“CHESS SET FOR PLAYING AS LONG AS YOU CAN REMEMBER WHERE ALL YOUR PIECES ARE.”
These are the words inscribed on a brass plaque on the underside of Yoko Ono’s original White Chess Set (1966)—a work that is currently on display in the exhibition Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971 (open through September 7, 2015). In conjunction with this show, an exhibition copy of Yoko Ono’s celebrated work is installed and open for public engagement in MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden throughout the summer. This program features a special collaboration with Chess in the Schools, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to improving academic performance and building self-esteem among inner-city public school children; two young representatives from the organization are present each day to play chess with members of the public.
Since it was originally exhibited in Ono’s solo presentation at London’s Indica Gallery in November 1966, White Chess Set has been displayed in various configurations at venues across the world (including multiple boards set up on a long table, and a large-scale outdoor version, among others). In its elemental form, the work consists of an all-white board with all-white pieces on both sides, rendering both player’s pieces visibly indistinguishable from the other’s. As a result, players must take care to remember where they place their pieces as the game unfolds across the board, but it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate sides as the pieces come into closer proximity; ultimately, players lose track of which pieces are theirs and which belong to their opponent. At this point, outside of Ono’s instruction to discontinue play, players can choose whether to continue attempting to follow the standard rules of chess or create a new way to play together. This process of decision making creates opportunities for conversation, collaboration, and creativity in developing a novel strategy. This aspect of the work suggests Ono’s anti-war stance—an ideology that permeates much of her oeuvre. The artist’s subtle modifications to the game of chess—traditionally considered a war game—fundamentally alter the goals of playing; instead of working against one another as if in battle, players must work together to effect conditions of peace.
Over the last month, we have had numerous experiences that have shed light on Ono’s intentions with this work, as well as meaningful engagements with the public, guided by our educators Anna Harsanyi and Christopher Lin. Here are a few highlights:
“One day, a visitor approached me, asking to play White Chess Set under one condition: that we not capture each others’ pieces. I agreed to this unique request, and as we began moving our respective pieces, we discussed the theme of the work: the dissolution of distinction between sides. We discussed the political connotations of this statement and amended the goal—rather than attempting to capture the opponent’s king, we would move our pieces to find the most agreeable arrangement. We were negotiating peace on Ono’s White Chess Set. Onlookers curious about how we were playing seemed interested in this act as a performance. Another spectator joined our conversation about Ono’s intentions, and the conversation quickly opened up, with each visitor contextualizing their political positions and understandings of the work according to their own respective backgrounds, one growing up in a middle class family in Germany and the other having escaped from the Iranian Revolution. This peaceful game of chess allowed us to open ourselves up to a deep and meaningful discussion about politics, foreign and domestic policy, and war, in spite of our different ages and world views.”—Christopher
“White Chess Set brings strangers together in conversation via a familiar and popular game. Recently, two strangers sat down to play. Though the players did not speak the same language, they communicated through the game, laughing each time they made a clever move. In another instance, two friends were playing as a curious little girl watched. When I suggested she participate, she mentioned feeling shy. At this point, one of the players just got up, pulled up a chair and invited her to play on his team. The little girl was very skilled and they played for an hour, pausing occasionally to talk about New York and MoMA. Chess is a universal language, and this piece mediates a meaningful connection not just with the game, but between players.”—Anna
White Chess Set is open to the public on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., through September 5, and is free with Museum admission.