This brief reflection on Yoko Ono's instructions from the "Yes Yoko Ono" retrospective originally appeared in the December 18, 2001 edition of Ibbetson Street Press Update. It has been altered slightly from the original.
Between 1961 and 1964, Yoko Ono pioneered a new poetic form called instructions that were inspired by her work in music. In the classical tradition, the composer notates lines and dots onto paper for the musician to read, interpret and perform; the symbols only becoming music in performance. Initially, Ono would create paintings for exhibition, performing instructions that she had writen previously and thus blur the divide between painting and performance to a greater degree than the abstract expressionists of the previous decade. Soon she would exhibit only the instructions and leave completion to the viewer. In 1964, these instructions were collected in a book entitled “Grapefruit.”
The “YesYoko Ono” career retrospective currently showing at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge devotes a room to this period in Ono’s career. The instructions are displayed both in Japanese caligraphy executed by her first husband, the pianist Ichiyanagi Toshi, and typed English translations. Also on display is an original edition of “Grapefruit.” The instructions, while devoid of metaphor, provide powerful images as they direct the reader to create a new art piece, event, or sequence:
PAINTING IN THREE STANZAS
Let a vine grow.
Water every day.
The first stanza-- till the vine spreads.
The second stanza-- till the vine withers.
The third stanza-- till the wall vanishes.
Ono invites one to make concrete the instruction through activity or imagination, bringing one’s own self into the process of completing the project she has begun. In this work Ono managed to link poetry with the other arts on a radically fundamental level that makes for an intimate connection between the poet and the reader.
The exhibition provides guests with copies of some of the instructions which one may take home to enact or:
assemble into a chapbook.
[“Yes Yoko Ono” will exhibit at MIT until January 6, 2002. From February 22, 2002 to May 20, 2002 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and from October 25, 2002 to January 26, 2003 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami]