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.
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?