Poetry Review: Imagine — Yoko Ono Plants an “Acorn”

Yoko Ono has always been the kind of artist more interested in getting into your head than convincing you to occupy hers.

Acorn by Yoko Ono. O/R Books, 216 pp, $16.

By Debra Cash


In 1969, Yoko Ono and John Lennon planted two “acorns for peace” at Coventry Cathedral in England and mailed world leaders a package saying, “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures — which are acorns — in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace.”

I don’t know how the politicians took it, but on Yoko Ono’s website there’s a picture of an Instant Karma fan in St. Petersburg, Florida, leaning against the trunk of a sturdy oak. (Yoko Ono’s responsed, “Thank you for sharing a miracle!”)

Yoko Ono’s latest acorn planting is smaller in scale although perhaps just as long in development. Acorn is Ono’s follow up to Grapefruit, her landmark book of thought experiments published almost 50 years ago. That talismanic volume, first self-published in a 500-copy edition in Tokyo in 1964 and revised in 1970 by Simon and Schuster for the American marketplace, was a series of “event scores,” aphoristic messages in Fluxus bottles. Grapefruit offered instructions for how to create art by freeing your mind: “Imagine the clouds dripping/Dig a hole in your garden to/put them in/1963 spring.”

Now Ono has collected the 100 instructions she offered for 100 consecutive days in 1996 and repeated as daily blog posts during 100 days in 2008. She notes in her introduction that publishing an ordinary book — you know, the kind where you can turn pages made out of crushed dead trees or even use as compost — is a bit retro (“I’m riding a time machine that’s going back to the old ways! Great!”). It is an act of symmetry if not summary. Acorn won’t have the kind of impact Grapefruit did, but it brings back fond memories of the soft radicalism of her mid-twentieth-century art. It may also introduce her conceptual work to those who know her only as the dark sunglasses-and-hat-wearing guardian of John Lennon’s legacy. While, as Dar Williams sang, “challenging the warring nations/with her paper installations changes nothing,” Ono’s work still makes its own zen-like contribution.

Acorn demonstrates that Ono’s work has been absolutely consistent over the decades. You don’t need objects or performances to appreciate it: not 1964’s “Cut Piece,” where audience members in Japan and London were invited to cut clothes off her body; not the stainless steel vending machine that dispensed “pieces of the sky”; not the 1969 Times Square bulletin board that proclaimed “WAR IS OVER IF YOU WANT IT.” To Ono, the practice of imagining is everything. Lennon’s Imagine anthem was his wife’s mantra.

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono — you’ve got to hand it to the 80-year-old iconoclast, she’s still out there making a zen-like noise.

Ono has always been the kind of artist more interested in getting into your head than convincing you to occupy hers. Her media-savvy celebrity may reflect her status as a muse, dragon lady, or murder-victim widow, but in her work, Ono retains her artistic privacy by turning the tables. The questionnaire that opens Acorn would be a natural feature about “living your best life” in O Magazine as it asks the reader to finish the phrase “I am at the age where . . .” She offers platitudes about life being about focus and balance and that “Each time we don’t say/ what we want to say/ we’re dying.” Alarmingly, these sections approach the territory of pop psychology.

But Ono’s more purely conceptual games have a lovely directness. She routinely evokes sky, earth, and details from the natural world and then juxtaposes their scale with the ordinary human experience of shoelaces and beds, cups of hot chocolate.

She’s at her best proposing lyrical, fantastical actions like this one:

Tape the sound of the moon fading at dawn.
Give it to your mother to listen to
when she’s in sorrow.

And this one, “Sky Piece VII”, which reads:

Climb up a ladder to reach the sky.
Try ladders of different heights.
See if the sky looks any closer
from a higher ladder.

As in 1966’s “Sky TV,” in which she aimed a video camera at the sky outside the museum to bring the passing clouds indoors, Ono is canny about the power of merely framing an experience in unexpected ways.

Ono reprises her instructions for building a “Wish Tree,” but she is not above revising her oevre. A New Yorker correspondent who attended her fancy book launch party in New York City this summer compared two thematically linked “pieces.” In Grapefruit, Ono’s instruction reads “Get a telephone that only echoes back your voice. Call every day and talk about many things.” The version in Acorn reads “Get a telephone that only echoes back your voice. Call every day and complain and moan about your life and people around you.” It’s Ono’s version of a Jewish mother joke that the implausibly optimistic Ono makes at her own expense.

Ono is more careful about her imagery than her language; there’s a flabbiness to the word choice in many of her haiku-like instructions. Moreover, the pointillist, amoeba-through-the-microscope drawings she includes in Acorn offer a sense of her attentiveness and diligence but are not particularly interesting or appealing.

But you’ve got to hand it to the 80-year-old iconoclast. She’s still out there, fighting fracking with her son Sean, posting a steady stream of tweets (some of which are lifted directly from the book), and collaborating with young’uns like the Beastie Boys and Tune-Yards. Her oak tree has ripened, and it continues to bear fruit.

Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes and moderates panels and events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts, Wesleyan Center for the Arts and venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, she received a 2012 Creative Arts Award from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute for a new poetry project.

c 2013 Debra Cash

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