Yoko Ono with Half-A-Room1967 from HALF-A-WIND SHOW, Lisson Gallery, London, 1967. Photo © ClayPerry

As has been the case throughout the history of women in general, and women in art, in particular, Yoko Ono’s work was overshadowed for a long time by the fame of her partner, John Lennon. She was seen by Beatles fans as the woman who broke the Beatles and sat in the studio through the recording of their last songs.

Tate Modern’s brilliant and exhaustive exhibition is finally giving her due to this trailblazer of conceptual art, film, music and also a peace activist. Her work has never been more contemporary and needed. Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind reminds us how profound and influential an artist Ono (born in 1933) was, even before she met John Lennon. Through 200 works, the exhibition retraces seven decades of Ono’s prolific and multidisciplinary career, from the mid-50’s to now. 

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

The show, organized with Ono’s studio, includes famous works, like Cut Pieces, her 1964 performance where she invited members of the audience to cut pieces of her clothes, or Film No. 4 (bottoms), videos of bare bottoms, which she created as “a petition for peace”. Of course, Music of the Mind includes images of Ono and Lennon’s documentary, Bed Peace, where the couple, in bed, is protesting against the war in Vietnam, answering questions in pyjamas from visitors, known and unknown, coming to their bedroom in Montreal.

Yoko Ono, Painting for the Wind. Installation view courtesy of Tate Modern, London. Photo © Jean-Sébastien Stehli
There are also a series of poetic instructions from Ono to create one’s own pieces: “Painting to See the Skies: Drill two holes in a canvas, hang it where you can see the sky. (Change the place of hanging. Try both the front and the rear windows to see if the skies are different)”. Or “Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through”. Ono seeks to open the mind of the readers.
The sky is a frequent feature of Yoko Ono’s work, a metaphor for peace, freedom and limitlessness. During the bombardment of Tokyo where she lived as a child,  in World War II, Ono had to flee the city. A major source of solace was looking at the sky. It appears in the instruction piece Painting to See the Skies (1961), for instance, or her 1966 piece SKY TV, in which she broadcast a live video feed of the sky above Tate modern.
Yoko Ono was also an early feminist and it inspired her work in pieces like Freedom in which Ono tries - and fails - to break free from her bra.  

Yoko Ono, Sky TV1966/2014. Courtesy the artist. Installation view courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and SculptureGarden. Photo © Cathy Carver. 

With Lennon, Ono was a very prominent activist for peace, demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. She created the iconic poster War is Over (if you want it). Yoko Ono has been a presence in our lives for the past half century, but going through the exhibition one realizes how much her art resonates today, even with viewers not born when she started dating John Lennon.

- Jean-Sébastien Stehli  

Yoko Ono, Music of the Mind. Tate Modern. Until September 1, 2024. tate.org.uk 

May 29, 2024 — Jean Sebastien Stehli