Chances are you’ll see a hundred Yoko Onos at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
On Monday, the sixth-floor gallery space was dominated by a crowd of black skinny jeans, leather jackets and bowler hats—Ono’s outfit of choice—as visitors gathered to see her One Woman Show, 1960-1971 one day after it opened to the public.
The show entices the viewer to be more than just a spectator, while successfully navigating the foundation of Ono’s career as a performance artist, centered on 125 pieces. You don’t just stand and observe Ono’s art, you experience it—even if it means ending up trapped inside a bag.
If it wasn’t for the thick European accents and high-priced shopping bags you’d think every millennial from the Lower East Side was there to question, decipher, and even reenact the wild performances of the woman whose iconic look is almost as recognized as her relationship with John Lennon—a relationship that once led to her universal vilification.
Times change, and feelings have eased toward Ono too. Now she’s seen as a survivor herself: smart, with a mischievous glint in her eye, and as unapologetically dedicated to the artistic fringe as she ever was.
The stakes for MoMA, hosting a celebrity of Ono’s name recognition, are higher: given the recent firestorm from Björk’s majorly bashed retrospective just a few floors below, it is a nail-biting moment for the museum to re-attempt a combination of celebrity fame with artistic endeavor.
In the Björk show, long lines led to a darkly lit and chaotically condensed narrative of her seven studio albums complete with music videos, stage props, and costumes before another lengthy wait to see a MoMA-commissioned piece on her divorce from artist Matthew Barney.
Famed art critic Jerry Saltz called the Björk exhibition a “discombobulated mess” after writing that “MoMA [is] destroying its credibility… in its self-suicidal slide into a box-office-driven carnival,” upon the show’s announcement.
Ono’s exhibition is vastly different.
Just like her outfits, the show is mostly void of color. Almost everything is a shade of white, save the black ink Ono used to spell out commands and the wall text installed to narrate her life. It’s minimal while engaging, and shies away from her tabloid celebrity to focus on her artistic oeuvre.
While it’s the first official exhibition at MoMA for the singer and performing artist, she actually staged her own “one woman show”—“Museum of Modern [F]art”—at the institution in 1971. For it, Ono released dozens of flies at the museum and instructed visitors to follow them across the city.
The works are not just for visitors to view and contemplate, but they tempt and invite with their wacky directives that will test your courage and could easily cause a stranger to slap you.
I’m lucky it didn’t happen to me.
In the center of the exhibition an empty room holds a sign with one simple instruction: touch eachother. Easy enough, right? But as I entered the alcove I quickly realized no one was participating. Everyone looked awkward as they stood alone or in small groups, waiting for something to happen.
“The simplicity of the prompt emphasizes the fact that there are very few instances in our daily lives in which we are asked to engage each other through the sense of touch,” the wall text reads. “Although touching can in certain contexts be interpreted as threatening or invasive, Ono regards tactile communication as a profoundly poetic experience.”
So, being the risk taker I’m not, I took a few deep breaths and sauntered up behind the first person I saw—a youngish guy standing with a small group of friends—and grabbed his hand. He jumped. I jumped. Then we both laughed nervously before introducing ourselves and going our separate ways.
It’s moments like these that are the climax of the Ono’s works, a point reiterated throughout the entire exhibition. Since the beginning days of her Chambers Street loft in 1960 she has sought to disrupt the expectation of viewers through direct participation.
Grapefruit, for instance, is a self-published book featuring a series of instructions that range from “Think of what the next person is thinking” (seriously so hard) to “Send a fog to your friend” (even harder).
As the series progressed from 1953 to 1964, “Ono created works that continued to distance her concepts from their physical manifestation,” the wall text states.
You try to “stare at the sun until it turns into a square,” as another example dictates.
Or try climbing into a black bag and removing all of your clothes—which is what visitors are invited to do in “Bag Piece.”
On a small platform in the corner of the gallery an attendant assists visitors into a large cotton bag that is then tightly secured. “The piece can be performed in various ways; some participants disrobe, while others lie motionless inside the bag,” the piece instructs.
When I came upon it, a large crowd had already gathered. On the platform, an unidentifiable person was slowly twisting and turning inside of the bag, which got taut and loose with each move revealing a subtle silhouette of the person inside.
Fifteen minutes passed and still they had yet to surface. Instead, the person had crawled to the corner and collapsed in the fetal position. No one knew if someone had volunteered or the institution had hired a performer. The person lay motionless and the crowd slowly dispersed.
For its original iteration in 1964, Ono instructed two performers to get inside the bag, remove all of their clothing and then dress before coming out of the bag.
It was a way to express her own shyness as a young woman, when she constantly wished she could be in a box with holes to see what was happening on the outside without being seen.
One of her more notable acts from recent years was the reenactment of her 1961 “Voice Piece for Soprano & Wish Tree” and was performed at MoMA in 2010. Ono sporadically screamed into a microphone for almost two minutes in front of a live audience.
The recording was then played on a loop in the lobby of the museum. But only briefly—staff members and visitors complained that it startled and annoyed them, so MoMA had to minimize the volume.
Still, bits from the piece ring throughout the gallery space for “One Woman Show.” Until you come upon the speaker projecting the sound, it’s hard to decipher whether it was someone having an orgasm or a dying zoo animal. The noise is paired with a video of flies landing on a nude woman.
And just like that the exhibition comes full circle. What started with the release of flies at MoMA in 1971 ends with containing the insects to a small screen projection today.
Everything in between—her music career (there’s a dedicated listening room), her artistic relationship and collaboration with Lennon, and a custom-made staircase to the sky—doesn’t just tell a story of a performance artist, but allows visitors to experience the everlasting effect of her most powerful pieces.
As I left the exhibition, a curious spectator was staring at a lone strip of canvas on the floor. It was “A piece to be stepped on” as a small handwritten note stated, but all anyone would do was snap a photo.
Yet, as it is engrained in us to do at museums and galleries: everyone looked, but no one touched—the art or each other. Now nigh on 50 years since she conceived it, Yoko Ono’s art is still too radical for us.