A Q&A with Yoko Ono
By Sarah Douglas
July 12, 2010
NEW YORK To say that Yoko Ono's Voice Piece for Soprano is the most
visible artwork in MoMA's recent reinstallation of its contemporary
art galleries is both unimpeachably accurate and totally wrong. Wrong
in the sense that the piece is not visible at all; right in the sense
that you can't possibly miss it. Voice Piece for Soprano is a
participatory artwork. Museum visitors are invited to take a
microphone in the museum's atrium and follow Ono's instructions,
posted a wall, to "Scream. 1. against the wind; 2. against the wall;
3. against the sky." The resulting screams are amplified throughout
As zeitgeisty as the piece seems (there is much to scream about these
days, from the oil spill on down to Tea Party antics), Ono created it
back in 1961. In the late 1950s, she and her then-husband, Japanese
experimental musician Ichiyanagi Toshi, became part of the
constellation of creative types around avant-garde musician John
Cage, and Ono began experimenting with "instruction works" or "event
scores." She published more than 150 of them, including Voice Piece
for Soprano, in her 1964 artist's book Grapefruit.
Voice Piece isn't the only artwork of Ono's on view at MoMA right
now. The reinstallation's organizers MoMA associate director, Kathy
Halbreich, and curator Christophe Cherix have also included Whisper
Piece, a series of messages Ono has scribbled on the museum's walls,
and Wish Piece, which Ono has been creating in various versions since
1996, and which invites museum visitors to write their wishes on a
piece of paper and place these on a tree in the sculpture garden. In
fact, the presence of Ono's work in the show turns out to be one of
its highlights so visible is she in New York as John Lennon's widow
and onetime musical collaborator that it is sometimes easy to forget
that her career as a conceptual artist in her own right both pre- and
post-dated her marriage to the former Beatle. Ono spoke with Sarah
Douglas about protest songs, the power of wishing, and how a whisper
can sometimes be a scream and vice versa.
When I went to MoMA a couple of weeks ago for the opening of the
reinstallation of the contemporary art galleries, I was taken aback
by all these screams echoing through the galleries, and realized it
was museum visitors taking the microphone for your Voice Piece for
Soprano. I don't think MoMA has ever done anything quite like this
before. The effect is dramatic.
It's pretty radical, don't you think?
Absolutely. The instructions you give for the piece are: "Scream. 1.
against the wind; 2. against the wall; 3. against the sky." What was
your inspiration for this, back in 1961? Wasn't that right around the
time you met George Maciunas and became part of the Fluxus group?
I met George Maciunas after I started doing things like this. The
inspiration was that I was feeling very rebellious as a woman. The
wind, the wall, the sky didn't represent men, but they were
situations in life that you have to scream against.
As a form of resistance?
That's exactly what I thought of women doing. If they don't do it,
they hold back their emotions and become ill. It's very healthy to scream.
So these could be screams in protest?
Yes. It's a protest song.
That fits nicely with the theme of the new reinstallation at MoMA:
current events from the past 40 years, and how they've shaped
artists' works. What's it like to see Voice Piece for Soprano in this context?
There are so many instructions in [my book] Grapefruit and I didn't
remember this one very well. Then, five or six years ago, I wanted to
do a piece outdoors at a museum in Europe. I was going through
Grapefruit, and I thought, Voice Piece for Soprano will do. I sent it
to them, and it seemed like it was a very successful event. So I
started to think, this is a big one. It could be paired with my Cut
Piece, [a piece first performed in 1964, in which audience members
took turns using a pair of scissors to gradually cut off all of Ono's
clothes] in terms of protest and rebelliousness. I thought, "Wow,
this is great!" but then I moved on to do other things. Then, MoMA
said they wanted to do this one, and I said, "Oh, really?" Because I
always thought MoMA was very quiet.
I feel very guilty about that, in a way. But I'm not the one who
chose it. I just don't want to give any trouble to anybody,
comically. I suppose this is okay!
Well, then again, its effect isn't really up to you, is it? It
depends on the reaction of the audience. Cut Piece, which you just
mentioned, is the same sort of situation. You've talked about how
that piece has been very different depending on where you've
performed it. I remember reading that the audience in Japan was shy,
whereas in London people became very avid and almost violent about
cutting your clothes off. With Voice Piece for Soprano at MoMA as
far as I can tell, New Yorkers really like to scream.
It might tone down a bit. Initially people really want to scream but
then they might start to want to make it into a more musical kind of
expression. I don't know which way it will go.
It's interesting that one of your pieces at MoMA involves screaming,
and another is called Whisper Piece. How do you think they relate to
It's very interesting because Whisper Piece might be a scream, and
the scream piece might be a whisper. In the big picture, in the whole
of the planet, a scream is definitely just a whisper. And the 16
written whispers in Whisper Piece could add up to a big scream, conceptually.
You said before that screaming is healthy. I can't help but think of
Arthur Janov's primal scream therapy, which you and John Lennon
became interested in in the 1970s.
Janov sent his book to us when we were living in England. John
looked at it and said, "Primal scream? That's you!" We got so many
books, but this one, because the title said "Primal Scream," we
thought there was a connection between my work and it, so John read
it. If anything, primal therapy was influenced by me. I'm pretty
humble about things. I don't like to say, "They came after me!" But I
also realize that by being so humble I'm doing a disfavor to women in
society. So I do want to say what I did.
But it's also interesting that art sometimes influences the
development of non-art things, like therapeutic techniques, or science.
And it did. It's very interesting, because I was always thinking
about it that way. I thought, this artwork, if it's a really good
artwork, has to have everything in it to change the world. To change
the world, you need both art and science. I think it's a kind of a
merging of art and science.
Where else in your work do you see that kind of relationship?
Well, like the Wish Piece. Just to wish for something and you
don't even have to write it down and put it on the tree or anything,
but it's stronger when you do that. Then your wish and other people's
wishes merge in one tree that, too, is very scientific, actually.
Really? In what sense?
The vibration of wishing is going to be there. It's no longer
something that just came into your head and went away. You have
stated it. And then you allow your statement to be on the tree
which is a kind of exposure along with other wishes. And that
becomes extremely strong. And then they are sent to the Imagine Peace
tower in Iceland [a memorial to John Lennon inaugurated in 2007,
where over 500,000 wishes from the Wish Trees have already been gathered].
Speaking of voices coming together, Voice Piece for Soprano has been
appropriated at least once. On the band Sonic Youth's 1999 album
SYR4: Goodbye to the 20th Century, it's performed by band leaders Kim
Gordon and Thurston Moore's five year old daughter. What did you
think of that?
The way I see it, I made the initial movement, and then it went
everywhere, and that's very beautiful. I'm very happy that this
creates some kind of movement.
You performed the piece again yourself at the MoMA opening a few
weeks ago. What was that like for you? Was it just as cathartic as it
was the first time you did it?
Definitely. I have a lot of emotion inside of me. When I saw the
microphone, I just felt like doing it. I think that's very true of me
in general. When I hear music, my body starts to move, and I'm
dancing. Between a dance and a scream: well, that's me.