Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit in an installation at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. Image: Jason Branscum
I am the biggest square at the opening reception for Yoko Ono: Poetry, Painting, Music, Objects, Events, and Wish Trees, held at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago in spring 2019. In the peaceful modernist building, with each page of Ono’s 1964 artist’s book Grapefruit hanging in tidy columns across the wall of the main gallery space, gold winks, linen billows, and leather slumps artfully on the chic patrons who fill the nearly-monochrome building. I have driven into the city from a day of meetings, underdressed for both the weather and the occasion in day-worn shift dress, cardigan, tights, and boots. I am surrounded by earrings like Calder and bracelets like Bourgeois; I carry my Moleskine notebook like a graduate student walking into their first seminar. The opening reception highlights each page of Grapefruit, an early collection of Ono’s drawings, poems, and instructions for performance events. It will culminate in a screening of four of Ono’s films, created throughout the 1960s when Ono was working with the Fluxus art collective and, later, her partner John Lennon: Eyeblink, Match Piece, Fly, and Cut Piece.
This exhibit insists on the importance of Ono’s poetry. Ono is primarily known as a performance artist, but she is also a musician, filmmaker, and writer. Scholars of performance art and music have long been interested in Ono’s body of work, but her writings are rarely approached through the lens of literary criticism. They should be, and the curators at the Poetry Foundation get that. Their Yoko Ono exhibition argues that we should see her career as equally invested in language, image, sound, and experience. The exhibit marks a shift in how we understand Ono’s oeuvre—she is just as much poet as performer, a creator of objects and events. Indeed, a review of the exhibit in Chicago Magazine asks, “Is Yoko Ono overlooked as a poet?”1 In choosing to exhibit each page of Grapefruit, the co-curators of the exhibit, Fred Sasaki and Katherine Litwin, answer yes and propose that we read her performance scores as poems. The Poetry Foundation thereby shows how Ono’s work is bound up with textual making while also highlighting the role of reading in her performances. Likewise, the choice to screen videos she created alongside video recordings of her performance works emphasizes the multidisciplinary nature of her work. Tonight, all of us at the Poetry Foundation must engage her work cross-medially. We must view the scores that are hung on the wall like artwork and, in turn, acknowledge the textual and poetic arts as components of Ono’s cross-medial artistic practice.
I start with my own feelings—about myself, about clothes—because I want to end up with an understanding of what Ono’s creative works do. Here I’m most interested in a phenomenological engagement with words on a page, light on a screen. If Yoko Ono, performance artist and singer, stages experiences where audiences are also creators, then why don’t we think about how she stages phenomenological encounters when she is not in the room with us? In other words, how does this evening produce something like the performance art experience? In turn, what can we learn by paying attention to the objects that exist separately from the ephemeral performance—the printed page, the digital film? I can watch each of the films at home on my laptop. Why am I watching them here, projected on a screen? I can hold Grapefruit in my hand. Why am I trying to absorb it unfolded across a long gallery wall? Something has drawn this bustling crowd to the Poetry Foundation tonight. Ono herself is not here, but her words, the objects she has created, the event we will create tonight, draw us here. I want what the opening event can give me: a chance to look at a different scale, a way of engaging her poetry and art as objects, as experiences.
I walk inside the building from the enclosed courtyard, where young trees wait to be adorned with wishes written on paper. Along with viewing four of Ono’s films, the attendees will perform Wish Trees by writing their wishes for peace on a small piece of paper and tying it to a tree. Through the doors, hand stamped, I move to the main event: each page of Grapefruit displayed in a vast grid in the central gallery space, taken from two copies of the 1964 edition of the book published by the Museum of Modern Art in 2015. I notice the texture of the paper, its ghostly difference from the texture of the wall. It is difficult to know where to look first. Do I try to read each page of the book in order?
I land at Number Piece. It delights me, and it goes like this:
NUMBER PIECE I
Count all the words in the book
instead of reading them.
NUMBER PIECE II
Replace nouns in the book with numbers
Replace adjectives in the book with
numbers and read.
Replace all the words in the book with
numbers and read.
NUMBER PIECE III
Put numbers, subtraction, multiplication,
division, addition, parenthesis signs
between the words.
i.e. Romeo2 and -8(Juliet)
Grapefruit collects the instruction pieces Ono began composing in the 1950s and, in its first edition, was organized into “sections marked Music, Painting, Event, Poetry, and Object (later editions included Dance and Film).”3 My own edition of Grapefruit was published by Simon and Schuster in 1970 and reprinted in 2000. The book’s fourth section, Poetry, begins with found poems and drawings rather than the signature scores that open the work. After the exhibition opening, I looked up Number Piece in my book and noticed that it is the first score in Poetry. This score jokes, and it asks: what are we doing when we quantify writing? To a critic of the digital humanities, this score might sound like a description of distant reading. It also invites readers to think about what they are doing as they read.
There are no page numbers in Grapefruit. I cannot tell you where to turn to find an instruction, or where I looked on the gallery wall to see a score look back at me. With the pages cut out of the book and lined up in neat rows across the wall, the rest of the gallery can remain empty. The minimalist arrangement of the exhibit echoes the restraint of Ono’s instructions themselves. In his opening remarks before we watch the films, co-curator Fred Sasaki notes that workers at the Poetry Foundation took two days to install the pages from Grapefruit in the gallery space.
Though her performances and music have attracted the most attention, writing has always been at the heart of Ono’s work. As Sasaki put it in an interview, poetry “has been integral to [Ono’s] work from the absolute beginning. In 1955, when she was at Sarah Lawrence, she published poems and a short story in the college paper.” Grapefruit presents “poetry as a way of thinking, looking, and being.”4 The score, as a genre of writing, is like Number Piece: we must always do something to the words in addition to reading them. This is performance as performativity: if a performance is something audiences watch as it unfolds in time, performativity is using language to make something happen.
The score looks ahead, toward a performative moment. The score is subjunctive, capturing what will have happened. Writing about Ono’s 2003 performance of Cut Piece, Kevin Concannon notes that in this score-based work, “there is no sense of an original performance—or any sense of priority for the artist’s own performances—even after the fact. The texts are not so much documents of a singular performance as the performances are realizations of the score.”5
After we wander through the as-yet-unadorned trees outside, after we absorb what scores we can from the gallery wall, we filter into the auditorium, which is enclosed on two sides by glass and looks out into the courtyard. I am prompt and get a good seat. I am ready with my notebook. Robyn Farrell, Assistant Curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, introduces the four films we will watch, noting that Grapefruit is devoid of narrative or representative structure, and instead is focused around “captivating scenes.” It is a captivating scene: all of us perched on minimalist chairs, collecting around the edges of the cool white room, packing the house.
Drawing on Fluxus artist Dick Higgins’s concept of “intermedia,” which conjoins not just different forms of art but also technology, social institutions, and artworks,6 we might think of Ono’s instructions as marking an intermedial location. From its earliest publications, Fluxus tended to blur the lines between poetry, music, and dance.7 Especially for those Fluxus artists who were students of John Cage at the New School, time was a key unifying element of poetry, music, dance, and hybrid works. The question of duration in time animated much of Cage’s work, and Fluxus artists influenced by Cage also conceptualized their work in terms of how it unfolds in time.8 Early scores became a way to annotate “sounds,” “sights,” and events “at the point of imperceptibility.”9 The score emanates from musical notation to articulate poetry as a form of music and draw audience attention to the barely-perceptible. As art historian Anna Dezeuze notes, “With this shift to perceptual activities, the ‘event’ score becomes as much an invitation to find an ‘event’ as to perform it.”10 Tonight I feel like I have found an event, which is to say that I am listening closely, alert to the people and objects around me.
It is hard to believe that the film screening itself lasts less than half an hour.
Eye Blink is short, but it feels long. As part of their work in Fluxus, the group’s founder George Maciunas invited Ono to experiment with a high-speed camera, which could capture 2,000 frames per second.11 Her attentive use of the high-speed camera turns her films into a meditation on the act of framing itself. Each frame captures a moment, turning it into an object. The act of taking each picture, 2,000 of them per second, becomes a way of slowing time. Ono used the high-speed camera to create Eye Blink, and Peter Moore used the same technique to film Ono performing Match Piece. The high-speed camera produces for viewers the effect of time slowed down; I am able to see Ono light a match and watch the flame undulate. The burned head of the match comes eventually into view and is haloed by fire. With the camera’s increased exposure, viewers have a more granular view of what is recorded. The effect is one of time arrested and stretched out. The duration of Eye Blink puns on the phrase, “in the blink of an eye,” stretching the act into a creeping movement, a slow settling.
Fly blows my mind. I don’t want to spoil it for you, and I don’t know if it will have the same effect if you watch it on your laptop rather than in the auditorium, where we sit in our birch chairs and follow the flies as they appear and learn what those crevices are. When it is dark in the room but dusk outside and we can see lots of people wandering through the courtyard. These people will enter the Poetry Foundation after we leave, to watch a second viewing of the films. This is not planned; this is a response to unanticipated crowds. Together with the audience, I laugh at the anthropomorphized flies that are given voice by Ono’s singing. I am delighted and nervously following the movement of the flies on their terrain.
These four films are objects; they manifest in light on a canvas in the front of the room. We watch an eye become a series of lines and movement, we watch a strange object coalesce into a body, we watch a match ignite, we watch scissors as they are picked up and put down.
But in addition to being objects, the films are also events. The screen is set up behind a dais and podium, which means the audience is looking at the screen and through the glass wall behind it to the courtyard. It means I am often watching the people outside, milling around the wish trees. A sharp leather jacket paired with plaid pants. Orange hair. Skirts and boots. So many boots—Chicago women really understand how to style an ankle boot. I find myself imposing narrative action on the people I see outside. Are they queuing up? Why is the woman in the pink jacket talking to everyone? Is she handing out paper and instructing people to create their wishes? She must be working the event. Are they being made to stand in line, or is that just something people do, given enough time? I enjoy seeing one man try to watch the films from outside. This isn’t a bad move, especially since two of them are silent.
Cut Piece is last. This is a film I know, and I enjoy the pride and reassurance I feel when I recognize the version we are watching. We watch Ono on the stage at Carnegie Hall, kneeling in a nice suit with scissors on the floor near her. She has invited audience members to come on the stage and cut off bits of her clothing to take home with them. In her analysis of performances of Cut Piece, Julia Bryan-Wilson gives shape to my sense that the piece is something I can strive to access, but never fully know. Pointing out that photographers and cameramen were present for each of Ono’s performances of Cut Piece, Bryan-Wilson identifies the generative aspects of the performance, in contrast to critical analyses that see it as a symbolic enactment of the many forms of violence that threaten women. Bryan-Wilson claims that the recorded images of Cut Piece point to an “agitated relationship to evidence” and, along with the scraps of clothing viewers took from the 1960s performances, “form another kind of record stemming from an urgent need to preserve an ephemeral event.”12 Her argument echoes a thought I had at the event, about my own limited knowledge of and access to Ono’s work. This thought manifested in a kind of anxiety about whether I was truly familiar with Ono’s work, or whether sitting in a room with hundreds of other people interested in Ono’s aesthetics would prove, finally, that I’m an imposter. Yet the archive for performance works is so necessarily incomplete, so dependent on informal social networks and undocumented experiences. When the recording of Cut Piece begins and I see that it is the same Carnegie Hall version filmed by the Maysles brothers that I myself have screened in my classes, I feel vindicated. Like the “nervous amulets”13 of cloth that audience-participants took from the performance, the fuzzy and seemingly-incomplete video of the Carnegie Hall performance gives access to the ephemeral experience while emphasizing the incompleteness of that access, the feel of the moment that slips so quickly from my hand.
There is a man on the screen who participates in the performance twice. He circles Ono, sizing her up, and finally cuts too much from her clothing. You feel it when you watch, and you feel the audience feel it. When he goes back for seconds, he is the one that cuts her bra straps. In the many times I’ve watched this film, I stare at her quiet face, trying to extract what she is thinking in this moment. In classes, my students and I talk about nonverbal communication and what the body betrays. At the Poetry Foundation, all of us see Ono roll her eyes at this man, and we laugh. Tonight, with this audience, the flicker of her eyes really looks like an eye roll, and not a panicked glance away from this encounter, as it sometimes does to me. Of course I cannot, finally, know for sure. As Robyn Farrell suggests in her opening remarks on Cut Piece, the performance challenges the neutrality of the relationship between the artist and the viewer. This is true when an audience member decides to approach Ono onstage, and it is true when those of us in Chicago watch her face and find a feeling we recognize.
In the intermedial space between Ono’s event scores and their remediations as performances, audiences consider what it would mean to follow the score. This intermedial movement grabs my attention, draws me to look around, try to take everything in. This is literally true: between looking at the printed matter on the wall, watching her films and recorded performances, and reading others’ wishes tied to the tree branches outside, there is my body, there are my senses. Ultimately, the attention these works cultivate raises this question: what is an event? Am I at one now?
My heightened attention is surely not universal, but I believe it is tied to, elicited by, Ono’s poetics. The instructions and event scores ask me to look ahead. Though I do not find one of my favorite Ono instructions on the gallery wall, I think about its orientation toward the future:
Use your blood to paint.
Keep painting until you faint. (a)
Keep painting until you die. (b)
Does the fact that so many of these instructions are impossible to follow make them poems? “Keep painting until you die”; “Step in every puddle in the city”?15 When teaching Ono’s poetry, I ask students to follow the instructions. I choose instructions that lend themselves to some kind of following, if not complete realization. (While I do not ask them to use their blood as paint, I do ask them to “Draw an imaginary map”16). It’s totally delightful to watch. Once, I thought the impossible nature of the task meant that the scores were not meant to be followed. Now I’m not so sure about that. What does teaching the instructions teach, if not the imaginative possibility of enactment, even frustrated enactment?
If the instructions place readers into a subjunctive position, the films orient viewers toward a past they did not experience and a present that surrounds their viewing. Performance art developed after World War II as a way of “insist[ing] on the primacy of human subjects over objects” in “the aftermath of the Holocaust and the advent of the atomic age.”17 Though the historical context feels distant to me, I feel the thick presence of human subjects in the midst of so many objects I notice at the Poetry Foundation this evening. The films conserve, capture, grasp, document. They are also art objects in their own right, and ones that prompt audiences, over and over again, to look, and to look around.
Months after the event, I have begun reading Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing. I read it on my front porch, and sometimes I even leave my phone inside the house. The book’s subtitle, Resisting the Attention Economy, indicates the bigger point of doing nothing. As our attention span shrinks (tl;dr) and shatters (so many open tabs), doing nothing can redirect our attention to aspects of the world around us that we have been trained to miss, because noticing them can’t be monetized or optimized. Intermedial works like Ono’s, operating somewhere between poetry, music, objects, events, and paintings, cultivate the viewer’s attention and return her to her attending self. The restraint of this exhibit encouraged me to pay attention, to watch and listen closely.
- Sasaki, Fred. “Is Yoko Ono Underappreciated as a Poet?” Interview with Claire Voon. Chicago Magazine 6 May 2019. http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/May-2019/Revisiting-Yoko-Onos-Poetry/. n.p.
- Ono, Yoko. Grapefruit, Museum of Modern Art 1964, 2015, n.p.
- Munroe, Alexandra. “Spirit of YES: The Art and Life of Yoko Ono.” YES Yoko Ono. Japan Society, New York and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000, p. 20.
- Sasaki, n.p.
- Concannon, Kevin. “Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece: From Text to Performance and Back Again.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol. 30, no. 3, 2008, p. 82.
- Stiles, Kristine. “Performance Art.” Oxford Bibliographies in Art History. Ed. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann. Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 685.
- Dezeuze, Anna. “Origins of the Fluxus Score.” Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, vol. 7, no. 3, p. 79.
- Dezeuze 79-80.
- Brecht qtd. Dezeuze 87.
- Dezeuze 88.
- Farrell, Robyn. Remarks at the opening reception of Yoko Ono: Poetry, Painting, Music, Objects, Events, and Wish Trees, May 10, 2019.
- Bryan-Wilson, Julia. “Remembering Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece.” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 26, no. 1, 2003, p. 111.
- Bryan-Wilson 111.
- Yoko Ono, Grapefruit, Simon and Schuster, 1964, 1970, 2000, n.p.
- Grapefruit, 2000, n.p.
- 1962, Grapefruit, 2000, n.p.
- Stiles, “Performance Art” 677.