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21 February 2024

Yoko Ono’s seriously playful art

Her Tate Modern retrospective delights me with its mixture of silliness and profundity.

By Tracey Thorn

Halfway round the new “Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind” exhibition at Tate Modern (on until 1 September) I enter into a kind of record-shop listening booth that is decorated with her album covers and filled with individual sets of headphones. It’s the least crowded section of the show – Yoko’s music still perhaps not being people’s favourite thing about her – but I’m happy that her records are included here. So I put on a song I love, “Death of Samantha”, from 1973.

The opening lines always make me smile: “People say I’m cool/Yeah I’m a cool chick baby/Every day I thank God/That I’m such a cool chick baby”. It’s a defiant opening to a song, but also clearly very tongue-in-cheek. No one refers to themselves as a “cool chick baby” with an entirely straight face, Yoko least of all, and we’ll come back to her humour in a minute. This song though is all about pain and how to hide it. Something unspecified has happened to the woman singing – her coolness is an act, a pose to cover up suffering. She has learned how to perform the role of docile acceptable woman, but underneath “something inside me died that day”. 

I love the tension in the song between her deadpan delivery and the agony of the lyrics. Elsewhere in her music Yoko, famously, makes a lot of noise – she shrieks, howls and wails – but here the noise is all internal. Standing here with the song playing, I’m moved once again by that balance in so much of her work between the funny and the sad.

I stare out at the other visitors all having fun at what is one of the most playful exhibitions I’ve been to in a long while. So far I have watched someone crawl around inside a black sack, I have hammered a nail into a canvas, I’ve drawn with a thick crayon around the projected silhouette of my friend. I’ve gasped at a film of a fly crawling over a naked woman’s pubic hair.

Humour and lightness are ever-present, along with constant reminders of the darkness that threatens them. You are reminded how the Second World War looms in her past, and you note her ongoing determination to escape its long shadow. So there is a kind of dance going on all the time – between wit and solemnity; between profundity and silliness. What could be sillier, for instance, than the sight of Yoko and John Lennon lying in bed in order to bring an end to all conflict? Watching the film of this event, I’m struck by how provocative it seemed at the time. One interviewer spits with contempt as he fires questions at them, the gentle irony of their responses only winding him up further. He is, in modern parlance, extremely triggered by what they are doing. Beneath the silliness they have touched a very raw nerve.

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On one wall are a series of framed writings – what are they: reflections? Poems? This one, for instance, Sleeping Piece: “Write all the things you want to do./Ask others to do them and sleep/until they finish doing them./Sleep as long as you can.” I laugh, but then start thinking about human desire and energy and laziness. Do we really want to do the things we claim to want to do? Sometimes, would we rather just go to sleep for a long time and let someone else live our life for us?

The final room is an empty white space in which you are given thick felt pens to write or draw on the walls. The word IMAGINE is everywhere, rather unimaginatively, I think. There is “free Palestine”, to which someone has added “from Hamas”, and “trans rights now”, with the addition “women’s rights too”. I realise there is an argument happening here on the wall. The word PEACE recurs, but there is very little peace in the room, and that seems right. It’s the goal, always perhaps out of reach. Yoko’s work, which has so delighted me, seems to understand that.

I sit on the floor and, very low down, in a white pen on a white wall, I write the word YES.

[See also: The women that books built]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything