — helps viewers understand her extraordinary life. This includes her childhood in Japan, where she grew up in a wealthy family but seems to have felt out of place.

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

Avant-garde Pioneer 

Early in her career as an artist, she moved to America. The opening rooms of the exhibition offer glimpses of her life in Manhattan in the early 1960s. At the time, she was married to Toshi Ichiyanagi, an avant-garde Japanese composer. 

Musicians who visited the couple were encouraged to "sprint at the walls" rather than play instruments. It was a boisterous form of expression at a time when rock'n'roll was — at least by today's standards — still fairly tame. 

Yoko's reputation for being "far out" was established through performance art, such as Cut Piece. This was filmed in 1964. It shows her sitting motionless onstage as her clothes are gradually snipped off with scissors.

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

Encountering the Beatles

It is significant that in this exhibition, her future husband John Lennon makes his first appearance in the third room. That means there's plenty of time for visitors to assess the scope of Yoko Ono's life and work before their first encounter on November 7, 1966.

They met when the Beatles walked into London's Indica Gallery, as she was preparing for the opening of a solo exhibition.

She tells the story this way:

When the Hammer A Nail painting was exhibited at Indica Gallery, a person came and asked if it was alright to hammer a nail in the painting. I said it was alright if he paid five shillings. Instead of paying the five shillings, he asked if it was alright for him to hammer an imaginary nail in. That was John Lennon. I met a guy who plays the same game I played. 

Yoko's Life with John Lennon

For those interested in John and Yoko as a couple, footage of their 1969 Bed-in for Peace shows their protest against the Vietnam War. They delivered their message to skeptical reporters from a bed in an Amsterdam hotel. Yoko is articulate on foreign policy and the urgent need for peace — a message that still has great resonance.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon during Bed-In for Peace, Amsterdam, 1969. Courtesy Yoko Ono. Photograph by Ruud Hoff. Image: Getty Images / Central Press / Stringer

The Tate's curators have included several images that evoke her anguish and grief at Lennon's murder in 1980. They have also acknowledged her continued creativity in both the visual arts and music.

Unfortunately, Yoko Ono, who is now 91 and in poor health, was not able to attend the launch of the exhibition. Nevertheless, the gallery tapped into the energy of female performers who regard her as an inspirational figure. They include DJs Kay Suzuki and Kate Hutchinson, who span Yoko's records at a club night. The singer Bishi performed Yoko's "Voice Piece for Soprano" from 1961, in which the performer is instructed to scream.

Feminizing Society 

The Tate exhibition highlights ways in which Yoko Ono proposed the "feminization of society," including a treatise from 1971 in which she suggested:

We can change ourselves with feminine intelligence and awareness, into a basically organic, non-competitive society that is based on love rather than reasoning. The result will be a society of balance, peace, and contentment. We can evolve rather than revolt, come together, rather than claim independence, and feel rather than think.

Visitors can also have fun playing with a reproduction of one of Yoko's most celebrated conceptual works — a chess set in which all the pieces are painted white. 


Exhibition Details

  • Title: Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind
  • Dates: February 15 to September 1, 2024
  • Time: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm daily
  • Location: Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG
  • Tickets can be purchased at Tate.org.uk.


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic CorrespondentMr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays.

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