PRINT January 1972

“This Is Not Here” (A Report on the Yoko Ono Retrospective at Syracuse)

The mind is omnipresent, events in life never
happen alone and the history is forever
increasing its volume. The natural state of life
and mind is complexity. At this point, what art
can offer (if it can at all—to me it seems) is an
absence of complexity, a vacuum through which
you are led to a state of complete relaxation of
mind. After that you may return to the
complexity of life again, it may not be the same,
or it may be, or you may never return,
but that is your problem . . .

(Yoko Ono, New York, 1966)

The job of an artist is not to destroy but to change the value of things . . . in order to change the value of things, you’ve got to know about life and the situation of the world. You have to be more than a child. That is the difference between a child’s work and an artist’s work. That is the difference between an artist’s work and a murderer’s work. We are artists. Artist is just a frame of mind. Anybody can be an artist. It doesn’t involve having a talent. It involves only having a certain frame of mind, an attitude, determination, and imagination that springs.
(Yoko Ono, Cannes Film Festival, May, 1971,
and “This is Not Here,” Oct., 1971)

IT MAY BE, AS someone has suggested, that Yoko Ono is “one of the best known unknown artists” today. Her October retrospective of fifteen years of work at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. drew eager crowds who were familiar with Yoko Ono’s identity as the wife of rock music star John Lennon, but who had virtually no prior acquaintance with the surprisingly wide range of her art. It includes painting, objects, sculpture, music, performance events, films and film scripts, notational poetic writings (compiled into the book, Grapefruit), city plans, and other often humorously whimsical imaginative pieces. One of the paradoxes of her much publicized marriage—a fact which cannot be ignored for its symbolic linking of a formerly underground, avant-garde female artist with one of the major hero figures of pop culture in the world—is that it has afforded her a ready access to any public vehicle she might require to convey her artistic concerns. And yet, hardly anyone has paid close attention to Yoko Ono’s actual work. It is an odd situation, notable at a time when media are proliferating at a wild rate, and when esthetic culture is undergoing a painful democratization process. Certainly the sensational aspects of the publicity she and her husband have received for their political stance and personal activities have overshadowed this kind of scrutiny, and in some ways it is unfortunate. The show at Syracuse, which occupied almost the entire museum, therefore demanded more serious consideration, not so much for the provocative personality which Yoko Ono has always been, but for the specific work at hand. “Guest artist” John Lennon’s part in the show consisted of adding a number of pieces in response to preexisting works of Yoko’s; to some extent this diverted proper attention. Most importantly, however, the show raised some interesting problems about the generalizing of the privately based, avant-garde spirit her work originally represented. It came out of a context of thinking incubated over ten years ago, that is just now receiving its due regard. The world wasn’t ready for it then, and the question may be posed as to whether it is any more ready for such work now. Has the audience truly changed, or is it primarily interested in a star, or in a media personality?

Yoko Ono was born on February 18th, 1933, at 8:30 p.m. in Tokyo. Since she was a child, she has been trained in both Western and Eastern modes of musical composition. By the time she was eighteen, still in Japan, she was experimenting with graphic scores and soon after, at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., she created some improvisational music. There, while majoring in philosophy, music, and writing, she first heard of John Cage, whom she later met and admired as a great revolutionary composer, although she did not identify her work specifically with his explorations. Ideas have apparently been of more consequence to her thinking in this area, than rhythm or melody. She has often referred to her pieces as “music of the mind,” with their use of either imaginary or raw sounds, meant to express something that is emotionally too desperate for words or rhythmic patterns. Their sources reach back into the subconscious and the dream world. Although probably the most original field of her work, the music was not emphasized at Syracuse, with the exception of the soundtrack for the film Fly, and the performance of one musical event.

If my music seems to require physical silence, that is because it requires concentration to yourself—and this requires inner silence which may lead to outer silence as well. I think of my music more as a practice (gyo) than a music . . . in the mind world, things spread out and go beyond time. There is a wind that never dies.
(Yoko Ono, footnote to Wesleyan Lecture,
January, 1966)1

Long before her peculiar world-renown as the wife of a Beatle, Yoko Ono had her own underground reputation for the loft concerts she had sponsored on Chambers Street in New York, during the winter of 1960 to 1961, as well as for her association with the Fluxus group, and with people like Bob Morris, Yvonne Rainer, Richard Maxfield, Simone Whitman, Lamonte Young, and others who had all used the loft, and participated in their own and her performances there. Concerts, poetry, dances, and other events such as Happenings were presented for a small audience of similarly involved artists and friends. This community constituted a true avant-garde which could not air its work elsewhere at the time. Although many of these people shared some interests, a commitment to the originality of their work, and a certain “esoteric pride”2 in what they were doing, tracing out the particular strands of reciprocal influence seems futile at this point, beyond the reference to an atmosphere of cooperative energy. The self-involvement was, for the most part, more intense than the active exchange of information.

Yet in general, one can say that this group’s esthetic was defined by its concern with stretching concepts, its attempts to focus and alter states of consciousness through the traditional avant-garde theater techniques of either boring and frustrating or alienating and irritating an audience as well as by encouraging its partisanship and participation.3 Another significant factor to this milieu was the impact of Marcel Du-champ. The publication of his writings by Robert Lebel during 1959, in a volume which contained the essay “The Creative Act,” surely had its effect on these artists. Like him, they frequently emphasized that the concept should take precedence over the object. When Duchamp stated that:

All in all the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. . . . 4

he was positing something that was to become vital to Yoko Ono’s work. Although she did not know about his thinking at first, later she recognized that “there wasn’t anything Duchamp hadn’t already done” as a precedent. Although such philosophical and procedural associations clearly link Yoko Ono to this period of esthetic experimentation during the early ’60s in New York, nevertheless, some distinctions can be made.

From the earliest, Yoko was more concerned with getting people into her work in a very active, though still quite singular way. The form of the work itself is participational, but it is also insistently Conceptual. Through it she brings someone in touch with a basic unit of feeling, perceiving, thinking, or doing, and then sends him back out into the world to deal with that simplified form in terms of his own levels of personal experience and discernment. The more meditative and theoretical aspects of her pieces caused critics, as well as fellow artists to label her a “Conceptual” artist early on.5 Even at that time, she was uncomfortable with the serious sound of the classification, preferring, instead, to call it “con art,” which seemed closer to the humorous and interactive side of the work. The Duchampian suggestion being that the artist, much like a classic “con man,” requires of his audience (victim) a kind of faith in, and appreciation of his (esthetic) “trickery,” in order for it to work effectively. As in this “con” situation, Yoko’s art does not become a reality until somebody is attracted or involved enough to carry out its premises.

Since “completion” of one of Yoko’s works is always in terms of someone else’s experience, the Syracuse retrospective was subtitled “a show of unfinished paintings and sculpture.”

All my works in other fields have an Event bent . . . event, to me, is not an assimilation of all the other arts as Happening seems to be, but an extrication from the various sensory perceptions. It is not a get togetherness as most happenings are, but a dealing with oneself. Also, it has no script as happenings do, though it has something that starts it moving—the closest word for it may be a wish or hope. . . . After unblocking one’s mind, by dispensing with visual, auditory, and kinetic perceptions, what will come out of us? Would there be anything? I wonder. And my Events are mostly spent in wonderment. . . . We never experience things separately . . . and that is why the happening, which is a fusion of all sensory perceptions . . . but if that is so, it is all the more reason and challenge to create a sensory experience isolated from other sensory experiences, which is something rare in daily life. Art is not merely a duplication of life. . . .
(Yoko Ono, footnote to Wesleyan Lecture,
New York, January, 1966)

The main title “This is Not Here” recalls an experience during a gallery show in 1961, at which an ugly cabinet that was interfering with the exhibition space was tagged “this is not here,” in the spirit of Magritte’s famous painted image “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Later the phrase was incorporated into Yoko Ono’s city plans. These projects suggested the replacement of real street signs with more abstract ones such as “fly” instead of “go,” “dream” instead of “stop,” or “this is not here” notices instead of the usual curbside congestion of parked cars. On another less humorous level, it is meant to convey to the viewer that it is all in his or her mind, and that he shouldn’t depend on the actual work in front of him, unless he is willing to take it beyond the initial looking experience and grow along with it. These instructional statements are the kernel of Yoko Ono’s work, and they often resemble Zen Buddhist koans or aphorisms in their cryptic brevity and poetic economy. Although her primary influences came from observing nature and its subtle shifts in mood or phenomena—sky, sun, moon, clouds, wind—the oriental concept of an alogical and ambivalent approach to things is also a substructure in her pieces, binding their diverse forms together like a delicate web.

The organization of the Everson show, which filled the new building’s shop, basement, bathrooms, and two upper floors with paintings, sculptures, objects of every description, and film showings, was initiated by James Harithas, the museum’s director. Assembled by the artist, along with assistants from nearby Syracuse University, the relatively haphazard look of things as the exhibition started, probably resulted from this community effort. But the versatility of the work bettered the confusion, and was one of the more fascinating and challenging facets of the retrospective. Yoko Ono has never limited herself to one medium. Her dictum is that any process or form is an acceptable channel for communicating, given the real need to project a message. She has said that anybody can take one of her ideas and employ it. “I’m Yoko Ono—please use me,” constitutes the signature of the pieces, like a complimentary ticket. But there seemed to be some contradiction between this generous, open attitude towards sharing information and inspiration and the simultaneous campaign for specific historical recognition of a body of sustained, personal creative effort and productivity. While she recognizes that some segment of her audience still demands to know when an idea was generated, or how it occurred chronologically, in order to be convinced of its authenticity or meaningfulness, Yoko maintains the view that any element capable of bringing people into the experience of the work is valid material. This means that anything from nostalgic or diaristic footnoting by date, to advertising,6 to the use of T-shirts bearing the title of the show like a revolutionary flag or emblem is justifiable. Reprocessing and inverting the McLuhanesque maxim, she proclaims: “The message is the medium.”
(Yoko Ono, 1969 )

Yoko Ono often speaks of the sources of pain and desperation which force a person to finally want or need to create. Her own artistic background in an environment where women were included, but also tolerated and condescended to as creative personalities, is certainly a leitmotif for this discussion. But her point is that despair (or even the “morbidity” of which she has occasionally been accused) is a natural thing, bred out of sensitivity to and awareness of society’s present conditions. The self-admission to such desperate needs for love, appreciation, or understanding will ultimately cause anyone to communicate, even on an unconscious level. But there has to be an authentic need, and she hopes that her various works will elicit some capacity for that kind of openness. While they do not pretend to offer infallible esthetic therapy, her pieces constantly probe at one’s operating faculties, and they often tackle fundamental problems of psychological receptivity and perception. Most of the “Events” deal with the subtle mechanics of the senses, transposed into unexpected relationships with everyday stimuli: imagining the elements performing extraordinary functions, sabotaging the normal flow of clocked time or the seasons, charting and losing routes, mirroring and blinding oneself, etc., etc. Falling Piece (Spring, 1964) is a good example, as it instructs you to go outside of yourself mentally, and watch yourself falling while others also observe: a kind of self-analysis-by-otherness, a process which can be crucial to the isolation of a basic integer of thought or feeling. The allowance to communicate and participate begins at that level.

The reason I want people to burn Grapefruit after they read it is because it is going against nature to go back . . . . No one can take you anywhere; it is your footsteps that take you to places.
(Yoko Ono, 1966)

The museum shop provided kits relating to Yoko’s city plans for changing street signs and vending machines (e.g., “sky machines instead of coke machines”), or other urban fixtures to more pleasant or unsettling ones. This would be one way of permeating the world outside of museums and galleries, at least imaginatively, if not actually. A rubber stamp of footsteps, with a blueprint of the show was offered, with the suggestion that the viewer use his stamped tracks as a chart of his own experience at the Everson exhibition, sending it on to a friend somewhere else to recreate the diagrammed day in another environment. Many of the pieces evoke this possibility for the transfer or extension of simple somatic processes like laughing, coughing, smelling, or listening, beyond their immediate time span or space.

“Take the sound of the stone aging.” (Tape Piece I, Autumn, 1963)
Yoko Ono, Instruction Paintings 1961

“Take the sound of the room breathing: at dawn, in the morning, in the evening, before dawn.”
“Bottle the smell of the room of that particular hour as well.”
(Tape Piece II, Autumn, 1963) “Listen to the sound of the earth turning.” (Earth Piece, Spring, 1963)

The ground floor of the museum housed pieces like Painting to Shake Hands Through, Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through, and a clear plexiglass labyrinth called Amaze, whose central cubicle was a two-way mirror-walled chamber containing a toilet! Although it is not a very difficult puzzle, the structure forces you to take part in a Conceptual event by making you arrive at something as familiar as a toilet. It asks you to observe yourself in terms of some first experience (like your earliest encounter with bodily training), in order to relate your primary sensory processes back outwards, ultimately, to daily events.

“Use your blood to paint. Keep painting until you faint (a.).
Keep painting until you die (b.).”

(Blood Piece, Spring, 1960)

On the first floor, paintings and instructions were in the majority. Such instructions originated in diaristic notations, somewhere between poetry and short stories in form. As with Japanese haiku, it is necessary for the reader to fill in certain unstated factors (temporal, situational), based on his own experience of the moment. Since everything is always an unfinished process, including human beings, it seemed reasonable for Yoko to try to incorporate that kind of unresolved, organic time sense into her work. Pieces like Fresh Apple illustrate this concept: a real apple is set on a pedestal, simply left to decay as it will, until only its seed is left. Eventually it will sprout again. The blank white Instruction Paintings which were first exhibited at George Maciunas’ small and temporary Madison Avenue gallery during midsummer in 1961, also refer to this slow, organic (and nonmechanical) time, because they require someone to complete their directives either within or outside of their framework. The long, and often discontinuous period required to accomplish the directives connects everyone who participates in the work at any time past, present, or future.

A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream is a reality.
(Yoko Ono, October, 1971 )

Six filmscripts, written in 1964, were also treated this way—available to whomever might want to make a version of them. The movies become actual only when they are repeated and realized by other film makers. The instruction paintings and “do-it-yourself” works are perhaps most indicative of the artist’s intentions_ vis à vis _the history of both avant-garde and more classic traditional forms:

My paintings, which are all instruction paintings (and meant for others to do) came after collage and assemblage (1915) and happening (1905) came into the art world. . . . Among my instruction paintings, my interest is mainly in “painting to construct in your head”. . . . The movement of the molecule can be continuum and discontinuum at the same time. . . . There is no visual object that does not exist in comparison to or simultaneously with other objects, but these characteristics can be eliminated if you wish. . . . The painting method derives as far back as the time of the Second World War, when we had no food to eat, and my brother and I exchanged menus in the air. . . .
(Yoko Ono, footnote to Wesleyan Lecture, Jan., 1966)

At Syracuse, and in the text of her book Grapefruit, a number of these paintings were shown or documented. Painting in Three Stanzas has a watered vine growing over the painting until it covers the canvas, withers, or the wall vanishes—a growth, death, and obscuring cycle (Summer, 1961). Painting to Exist Only When it’s Copied (originals to be destroyed; Spring, 1964); Smoke Painting, where a canvas is lit with a cigarette or candle, the smoke observed, and the painting considered “completed” only when it disappears (Summer, 1961); Painting to be Stepped On (Winter, 1960); or Painting to Hammer a Nail In (Spring, 1962) are also worth mentioning here. Part Piece is composed of small, stepped or puzzlelike units of white canvas meant to be hung in different rooms or sites, and later reassembled by the viewer or owner in his dreams (1962). Although the happenings certainly contributed the groundwork for the participational bent of these works, the main and distinguishing idea was to isolate an experience and to refocus it both conceptually’ and physically. According to Yoko Ono, painting can be separated into two functions—instruction and realization. It can be realized in different ways, which

allow(s) for the infinite transformation of a work of art that the artist himself can’t foresee . . . it eliminates the usual emphasis put on the original painting and art comes down from the pedestal it has been on. The artist gives the “idea”—like air or sun—and anybody can use it and fill themselves according to the size and shape of his own body.7

A number of pieces in the show reiterate the theme of small, diverse parts in relation to a larger, cumulative unity.

1. Everything is a molecule (until it becomes part of a larger totality).
2. A molecule cannot be seen without light.
3. But the weight of the light changes the molecule.
4. So we can never really see a molecule until it ceases to be a molecule.

(Yoko Ono, New York, Oct., 1971)

Sizes (1964), a transparent box with mirrors and lenses embedded in its sides, converts the same needle into six different sizes; while Shadows encloses objects with different silhouettes, all casting shadows of the same size and shape. It is intended that Broken Vase Piece will be reassembled in ten years by those who gathered its shattered fragments.8 Film No. 4 (365 naked British bottoms, recorded as peace petition signatures in London, in 1968) is a bizarrely hypnotic and fixed-camera view of that number of moving buttocks. Of course, 365 units of anything could have been employed just as easily—days in a year, degrees of rotation around one’s head, stars, leaves, etc.—to demonstrate that although everything is an individual entity, sheer accumulation has the effect of dissolving the unique into the universal. The sight of so many posteriors, even when it gets boring or tedious, also adds a funny and iconoclastic note. The room full of Twenty-Four Part Paintings was another amusing area, with its tiny scraps of paper all elaborately framed, and each square labeled with a fantastic story relating to its contents: one square supposedly the 1/100th part of an atomic bomb cloud, another, a fraction of the Mona Lisa’s mole, etc. All of the paintings again emphasize that any particle is really the same if it’s small enough, although it seems to us that things are distinct on a larger scale.

The second floor contained imaginary pieces such as those in the Weight Room, in which objects defied their normal density or gravity factors when lifted; indications like “imagine flowers in the (empty) museum planters”; and some cooperative pieces where John Lennon responded to older works of Yoko’s like an amiable Zen dialogue. Water Room was a collection of projects contributed by guests, to which the artist had promised to add only the water. (In its final stages, it turned out to be Conceptual, rather than actual water.)

During the month that the Everson show was in progress, WNET, Channel 13, aired an hour of Yoko Ono’s work on its Free Time series, October 14th. The program was largely excerpts from past pieces: Grapefruit in the World of Park (mind music), film shorts, Think/Feel/And/Do/Tank, Bag Piece, or Fly performed by John Lennon and others, and several events and paintings. An elliptical form of interview/dialogue between Yoko and moderator Jonas Mekas (who appeared as the “Mad Hatter”) threaded things together. Although the ostensible message of the show was communication—that everyone can have access to the possibility of a creative experience if they open themselves to their resources of imagining and projecting, through the expression of real needs—the results seemed to illustrate problems that are still intrinsic to Yoko Ono’s work. For example, during Question Piece (first performed publicly in 1962 at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo), in which the audience was told there would be a question session, the principals would only reply with questions. The live studio audience did not catch on readily, at least not without a certain amount of resentfulness or antagonism. Most of the time when we think we are communicating by answering each other’s questions, we are not really doing so; therefore, the strategy was to make the questioners turn their inquiries into more direct, affirmative statements. It seemed that such techniques, which are peculiar to avant-garde activities that were more literally directed at the alienation of an unappreciative mass audience, were here only serving to perpetuate the frustration of noncommunication. Although the audience did gradually pick up on the process, they left feeling partly confused or put-upon. The more open and inquisitive nature of the piece was obviously glossed over. It was a curious, partially successful experiment in television theater, that made one ask whether methods that were developed initially with the aim of annoying and shocking an insensitive or uncultured audience, could now be extended to incorporate it on a meaningful, and truly receptive popular level?

The film Fly is another case in point here, since it is one of Yoko’s more recent realizations. In the movie, a nude woman lies absolutely motionless, while the camera pans close to her body, following a fly as it moves along her contours in slow motion; she only twitches after a seemingly endless stretch of time, when the insect reaches the most sensitive part of her genitals. The soundtrack (from Yoko’s record of the same name) is a 22 minute long series of alternately soothing or gratingly raw, but elemental female vocal noises—sighing, screeching, pathetic humming, and childlike crying, burping, choking, etc. It is a remarkable short film, simultaneously agonizing, suspenseful, and tedious. Certainly not apt to be a crowd-pleaser, it is as difficult to appreciate as its soundtrack.“Art as a radar environment takes on the function of indispensable perceptual training rather than the role of a privileged diet for the elite.” (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, p. x.)

The exhibit at the Everson Museum, and the activities and performances surrounding its presentation raised some important questions about the relationship of the avant-garde to an increasingly democratized mass culture as well as about the legitimacy of the movement towards Conceptualism in art. Almost all of Yoko Ono’s significant ideas were present in her work before her meeting with Lennon; yet there is no doubt that the liaison enabled her to push the “do-it-yourself” feature of that work into wider areas of both cooperation and publicity. A meaningful distinction can be made between Yoko’s vision and that of the people with whom she had associated in New York, even from the beginning, since its Conceptual focus was more optimistic and constructive than theirs. While her tactics were couched in an historically more elite and hermetic avant-gardism, the basic tone of her work was not as mocking as that tradition. The intention is to tap a wider audience’s potential for sensitive understanding, rather than to reject it.

At this juncture therefore, one is prompted again to ask whether or not the attraction to participation is a genuine and enduring commitment on the part of those who come to the work, or whether it is just a momentary and novel creative process for them? Can a person approach such work as a naive and untutored viewer and still become sincerely involved, or will its implications remain as arcane and esoteric as avant-garde work has usually been? Will it eventually induce communication on a widespread, universal level, provoking self-observation and a real willingness to understand and to communicate? Or will this kind of work remain in the realm of charming and fragile personal fantasy?

The interest of the show lies in its ability to pose rather than resolve such questions. Yoko Ono deserves recognition from the art community on her own account, for accomplishments that received slight notice during a significant period in the early ’60s, when most of the news media were not yet interested in, or geared to, recording advanced artistic activities. She was a part of that fertile milieu, and her thinking continues to extend and explore its premises.

Emily Wasserman

I would like to thank Yoko Ono and John Lennon for their cooperation and information, and James Harithas for his suggestions, during the preparation of this review.



1. Quotes indented and set aside, unless otherwise noted, are from Grapefruit, works and drawings by Yoko Ono, originally published in Tokyo, 1964.

2. This, and other textual quotes or historical references, from an interview with Yoko Ono by the author, October 15, 1971, New York.

3. I am grateful to Barbara Rose for clarifying my thinking on this observation.

4. Marcel Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” in Marcel Duchamp, transl. George Heard Hamilton, New York, 1959, p. 79.

5. An article by Yoko Ono and her then-husband, Anthony Cox, appeared in the now defunct magazine Art and Artists, December 1966, which was entitled “Yoko Ono and Conceptual Art.”

6. In 1965 she advertised a gallery called “Isreal Gallery”,in an art magazine, and consequently received many calls for information about its current exhibitions. But it only existed as a telephone number, and the “shows” were imaginary ones, in the minds of inquiring reporters and, callers. Likewise, the recent placement of some clever ads for a supposed “one-woman show” and a catalogue associated with the Museum. of Modern Art, New York, actually a documented, citywide event starting unobtrusively at MoMA (then photographed), in true “this is not here” fashion.

7. Wall label, “This is Not Here,” Everson Museum of Art. See Duchamp, note 4 above.

8. As demonstrated on Free Time, WNET, Channel 13, October 14, 1971.