“I do not see the purpose behind smoking my pubic hair. My day was spent in a chaotic state, trying to follow Yoko Ono’s unconventional instructions.”

Estimated read time 8 min read


Our desire for guidance is constant, no matter how ordinary or apparent. “If it is incorrect, do not proceed,” stated Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose wisdom is still honored. In his book 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson starts with the recommendation to “maintain good posture and hold your shoulders back.” This book has sold over 10 million copies.

Even if the instruction seems absurdly mundane, people will still follow it if they believe it will bring them knowledge and progress. Yoko Ono, a renowned avant-garde artist, acknowledged this in her book Grapefruit, published in 1964. The book presents 200 sets of instructions that Ono wrote between 1953 and 1964. In her own words, these instructions are unfinished pieces of art meant to inspire readers to “complete” them either by following them or by mentally responding to them. At the Tate Modern exhibition in London, which just opened, there is an entire wall dedicated to displaying her instructions.

Yoko Ono with John Lennon promoting Grapefruit in London in 1971.

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Their wording is deceptively simple. However, what may seem like straightforward instructions found on the packaging of a pre-made meal can often include complicated and illogical commands. For example, a piece called Painting to Exist Only When It’s Copied or Photographed directs: “Allow others to make copies or take photos of your paintings. Destroy the originals.” The nonsensical phrases and bizarre imagery in these works can also elicit laughter. In Back Piece I, the directive states: “Turn off the light. Stand behind a person for four hours.” The piece Smell Piece proposes: “Use a blank name card. Write an address and include a smell instead.”

I am concerned that I may not fully comprehend everything, but assistance is available. In 1971, Yoko Ono provided the following hint: “To comprehend the fragments, you must engage with them. Even pondering them mentally is a step towards improving communication with yourself.” Therefore, 60 years after Grapefruit’s release, I opt to take this advice and do just that- in the same city where it was originally written.

Plane Piece

‘Should I die while flying, I bequeath all my property to Oobah Butler.’View image in fullscreen

The first plan, titled “Plane Piece,” commences at JFK airport. Its instructions are to “rent a plane” and “invite everyone,” with the stipulation that they write a will to you before boarding. Before proceeding, I opt to consult with a lawyer.

The lawyer, who wishes to remain unidentified, states, “I am not acquainted with any legitimate lawyers who would partake in this type of matter. The majority of them lack a sense of humor. Maybe you can find a licensed lawyer who is able to create documents, but participating in this activity would be unlawful.” Luckily, I come across a bedridden lawyer, who has contracted Covid, and is willing to play along. He drafts a contract which states, “In the event of my passing during a flight departing from JFK airport, I hereby leave all of my possessions to Oobah Butler. However, if I survive the flight, this clause will become null and void.”

I am currently seeking someone to agree to sign this will and potentially transfer all of their possessions to me. While waiting for an Etihad Airways flight, I encounter Fahad and his daughter. He is traveling in business class to Abu Dhabi for business purposes. Given his background as a businessman, he may be accustomed to hearing forceful appeals, so I try my hardest to persuade him.

“Of course,” he chuckles. “Why not?” In the blink of an eye, Fahad has consented to relinquish, in the case of his demise, all possessions within his suitcase: branded clothing, laptop, and fancy footwear. It could potentially be a prosperous, albeit somber, day. We seal our agreement with a handshake and, prior to departing the airport, I take note of his measurements and flight details.

Conversation Piece

‘Every word is gibberish’ … Butler remembers Eabi.View image in fullscreen

This one is a bit longer. “Talk about the death of an imaginary person,” it begins. “If somebody is interested, bring out a black framed photograph of the deceased and show. If friends invite you, excuse yourself by explaining about the death of the person.”

I ponder this situation while strolling through Tompkins Square park under the winter sunlight, concerned that my actions may not be considered kind. I just came from the art store, where I purchased a black frame. Earlier, I input the following prompt into an AI image creator: “Display a funeral program for a compassionate individual who passed away prematurely.” The output is an image with text, but all of the words are nonsensical except for one that could potentially be a name: Eabi.

“May I have a seat next to you?” I inquire, approaching a man sitting on a bench with an acoustic guitar. He looks up at me and responds, “Yes, of course.” He introduces himself as Jacob. I sit down, taking my time to build up the bravery to break the silence. “I wanted to share that I recently lost a close friend,” I reveal, taking out a framed photo. Jacob expresses sympathy and gazes at the photo. “My dear friend Eabi.”

“I apologize,” he states, and I acknowledge with a nod, remaining quiet. “He appears very young. May I inquire about the cause of his passing?” I take a breath. I had not anticipated this question. “I would prefer not to discuss it,” I respond, taking a moment to collect my thoughts. “It was an illness. A serious illness.” Jacob’s focus is fixated on the photo frame, and his thoughts seem to be churning. Is he recognizing the ambiguous writing? Is he going to question me about it?

“I apologize for your loss,” Jacob expressed sympathetically before nodding once more. Our conversation concludes, prompting me to depart while expressing good wishes. Beads of sweat drip down my face. I make my way back to my apartment.

Fog Piece II

‘There’s not a whole lot to this one’ … Ono’s puppet makes an orange shiny.

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I have had enough interaction, it is time to focus on introspection. Fog Piece II seems fitting: “Polish an orange.” I take hold of an orange and begin to vigorously polish it. Since there is not much to this task, I decide to contemplate on my actions for today. It feels as though I am being controlled like a puppet on strings. As Ono wrote her instructions, she must have had certain expectations of what people would do, and where they would draw the line. I realize that I have been playing right into her hands. It is time to go beyond and do something unexpected, to free myself from the control of this avant-garde puppet master.

Smoke Piece

The message advises to inhale all substances, even one’s pubic hair. I go outside onto my fire escape, equipped with an apple bong created with help from WikiHow. I fill it with bits of recently cut pubic hair, use a lighter to ignite it, and the smoke instantly irritates my throat. I cough and almost feel like vomiting. The smoke emerges from my mouth – it’s smoke from my own pubic hair! It finally dawns on me the foolishness of this act. The joke is on me.

As I near the end of my Grapefruit journey, I must admit that I have not yet achieved enlightenment. Instead, I feel as though I have taken many steps backward that could each be labeled as “The moment everything fell apart.” With little hope left, I leave my apartment, getting ready for my final reminder.

The artwork that symbolizes an act of greeting (A cowards’ depiction of friendship).

‘I found what I didn’t know I was looking for’ … Butler shakes one of many hands.View image in fullscreen

I am currently situated at the uppermost part of the staircase in Union Square Park subway station, carrying a canvas. I am fully prepared and open to receiving any instructions, Yoko. One of these directions is to create a hole in the canvas and extend my hand out from behind it. I will then greet and engage in conversation with my hand as a form of welcoming my guests.

As the mass of people ascends the staircase and surpasses me, I penetrate the canvas with my fist, inserting my forearm and extending my hand. Someone grasps it and gives it a shake. Another person follows suit. I lower the canvas and observe a woman capturing the moment on her phone, with a smile on her face. Then, a middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap approaches me. He initiates a conversation.

“Wow, such a impactful image,” he exclaims with excitement. “Art is heavily influenced by foundations and the upper class. Your hand gestures forge connections to fight against corrupt art. Such a powerful image, truly powerful.” He strolls away.

Lowering the canvas, it hits me that I have stumbled upon something I didn’t even know I was searching for – an understanding, a sense of purpose. Afterwards, I remove a page from Grapefruit: a postcard made by Ono that instructs me to draw a circle. However, this time, I choose not to follow the directions. Rather, I jot down the words that the man in the baseball cap said to me.

Next, I bring it to the post office and ship it off to an unspecified destination.

  • The exhibition “Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind” is currently being showcased at Tate Modern in London until September 1st.

Source: theguardian.com

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