yoko ono 1

YOKO ONO : « Lumières de l’Aube », Rétrospertive From March 9 – July 10, 2016 at the MAC LYON.


In a little less than seven years, from 26 October 1955 to 25 May 1962, between New York and Tokyo, Yoko Ono broadened the ambit of the visual arts to cover hitherto unexplored areas. By pushing the plastic quality of art to the point of invisibility, to a mere shout, by using the body, by identifying with the present and the incomplete, and by inviting all and sundry to join in and create or interpret her scores, she was effectively writing a new page in the history of art.

It all began with a few sentences in a student newspaper (it was a legitimate text in fact). And the story continued in a loft, on a stage, in a theatre, called itself a concert, was performed in several versions with the text reshaped and recomposed, then with sounds overlaid and pre-recorded, with Yoko sharing out the roles, the functions and interpretations among artists, musicians and choreographers, and leaving it up to anyone who wanted to to continue the work wherever they liked, or leaving it as a text even when the work was (as it might also be) a painting.

What she was doing was poetry, performance, events, sound, music, conceptual art, painting—but it was also a probing of the status of an original and, above all, a response to it; a response to the time and mode of its radical existence—the present (the way the work can be constantly updated and put into a different context)—, a response to the interpretation, to the transcription and the uncompleted nature of the work, the contribution of the other, and the sharing of it; the social implications and status of music and, on a broader level, art in general: “I think of my music more as a practice than a music. The only sound that exists to me is the sound of the mind… My paintings… are all instruction paintings (and meant for others to do)… my interest is mainly in ‘painting to be constructed in your head’ (1).” Yoko Ono’s entire oeuvre exists between these two ideals whose obviousness was for a long time held to be naive: Yes and Imagine.

It was during the “soirées” at 112 Chambers Street that Yoko presented her first “Instruction Paintings”: Smoke Paintings, Painting To Be Stepped On, Shadow Piece, and Pea Piece, Add Color Painting. She wrote about these in 1966 (2): “Instruction Painting separates painting into two different functions: the instructions and the realization. The work becomes a reality only when others realize the work. Instructions can be realized by different people in many different ways. This allows infinite transformation of the work that the artist himself cannot foresee, and brings the concept of ‘time’ into painting”. It is clear from this that Yoko Ono considers that her oeuvre is expressly designed to be definitively uncompleted, to be capable of being performed by anyone and of being re-worked over time, and re-performed on any occasion. And it follows that, since they can be performed anywhere and at any time, her works have little need of the support of a museum or gallery.

So over the course of 6 years and 8 months, almost by sleight of hand, Yoko Ono brought about a veritable Copernican revolution. Her ideas of text and text-score, instructions, sound, stage, collectives and multiple versions opened incredible vistas for her, which she would go on to broaden and develop in her subsequent works.

We have every reason to wonder why Yoko Ono was thought of (particularly in Europe) as playing a minor role, when she so clearly exerted a major influence on the creation of the Fluxus “spirit” (which she refused to identify with, however). Yes and Imagine suited her well enough.

These days, her work is essential viewing; it is utterly relevant.

I was keen, however, for us to present an exhibition that would be totally faithful to the work and in harmony with the principle of the instructions, and that would respect its “spirit”.

And so, because Yoko’s work contains time within itself, this retrospective does not operate in chronological order, even though the dialogue opens with Instruction Paintings.

And, because the visual art contains sound, or vice versa, Yoko’s music has not been in any way “isolated” in the exhibition space in order for it to be heard. On the contrary, it radiates from all the walls. And Yoko Ono has generously agreed to make her own playlist—which should be looked at, or rather listened to, as just so many instructions.

Because the original, in its generally accepted sense, is no longer an original for Yoko but rather a beginning that is to say the diagram of a story to be experienced—, we have given preference to versions of the works that can be practised by a wide public. This is the lesson Yoko Ono teaches us, a lesson in experimentation and sharing. So, visitors to the exhibition are confronted by En Trance on every floor—it is neither an entrance nor at the entrance; they discover AMAZE with a toilet seat (a nod back to the amplified flushing noise that was part of the score at the Village Gate concert) and, amongst many other things: a reworked Water Event, Half-A- (bourgeois) Room, a maximally extended Play It By Trust, a Yes Painting that one climbs onto, and a Kitchen Piece performed by 10 chefs who each create a “soup” for the occasion…, and so on.

“And so on” is an eloquent comment on the work of Yoko Ono, as I feel it provides an excellent “instruction” for work in progress, which is the basis of all her creation.

But, for Lyon, she has chosen the title Lumière de L’aube. It is generic, in so far as Lumière [Light] is one of the keywords of her oeuvre. At the same time, it is rooted in the city’s history because it inevitably recalls that strange invention, which its creators, the Lumière Brothers, predicted would never catch on, namely, the cinema. And for such a young work, Yoko Ono’s, this title is a beautiful beginning, a very nice opening.

Thierry Raspail

1 23 January 1966, To the Wesleyan people. Yoko Ono wrote this text after a concert/lecture titled Avant-garde in Japan at the Davison Art Center Gallery, Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut. At the event she performed Breath Piece, Wind Piece and Wall Piece and had the feeling that she had not been understood.
2 Catalogue Yoko at Indica, London, Indica Gallery, 1966.

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