Yoko Ono, for all the adulation she has received in the multiple arenas of her career, might still be a bit underrated as a moving image artist. This becomes evident when viewing her solo exhibition Music of the Mind at Tate Modern in London, which is a broad retrospective that stretches from her early conceptual pieces of the 1950s to her installations and actions of the past few years.

The titular keyword “music” regularly over-indexes in association with Ono because of her culturally-defining partnership with John Lennon, in which she created avant-garde compositions and bona fide pop hits alongside the legendary musician. But Ono was writing orchestral scores and recording experimental audio pieces long before that partnership, for example in her work with the archetypal avant-garde musician John Cage and other artists connected with the Fluxus group in the 1960s. 

Cough Piece (dated 1961, recorded 1963), which can be heard emanating from the ceiling in the largest gallery in the exhibition, consists of repetitive coughing performed as if a solo by a vocalist. This is also a music of the mind – meaning, a conceptual music; an everyday score that is performed at random by people all around you, and which you sometimes participate in. We might not consider this music at first encounter, but how many symphonies of the natural world do we hear on a daily basis and summarily disregard as compositions arranged for our pleasure? The implicit proposition is that it does not take ears to hear music but rather properly tuned minds.

As an art form, film has often been linked closely to music, in terms of its metric structure and time-based qualities. Most films – but not all – require eyes to see. But they also require a mind to activate the persistence of vision that liberates the film strip from stasis and bestows movement upon the image. Some insist that there is no movement in the “moving image”, but in the era of generative AI that is perhaps only of superficial concern. There is movement in the mind, movement in the algorithm, and some works activate a movement in the soul. If film is akin to a dream there is an entire visual symphony that requires a “kino-ear” to be seen-heard.  

Yoko Ono, Eyeblink / Fluxfilm No. 15, 1966. Courtesy of the artist. © Yoko Ono.

The first work of art that one encounters in the Yoko ono exhibition is Eyeblink / Fluxfilm No. 15 (1966). It consists of a black-and-white close-up of the artist’s eye, with shadows encroaching on all sides, and intermittent blinking. An unmistakable dream logic is at work in this film. This opening statement announces the importance of the moving image to the exhibition and also to Ono’s practice in general. The eye becomes a portal in which to enter the artist’s work and life, which have often been inseparable. 

This positioning next to the title of the show is also ironic, as the film is silent – there is no music. But the eye is uber-cinematic, the blink even more so. That this work exists simultaneously as Fluxfilm No. 15 augurs a structural randomness or chaos. Math and numbers figure prominently in the exhibition, primarily as instructions that invite participation in anarchic patterns. This exhibition, and the work of the artist, does not exist for lay consumption – it requires an active mind to complete, to provide instrumental backing, in any key so desired.

Yoko Ono, Film No. 1 (Match) / Fluxfilm No. 14, 1966. Courtesy of the artist. © Yoko Ono.

The first room of the exhibition proper also features her first film, projected onto a wall: Film No. 1 (Match) / Fluxfilm No. 14 (1966). The work features an extreme close-up of a match burning in slow motion. It evokes Ono’s Lighting Piece (concept in 1955, performed and photographed in 1962), which the artist performed sitting behind a piano and watching a match burn while smoking a cigarette. The original instructions for the conceptual piece state simply: “Light a match and watch till it goes out.” These instructions double as a film script for the above-mentioned work. And here the structuring integers are multiplied: number 1, number 14; two different serial timelines in the same title. Film is inherently nonlinear – it can break time and compile time; it can present multiple timelines. We might call this a work of conceptual parallel editing. The elemental visual and thematic qualities of Film No. 1 make it loom large as one of the more quietly powerful works of art in the exhibition. 

Maybe the most notorious of Ono’s film works is Film No. 4 (Bottoms) (1966-67). This film is a montage of close-ups of various naked rear ends while their owners walk straight ahead. Film No. 4 continues the artist’s concern with body parts, also her preoccupation with images in close-up. As such, Ono’s film work is very sensual and haptic. This is a film that transmits a palpable feeling of contact. Film No. 4 was considered too lurid for public screening. Ono had to protest in the streets in order to call attention to her film’s persecution – but this was not the last of her films that required public action to realize its effect.

The most surprising and perhaps also the most challenging moving image work in the exhibition, in some ways the one that most activates the mind’s eye, is the video The Museum of Modern Art Show (1971). At the time, Ono took out an advertisement in the celebrated alternative weekly The Village Voice for her solo show at The Museum of Modern Art. There was only one complication: Yoko Ono had no solo show at The Museum of Modern Art. It was a conceptual exhibition, also a piercing subversive gesture. A cameraman and an interviewer stood on the street in front of the museum and recorded short encounters with visitors leaving the museum, who either did not know about the show or were confused as to why they could not find it. Fascinating conversations ensue about the nature of art viewing and art making.

There is often a good deal of humor and satire in Yoko Ono’s work, and usually the opaque machinations of the art world are targeted. This video captures a great deal of her mischievous spirit, aided by the panorama of vivid personalities that are endemic to the streets of New York City. The work slowly evolves from a guerilla-like media broadcast to a philosophical contemplation of the position of art in society. Somehow Ono was able to hack the Museum of Modern Art with the radical simplicity of her intervention, and she was also able to unlock a collective idea about aesthetics and politics. The great artists make it seem easy. Light a match and watch it burn. Is there a better invocation for beholding the work of a maestro?

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