Yoko Ono's clear sky. Guide to the exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art

Yoko Ono's clear sky. Guide to the exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art
On 15 October, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art in Petrovka opened Yoko Ono's retrospective 'Sky Is Always Clear', displaying the most significant works made by the artist for 60 years.

This is not the first Yoko Ono’s visit to Russia. In 2007, she presented her installation 'Odyssey of the Cockroach' at the 2nd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. 'Sky is Always Clear' exhibition is the first big project brought by the artist to Moscow. Read in mos.ru and Mosgortur Agency’s collaborative article about everything you need to know about the artist and her art before visiting the exhibition.

 The most important part of creative works 

Yoko Ono's family was very wealthy. Her father, the banker, often went on business to the United States together with his wife and daughter, so the girl mastered several languages. Yoko went to a music school for gifted children, studied philosophy, art history and literature. In 1953, she enrolled at Sarah Lawrence Private Liberal Arts College in New York City. There she took interest in conceptual art.

A few years later, Yoko Ono joined the avant-garde Fluxus movement, which emerged in the late 1950s under the influence of Dadaism ideas advocating the unity of art and life. At the same time, avant-garde American composer La Monte Young, the chief post-modernism theorist artist Josef Beuys (Germany), the video art founder Nam June Paik joined it, too. But Ono's works were always different from what her Fluxus friends did.

She intended not to reflect reality, but to work with its perception. This feature is most clearly visible in her renowned 'Instructions' she began to create after moving from Japan to New York. At first, there were cards with the text encouraging viewers to shake hands, imagine the sky, or count all the words in the book. Later, 'Instructions' were supplemented with objects to interact directly with: you were welcome to cut holes in the picture, or pile the stones lying scattered on the floor.

The retrospective of 'Instructions' the artist has been creating for 60 years is the display's highlight. It shows the evolution of Yoko Ono's invention. You will find among 'Instructions' both simple ones, for example, 'Laugh for a week', 'Cough for a year', and some rather difficult ones, for example, 'Listen to the sound of rotating Earth'. Some works are based on the text only, while the other ones are artworks that require visitors' involvement. Yoko Ono suggests adding colours to a white canvas, hammering a nail into a painting, and even getting into a black bag.

'I think 'Instructions' is the most important part of her work. My favourite one is the very first work, created by the artist in 1955. It reads: 'Light a match and watch till it goes out'. Yoko Ono's 'Instructions' originate in visual art, but actually they are based on text. We can trace direct explicit connection with haiku poems, with its messages and questions to the world. It relates to Zen Buddhism, too. Yoko Ono releases an art object hidden in an item,' says Gunnar B. Kvaran, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (Oslo), and art curator of the exhibition.

Exhibition Art Curator Gunnar B. Kvaran


Held in 1955, performance 'Light a match and watch till it goes out' became one of the first documented performances in art history. It was followed by 'Voice Piece for Soprano' (1961), in which Yoko Ono invited the audience to shout at the top of their voices, and Bag Piece, during which two people, undressed, were offered to get into dark bags to feel free from imposed conventionalities.

 Ono became acclaimed after her 'Cut Piece' performance, presented in Tokyo in 1964. The artist was sitting on her knees in the centre of the room, with a pair of scissors beside her, and every visitor could walk up to her and cut off any piece of her clothing. Campaign continued until there was nothing left on her body. It doesn't seem like a fresh idea today, but for that time Yoko Ono's performance was quite revolutionary. For the first time, an artist invited viewers to invade personal space and get involved in the creative process.

Artist + viewer

'Yoko Ono brings the concept of art to a qualitatively new level and invites viewers to participate in creation of her works. She was one of the first to advocate cooperation in art between the artist and the viewer,' says Gunnar B. Kvaran.

At the artist's exhibition at London's Indica Gallery in 1966, she was co-authored by John Lennon. The musician was attracted by her installation 'Ceiling Painting/YES Painting'. A viewer had to climb a white ladder to reach a glass frame on the ceiling and see with a magnifying glass the word YES written on a small sheet of paper. The story of their relationship started with this exhibition, according to the main characters. Later, together with Lennon, the artist recorded a single Give Peace a Chance, started Plastic Ono Band and released several music albums.

Creativity for Yoko Ono is a collective process in which trust plays a crucial role. For the Moscow exhibition, she invited six Russian artists to unite in creation of the 'Water Event' installation, a new version of the project, existing since 1971 and repeated differently. Olga Kroitor, Ivan Novikov, Maxim Spivakov, Anna Titova, Stas Shuripa and Sveta Shuvayeva had to create a vessel, with water provided by Yoko Ono. So, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art acquired plaster cushion with projection of an image of sleeping artist Olga Kroitor, a lamp made of a white grapefruit’s half, and a vase made of ice.

'In terms of history, Yoko is one of the few artists who has transformed art into an idea, she destroys the concept of an object and overthrows art, which has always been sacred. Artists have always tried to keep the aesthetics of an object, but Yoko Ono, on the contrary, erases this concept, and all that remains is the idea. For her, the idea is already an art object,' explains the art curator.

Fight for women's rights

Yoko Ono was educated in one of the most prestigious Tokyo schools, Gakushuin Gymnasium. Her wealthy parents helped their daughter enroll in school where future Emperor Akihito studied, too. The only girl in the Gymnasium later became the first student of the Philosophy Department of Gakushuin University. Since childhood, Yoko Ono proved that a woman can be on an equal footing with a man.

Feminism topic is one of prevailing one in her work. The artist devoted her big project 'Rising' to the issue of physical and psychological violence against women. She invited women from all over the world to send their stories and photos of their eyes anonymously: 'Women of all ages, from all countries of the world, you are welcome to make a will about the wrongs and harms that have been done to you just for being women.'

The interactive installation, including stories about the experience of violence, was first demonstrated in 2016 at the artist's exhibition in Reykjavik. The project is continuously updated. You can send your story with a photo using a special form on the Moscow Museum of Modern Art's website, and it will be displayed on the Museum's interactive cube. After the exhibition is over, all letters will be sent to the artist, who will post some stories on the project's website.

 World peace 

Pacifism supporter, Yoko Ono involved John Lennon in her protests, too. The 1969 campaign 'Bed-In for Peace', when the newlyweds protested against the war in Vietnam, lying in bed for a week before television cameras and journalists, became one of the most famous public performances of the artist. She later called for an end to the war in Iraq, paying for the line 'Imagine Peace... Spring 2003' published in the American media.

War theme can be traced in many of Yoko Ono's art works. 'Helmets' work, the first instruction to which was made in 2001, received new interpretation at the exhibition in Moscow. 18 identical helmets, suspended from the ceiling, represent the most devastating military conflicts of the 20th century, according to the artist. You will find pieces of a sky puzzle inside each helmet. 'Take a sky piece. We belong to each other,' Yoko Ono tells visitors. You can take a blue piece with you, to assemble later a blue sky over your head.

The art curator considers the 'Mend Piece' installation of 1966 the most powerful artist's works, which offers viewers to fix broken dishes — plates, mugs and vases. 'Mend wisely. Mend with love. Mend with your heart. And it will mend the world,' Yoko Ono appeals.

'You look at the shards, reminiscent of the ruins of a city you are invited to restore. And this mending is a healing process, because every person has personal catastrophes to be healed. Perhaps, this work originates in the atomic bombing of the country during the World War ll. Yoko was a teenager then. When we talk about her work, we should not forget that she is a Japanese artist and her roots go deep to the history of Japan,' says Gunnar B. Kvaran.

'Sky Is Always Clear' exhibition runs until 24 November at the Museum of Modern Art in Petrovka. The Museum is open 12:00 pm till 09:00 pm, Tuesday till Sunday. Tuesday of the third week of the month offers free admission to the Museum.