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A Monthly Must Visit: Yoko Ono’s ‘Music of the Mind’ at Tate Modern 

By Emily Whitchurch


With over 200 works documenting Yoko Ono’s expansive career, ‘MUSIC OF THE MIND’ triumphs as a thought-provoking, immersive display of art and activism. Described by her late husband, John Lennon, as “the world’s most famous unknown artist”, Ono pioneered avant-garde performance art as a tool to express her pacifist philosophy in the 1960s. In ‘MUSIC OF THE MIND’, Yoko Ono does not just invite you to ponder but also to play, trace, scribble, hammer, step on, perform, and imagine, as Tate Modern’s expansive gallery space becomes a participatory playground. 


Yoko Ono The Tate

Yoko Ono

Photo: Stir World

Ono answers the phone as visitors drift inside: “Hello! This is Yoko”. Her voice echoes against a silent film, documenting the gradual burning of a match and demanding that we ‘watch till it goes out’. This sets the scene for much of Ono’s works, requiring us to slow down, pay attention and engage. 


As the room expands, visitors are presented with ‘Instructions for Paintings’. With English subtitles, a series of tasks are meticulously handwritten in Japanese on cream paper. These instructions could be followed at home, or in the viewer’s head as they mentally cut holes and cast shadows. Visualisation was a powerful survival tool for Ono, who was evacuated to the Japanese countryside in 1945, at age 12. 

Yoko Ono the Tate

The Rowing Boat

Photo: Stir World

Ono’s imaginative nature also prompted the creation of bagism: her and Lennon’s satire of prejudice whereby enveloping oneself in a bag alleviates the baggage of physical appearance. ‘Bag Piece’ invites visitors to climb into black cloth bags and crawl, stand, move or lie however they please. The bags seem opaque but are translucent on the inside, meaning participants are aware of their audience and become simultaneously exposed and hidden; visible and invisible. The paradoxical nature of ‘Bag Piece’ is echoed throughout the exhibition, amplified by ‘White Chess Set’. 

As its name suggests, the chess board and pieces are all white, with Ono daring you to sit and play for ‘as long as you can remember where all your pieces are’. As players forget whose pieces are whose, the game could become futile, or it could develop into laughter, communication and a reinvention of the rules: a testament to Ono’s staunch anti-war philosophy.  


In ‘Add Colour (Refugee Boat)’, we become the artists. What started as a blank white rowing boat in a blank white room has transformed into a sea of blue signatures, doodles and calls for action: ‘ceasefire now’, ‘give peace a chance’, ‘love is all’. The room serves as a canvas for visitors to respond to issues of conflict and displacement as they see fit, both literally and figuratively adding colour and hope to a bleak situation. 


Yoko Ono The Tate

White Chess Set

Photo: Stir World

Outside the room, antique army helmets are suspended from the ceiling, each one filled with blue, cloud-dotted jigsaw pieces for visitors to take home. These helmets are perhaps a nod to Ono’s childhood in Japan, enduring the horrors of World War II, but here, perfectly still, they are vessels of limitless hope. ‘Helmets (Pieces of Sky)’ is a brilliantly simple, yet poignant, reminder of our innate connections to one another, even as strangers, as we look up at the same sky and share pieces of the same puzzle. 


At the end of the exhibition, visitors are confronted with a simple instruction: ‘write your thoughts of your mother. Or pin a photograph of her to the canvas’. Hundreds of notes taped to the 15-metre-long canvas revealed candid insights into mothers I will never meet, with many documenting similar stories of gratitude, grief and grudges. Entirely created by visitors, ‘My Mommy Is Beautiful’ was a strikingly beautiful end to the exhibition, and a testament to the shared emotions of the human experience. 


Ono wants to get inside your head - to create with you, to plant seeds of inspiration, to simultaneously ground and galvanise. Her earnest utopian vision is at once silly and sincere, with ‘MUSIC OF THE MIND’ serving as a powerful call to arms for idealists and sceptics alike to tune in to their inner creativity. 



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