July 14, 2010  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
From a Whisper to a Scream: Following Yoko Ono’s Instructions
Yoko Ono. Selections from Whisper Piece (four of sixteen total; installation view at The Museum of Modern Art). 2010. Pen on wall, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Photo: Jason Persse

Yoko Ono. Selections from Whisper Piece (four shown of sixteen total; installation view at The Museum of Modern Art). 2010. Pen on wall, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Photo: Jason Persse

I first heard about Yoko Ono’s so-called “instruction pieces” as a high school student, when a friend told me the (possibly apocryphal, certainly embellished) story of Ono’s first meeting with John Lennon. History according to the poorly fact-checked lunchtime ramblings of rock ‘n’ roll–obsessed seventeen-year-olds: During a visit to London’s Indica Gallery in 1966, Lennon encountered Ono’s Ceiling Painting. Climbing to the top of a tall, white ladder, he used a magnifying glass dangling from a thread to read a message printed in tiny letters on the ceiling: “YES.” Profoundly moved by the work’s unalloyed positivity, he demanded to meet the artist right away.

That story probably rates a 40% score on the Historical Accuracy Meter, but the (surprisingly spot-on) description of Ceiling Painting captured my imagination. I was captivated by Ono’s notional art—especially her “instruction pieces,” which she describes as “paintings to be constructed in your head”—because it placed the onus of creation squarely on the “spectator.” So when I heard that some of Ono’s participatory pieces would be included in MoMA’s Contemporary Art from the Collection exhibition, I got ready to shoulder the spectator’s burden and help create some art.

Yoko Ono adds a wish to her Wish Tree for MoMA, June 29, 2010. Image courtesy Yoko Ono. Photo: Anne Terada

Yoko Ono adds a wish to her Wish Tree for MoMA, June 29, 2010. Courtesy of Yoko Ono. Photo: Anne Terada

I started in the Sculpture Garden with Wish Tree for MoMA. “Make a wish. Write it down on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around a branch of the wish tree. Ask your friend to do the same. Keep wishing.” No sweat! I added my wish to the hundreds of cards already hanging from the tree. (I would tell you what I wished for, but then I’d have to kill you.)

Next up was Whisper Piece, a series of sixteen instructions (like “Breathe heavily,” or “Smell the summer”) and affirmations (“You are beautiful,” for example) that Ono scrawled on the walls—and, in one case, the floor—of the second-floor Contemporary Galleries. (At one point a little girl asked me what I was doing squinting into a corner of the gallery, so I told her she had to find and follow the instructions, too. You can imagine my relief when I reached the exit without encountering instructions to steal a painting.) Following what few explicit instructions there were was no problem, and being told repeatedly that I was beautiful and loved did wonders for my self-esteem. The hard part was locating all sixteen tiny whispers.

Finally I returned to the Museum’s grand Marron Atrium, which currently contains Ono’s 1961 “instruction painting” Voice Piece for Soprano—”Scream. 1. against the wind 2. against the wall 3. against the sky”—along with a microphone and a pair of very loud speakers. I stared at the microphone for a while as a perfectly reasonable voice in my head informed me that I would not, under any circumstances, make a loud noise in a museum. Fifteen long minutes later, after watching several brave souls roar their hearts out in defiance of all propriety, I stepped up to the mic and let out a trio of wavering screams, each slightly less pathetic than the last.

And then it was over. Yoko and I had done it! Together we’d created a work of exhilarating, defiant, liberating art that turned heads, startled passersby, and covered me in a fine sheen of flop sweat. Besides, who hasn’t always wanted to let out a good scream at the office?


Do you know how long Yoko’s Voice Piece for Soprano—Scream will be up at MOMA?

Kelly, ‘Voice Piece for Soprano’ is currently scheduled to remain on view through November.

Most intrresting

Did anyone seen Ono perform couple of days back I did and managed to vidio it. Now in Dublin and still not to sure about what she was/ is trying to do?
She did this very small facial movement at the end which seen to say ‘fooled you’.

great story, great post. so cool how you were able to interact with the art. glad to hear Scream will still be there until November. Ashley, Travel Onion

wow, I would love to try “Voice Piece for Soprano”. I did not know that type of art existed. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece of information.

Don’t stop thinking! Thank you.

Yoko should be forced to sit and listen to the screams that ruin the experience of MoMA. Can’t believe it’s not going away until November. Awful.

The “scream” part of Yoko Ono’s piece is incredibly disruptive to the rest of the museum, and it is a shame that it is scheduled to run until November. MoMA should seriously consider curtailing it, or lowering the volume on the very loud speakers. At least Marina Abramovic sat there quietly!

Okay, so I am one of the people who did not allow her innate curiosity to brave the ear splitting and abusive noise of this exhibit to find out just how ‘precious’ the exhibit is. Enough, already.

OK, so I will mark December 1, 2010 as “Safe to enjoy art at MOMA again.”

I found the screaming so offensive that I filled out an official complaint form. Going through the Matisse exhibit bombarded with screams (which could be heard on the sixth floor!) was extremely unpleasant.

Your curators might want to alert your guards that the writing on the wall is a part of the exhibit. I figured as much, but when I went to confirm this fact with the guards they said either “well, maybe, I don’t know” or “no, definitely not. I don’t know why they haven’t painted over these yet.”

Dear Rhiannon, thank you for bringing this to our attention I have passed this comment along to the exhibition’s curators and to security.

I’m so happy to see these pieces at MoMA. Yoko’s art is so valuable and so cleansing. I can’t wait for the day that MoMA gives her the full-fledged one-woman-show she deserves!

I’ll return to MOMA when the screaming ends. It has usurped the museum. I stayed 15 minutes and left. What a selfish act.
So disrespectful of everyone-art lovers, artists and people working there. They should file for workers’ comp. I left the museum totally rattled and jittery-and I was there only 15 minutes!

I echo the comments of those who found this piece to be a terrible annoyance. The constant screaming can be heard throughout the museum, and it really disrupted my experience of the other artwork in the museum. I was shocked and horrified to see that this will be continuing through November! My membership will be up for renewal before then, but I will not renew until after this exhibit is ended.

I actually find the screaming to be really incredible and the fact that its got so many people riled up about it just makes it all the more genius. It’s as much a reflection on the people hearing the screams as it is on the people actually screaming. A very simple yet uncompromising exhibit.

I would be interested to know has yoko spoken about this installation. Her rendition that I saw felt silly, her mannerisms seemed to confirm she felt silly, as did her rather self conscious approach. All the other screamers that are annoying most of the posters here’re irrelevant. As for Ik’s comments that Ono deserves a one woman show at moma, based on this, no way! Now a real female artist with talent would be a different matter, someone like Jenny Saville who has bags of artistic talent and has probably never slept with a rock star, although I don’t know this for certain… Well Jenny?

Her distinctively attenuated voice provides the structural frame for such interesting motive to express such kind of art and like the intellectual prism the scream soon becomes the whisper – she inhibits that idea in an abstract frame of reference. She’s not just Mrs Lennon, She’s Yoko Ono.

“…I actually find the screaming to be really incredible and the fact that its got so many people riled up about it just makes it all the more genius…”

Genius? The only statement that this piece makes is that some celebrities can get paid for acting on their weird, impulsive behaviors.

Musicians including vocalists do tend to practice, but it appears that this one gave up long ago. She sings ‘out’ because she doesn’t know where ‘in’ is.

Minnie Rejever,
What sort of pretentious nonsense is this. This sort of nonsensical comment gives modern art a bad name, I assume you are still a student. One of my old proffesors once told me that if art is good it can be explained to your Grandmother and she gets it.
Ps. your grammar is at best questionable.

This exhibit is annoying, period. There is nothing revolutionary about people trying to one-up each other by screaming louder than their friends. It was distracting from the actual art and disrespectful to the artists especially on the lower floors that have worked so hard to get their pieces featured in such a museum. It ruined my experience.

How long did it take you to write those three absolutely indecipherable lines, Minnie? Two hours? Three, maybe? I bet you were proud of yourself afterwards. I sure would be.

Imagine if you will, trying to take in a piece of art and every 15 to 30 seconds someone comes up behind you and starts screaming as loud as they can. Probably kind of jarring, frustrating, intolerable. You weren’t warned by anyone when you entered the museum that your whole experience would be ruined by 13 to 20 yr olds giggling about how naughty they are screaming in a museum. This is not a cross section of humanity getting in on the artistic experience. The whole thing was a disaster. You can enjoy nothing. We are not rich people and we had to throw away $20 each and just leave. This is controversy on the cheap. Putting a bowl of razorblades in a room and encouraging people to go and slash all the other art would be controversial too. And almost as bad an idea. Whoever approved this should be fired. I absolutely recommend you don’t go to the MOMA until this is gone.

I too was totally caught off guard with the screaming; every 20 seconds. But, it certainly peaked my interest. It was not until I reached the actual installation and let out my own scream, that I understood the beauty and the power of this piece. We were literally given a safe space to be human and express what might otherwise be considered unruly, disturbing, jarring, and offensive. I applaud Yoko Ono and the MOMA for exhibiting this piece.

I hope no elderly asian women fall down , get sick or scream for help inside the MOMA , everyone would ignore them because they would just thinks its Wacky Yoko doing her skit.

Is there a time limit for how long a patron is allowed to scream?

Just did the shadow piece with my ninth graders, they loved it!

Teddy: when I went yesterday, they had two guys standing nearby and wouldn’t let people go up to the microphone more than once. Generally people would scream as long as they could with one breath, besides the WoWtard who thought yelling “leeroy jenkins” would be funny.

I totally agree with Maggie and personally felt it was the most powerful piece in the exhibit. I don’t know how people find it more distracting than the crowds of people swarming the famous paintings to take pictures of them.

absolutely awful. the opposite of YES

I throughly enjoyed “Voice piece for soprano” After wondering who the heck is screaming and why- I thought maybe challenged kids were visiting and they could not be asked to quiet down- so I accepted and moved through the exhibits un- moved ONce in front of exhibit i felt propelled to join in- I did’nt know why but after letting out a blood curdling scream, I understood all I had been holding in (whispering,swallowing hurt)afterwards I cried and examined my past year of loss and doubt and it helped me come to terms with all Ive been securing in my soul. This art work helped me introspect and that is one of arts duties.

Art nowadays has totally deteriorated! So pretentious. MoMA shame on you…THAT’S ALL!

Yoko and her work continue to be both an inspiration and a rallying cry for those of us continuing in the FLUXUS tradition today. DONT turn the speakers down. and consider … what if an “open Mike” remained available, as a permanent fixture …. new performance could spring up at any time … (without fear of being ousted by security) … HMMM ??? FLUXUS is alive and well … not just in the vitrines or on the walls, there’s a strong contingent of people living their work everyday, both in & out of the museums. Thanks to both Yoko and MOMA for providing this experience !!! FLUX ON !!!

I saw Yoko perform at MOMA and honestly it was one of the worst covers of “Great Gig in the Sky” I’ve ever heard

No screaming when I was there yesterday, thankfully, but, surprisingly I enjoyed the wish tree a lot because it was funny, light, fanciful and joyous. That is not in the rest of the museum which is cold and stodgy in its spaces.

I screamed at the exhibit this past Saturday. I felt exhilarated for the rest of the day. I loved it! And I loved hearing the other screams as I looked at Matisse, Van Gogh, Suratt, Wyeth, Chagall and more. It absolutely enhanced my visit. All you nay sayers, lighten up!!

I feel like those who find Yoko Ono’s piece disruptive have missed the entire point. Did any of you try screaming into the mic? I feel like this annoyance is due to an inner self consciousness and uptightness. I also find the negative posts closed minded. I’m sure whoever you wrote the complaint to laughed. I’m sure Yoko expected the exhibit to be found obnoxious, especially by the closed minded and/or those without a modern art background.

Fortunately the exhibit I went to see–kitchen design–was far enough away that I could enjoy it without hearing the screaming. I had to skip out on the Rock Paper Scissors exhibit because it was impossible to pay attention to the art works with the constant distraction. Why should this one exhibit take precedence over the many other galleries within earshot? MOMA is hardly a hushed museum space where this noise is piercing through conventions. I pity the guards and volunteers who are forced to endure screaming all day long.

While viewing the wonderful Abstract Expressionist exhibit recently, I told my guests that the screams constantly disrupting the normally tranquil MoMA experience were coming from a group of kids trying to see who could yell the loudest in the atrium . . . . because that was the only logical explanation. Then I discovered the microphones. It was disappointing to hear juvenile tourists in the Abstract Expressionist exhibit say, “My kid could do that” and then listen to people scream into a microphone at the top of their lungs so people would pay attention to them. Incidentally, what are the chances the curators would have resurrected this disrupting piece of “artwork” if Yoko Ono’s name was not attached to it? I was embarrassed for MoMA.

A highlight yesterday to the MoMA was to scream in the main hall, 2nd floor, as part of a Yoko Ono art piece called “From a Whisper to a Scream”. Immediately after I was covered in a micro sheen of sweat, acutely aware that I broke a tacit rule, “NO screaming in a museum.” That right is reserved for the cerebral screams of muted 2-dimensional pieces or inert three-dimensional genital allegories rendered in brass. I knew it caused dismay but thought, shake a leg people, get over your need for sterile houses of revered silence; incidentally I’d suggest St. Pat’s or the mosque or synagogue of your choice.

Wyeth can make us feel apart of Christina’s World, Dali can bemuse us with The Persistence of Time, Pollock can send us off on a treasure hunt for tacks and cigarettes buried in enamel and you can scream or not. I am not a dead white guy hanging for posterity’s sake in the hallowed halls of the MoMA. I am alive and loved screaming for a few seconds, and as it turns out art is defined in the eye and in this case the ear of the beholder. Thanks Yoko for opening my mind and vocal cords.

Although I can somewhat empathize with people getting aggravated by the loudness screams, after asking around to find it was one of the pieces, I was instantly intrigued. After observing countless people mustering up the courage to go and have a scream, I came to love this piece and what it has to say about the freedom of expression.

Was at MOMA 11/19/10 and wanted to scream along with the other art practioners and will return today and might sream into the mic, but I would love to get a group scream going of unrelated museum goers. Who knows if I have the courage to do so especially after reading so many negative comments about the disruptions noted by many.

I do not understand how something can be someone’s work if it completely depends on the visitor to create it. Sounds like BS to me.

I think I must have misunderstood the piece a little because I didn’t realize that the speakers on the second floor were working. I heard the screams up on the 6th floor, although I didn’t find them as disturbing as other people–on that note, it’s actually kind of interesting that the frequency and annoyance of the screams is being blamed on Yoko, while she only encourages it, it’s the line of people screaming who decide the frequency and thus the annoyance. Anyway, what I thought was particularly amusing about the piece was that the screams carry to the 6th floor (either because of additional speakers? or because of the architecture of the MoMA itself) but the screamer may not realize they are being heard that far away until much later on when they travel the four extra escalators and year someone else. To me, that evokes an additional layer of self-consciousness in the act which is interesting if nothing else.

You gotta be kidding!
Ono just screams because her singing voice is so horrible.
Screaming in a museum? Dumb.

the german photographer said he would send me via email my pictures. Please do! I would love to have them
Thank you
Jennifer Morel

So I wrote it year ago, I hung this little piece of paper, and I belive on it very very much – and my dream came true, but only half …

I primally screamed into Yoko’s mike at MOMA
–my grown daughters ran and hid behind a wall.
Yoko is a treasure.

Leave a Comment

* required information

E-mail address*

Your comments*

Spam check*
Cri_221520 Please enter the text in the image.