“Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind”

Her Tate Modern retrospective delights me with its mixture of silliness and profundity.

Tracey Thorn at The New Statesman writes: Halfway round the new “Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind” exhibition at Tate Modern (on until 1 September) I enter into a kind of record-shop listening booth that is decorated with her album covers and filled with individual sets of headphones. It’s the least crowded section of the show – Yoko’s music still perhaps not being people’s favourite thing about her – but I’m happy that her records are included here. So I put on a song I love, “Death of Samantha”, from 1973.

The opening lines always make me smile: “People say I’m cool/Yeah I’m a cool chick baby/Every day I thank God/That I’m such a cool chick baby”. It’s a defiant opening to a song, but also clearly very tongue-in-cheek. No one refers to themselves as a “cool chick baby” with an entirely straight face, Yoko least of all, and we’ll come back to her humor in a minute. This song though is all about pain and how to hide it. Something unspecified has happened to the woman singing – her coolness is an act, a pose to cover up suffering. She has learned how to perform the role of docile acceptable woman, but underneath “something inside me died that day”.

I love the tension in the song between her deadpan delivery and the agony of the lyrics. Elsewhere in her music Yoko, famously, makes a lot of noise – she shrieks, howls and wails – but here the noise is all internal. Standing here with the song playing, I’m moved once again by that balance in so much of her work between the funny and the sad.

I stare out at the other visitors all having fun at what is one of the most playful exhibitions I’ve been to in a long while. So far I have watched someone crawl around inside a black sack, I have hammered a nail into a canvas, I’ve drawn with a thick crayon around the projected silhouette of my friend. I’ve gasped at a film of a fly crawling over a naked woman’s pubic hair.

Humour and lightness are ever-present, along with constant reminders of the darkness that threatens them. You are reminded how the Second World War looms in her past, and you note her ongoing determination to escape its long shadow. So there is a kind of dance going on all the time – between wit and solemnity; between profundity and silliness. What could be sillier, for instance, than the sight of Yoko and John Lennon lying in bed in order to bring an end to all conflict? Watching the film of this event, I’m struck by how provocative it seemed at the time. One interviewer spits with contempt as he fires questions at them, the gentle irony of their responses only winding him up further. He is, in modern parlance, extremely triggered by what they are doing. Beneath the silliness they have touched a very raw nerve.

More here.