In “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” John Lennon sings, “Caught the early plane back to London, fifty acorns tied in a sack.” What seems like an arbitrary reference to a nut is actually the autobiographical inclusion of Lennon’s first artistic collaboration, “Acorn Peace,” with the conceptual artist he had recently married, Yoko Ono. The “Ballad” lyrics also lend some lines to the couple’s more famous “Bed-In,” the honeymoon they turned into a performance of social protest for world peace. Both projects confused and fascinated audiences who maligned Ono for having drawn the pop star away from music and toward some confounding avant-gardism.
On Sunday, the Hirshhorn Museum pays tribute to Ono and her avant-garde approach to art and music with a concert featuring women who have arrived on the wave of punk and experimental music that followed her. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Gang Gang Dance’s Lizzie Bougatsos, and Moor Mother will perform music by Ono as well as their own songs that she inspired. Yes, Yoko Ono—whose detractors say her music is “unlistenable”—has been influential, and not just to her famous late husband.
The evening begins with a performance of Ono’s “Promise Piece” from 1966. That was the year she met Lennon at the opening for her one-woman show at a gallery in London. “Promise Piece” was among 17 concerts, films, and exhibitions she had that year. For all this activity surrounding their meeting, Ono was barely aware of the Beatle, who had been privately making what he called “far-out tapes” of experimental sounds that would one day be mixed with her abstract, emotional vocalizations on “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins” (1968). That album announced their couplehood, and “Acorn Peace” soon followed.
In that work, located in Coventry Cathedral Garden in Coventry, Great Britain, Ono planted an acorn toward the East and Lennon the West in recognition of their intercultural union, which they saw as symbolic for world peace. A circular white bench from which viewers could “watch the tree grow” was added, but exhibition officials moved it. An affront to early site-specific art, Lennon had it retrieved. Whether the retrieval was out of his indignation or the eminent possibility of theft remains unclear. But the altruistic quality of “Acorn Peace,” followed by the mass mailing of acorns to world leaders, was lost in hair-splitting over whether or not the work could, in fact, be considered art. As with the release of “Two Virgins,” the bench was Lennon’s idea. But the reception of both works outlined the public’s tendency to hold Ono accountable for her husband’s step back from the mainstream.
It’s ironic that animosity could be directed toward an artist whose work has been founded in idealism and peace. Over the summer, the Hirshhorn Museum staged Four Works for Washington and the World in tribute to the 84-year-old artist. Among the works: “Wish Tree for Washington D.C,” first presented at the museum in 2007. Like “Acorn Peace,” “Wish Tree” was intended as a “living sculpture,” and one with which audiences could interact. Weekly, museum staff pluck hundreds of hand-written wishes from the tree and then send them to an Icelandic island. The wishes are buried beneath Imagine Tower—a radiant beam of light that shoots into the sky from a round, stone platform—along with additional wishes from around the world. Ono dedicated the tower as a memorial to Lennon. The phrase “Imagine Peace” is inscribed in 24 languages on its base.
On view in the Hirshhorn’s galleries is “Sky TV for Washington D.C.,” also completed in 1966. An ongoing live stream of what’s going on above the museum, “Sky TV” is the artist’s only video work and one of art’s earliest examples of video installation. It anticipated video art of the 1970s and also visual interest in surveillance, which became popular among artists in the early 2000s. Ono, however, points the camera not at the viewer but to the sky in a consideration of the infinite world beyond the self.
Ono uses basic elements like trees and sky as paradigms by which viewers may enter into a conscious dialogue with essential qualities of the human condition, like hope and imagination. It can be discouraging for those who understand the mission of Ono’s work to see viewers struggle with it. To the exhibition’s curator, Mark Beasley, “Sky TV” is a prototypical example of Ono’s continued relevancy, and why viewers should be receptive to what she does. “Visual art is important to our everyday life, and she speaks to that,” he says. “We all have wishes and dreams, for instance, and in that way she is a much easier read than abstract painting. If viewers step aside from their own frame of reference, our wishes and dreams, to look at the sky, what it is to be human, are in the work.”
“My Mommy Is Beautiful,” a 40-foot canvas in the museum’s lobby, invites participants to attach photographs and written thoughts about their mothers and accumulated nearly 50,000 statements over the summer. While the premise and requested action seem simplistic, the work situates the power of matriarchy during a pivotal moment of gendered politics. The concert, which concludes with some of Ono’s rarely seen early films, will be the last chance to view and participate in this temporary installation.
An avant-garde artist challenging the commercial entertainment realm, Ono pioneered the now-common intersections of punk, rock, found sound, and even classical music. The Concert for Yoko Ono showcases the heirs to that, and an opportunity to reframe the legacy of an often-misjudged artist. Whether audiences were intimidated by her work’s non-traditional qualities, or have assumed truth in the the negative image constructed of her over decades, Ono’s disrepute began when Post-World War II anti-Japanese sentiment was still palpable. Lennon had the strength to look past that and build a partnership that would transform him into the artist and humanitarian he became. With growing awareness of women’s contributions, and their unjust criticisms, the Hirshhorn heralds a call to give Yoko a chance.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Sept. 17, 7-10pm. $25.