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Yoko Ono’s artistic legacy illuminated through exhibit at Tate Modern

John Lennon once described his wife Yoko Ono, who is turning 91 on Sunday, as “the world’s most famous unknown artist.” Everyone recognizes her name, yet her work remains a mystery to many, he remarked.

From Thursday, Ono’s impact on conceptual art will be on display in a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern in London.

The “Music of the Mind” show, which runs until Sept. 1, explores the multi-disciplinary works of a woman more famed for being the murdered Beatle’s wife than a conceptual art icon.


A visitor looks at an interactive artwork entitled
A visitor looks at an interactive artwork entitled “Add Colour (Refugee Boat)” by Yoko Ono, Tate Modern, London, U.K., Feb. 13, 2024. (AFP Photo)

“This exhibition is a true celebration of Yoko as an artist,” one of the exhibition’s curators, Andrew de Brun, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“Indeed, John Lennon was a very important collaborator for her, but we are very happy to be able to showcase her art.”

200 works

Spanning seven decades, the exhibition presents a detailed exploration of Ono’s artistic legacy through 200 pieces, including installations, objects, videos, photographs, sculptures and documents detailing her performances and musical compositions.

“We recognize the importance of Yoko Ono in contemporary art and culture,” de Brun said of the retrospective, which the curators say is the most extensive ever done in Britain about Ono.

“By displaying some of her works, we help to showcase the significant place she occupies. We are pleased to present her work to new generations of visitors … showing her activism, her campaigns for peace,” the curator added.

Since her initial exhibitions in New York during the 1950s, Ono has been a proponent of conceptualism – an art movement that posits the concept or idea behind an artwork is more important than the physical piece.

The exhibition examines some of the artist’s most controversial works or performances, such as the video of “Cut Piece,” a work she first presented in Japan and then in 1965 at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York.

On stage, Ono appeared in a black dress and left scissors beside her, allowing the audience to cut off her clothing in an exhibit aimed at drawing attention to the violence society inflicts on women.

The exhibition appears as a vindication of the artist’s epic journey, after decades of being blamed by some for the breakup of The Beatles in 1970.


A visitor takes a picture of an artwork by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, entitled
A visitor takes a picture of an artwork by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, entitled “WAR IS OVER!” Tate Modern, London, U.K., Feb. 13, 2024. (AFP Photo)

Meeting John Lennon

Ono’s conceptual art installations at London’s Indica Gallery in 1967 captivated Lennon.

On that occasion, a work called “Ceiling Painting” invited visitors to climb a ladder and view through a magnifying glass the word “yes” that appeared on the ceiling.

Lennon climbed the ladder and was amazed by the work, which is now being exhibited in London.

“When ‘Hammer A Nail’ painting was exhibited at Indica Gallery, a person came to me and asked if it was alright to hammer a nail in the painting,” Ono recalled in her text “Some Notes on the Lisson Gallery Show.”

“I said it was alright if he pays five shillings. Instead of paying five shillings, he asked if it was alright for him to hammer an imaginary nail in. That was John Lennon.”

Ono and Lennon married in 1969 and remained together until his murder in New York in 1980 at the age of 40.

In their 13 years together, the couple released six albums and created experimental music recordings, short films, performances and installations.

With Lennon, the Tokyo-born artist achieved acclaim in music, a topic that the London exhibition also explores.

The couple’s 1980 release “Double Fantasy,” recorded before Lennon’s death, won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.

“When I hear music, my body just starts to move,” Ono said in an interview in 2013.

“That’s just me. That’s just my body. And I was like that as a child, too.”

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