The many reasons why it’s time to revisit the conceptual art book which inspired John Lennon to pen ‘Imagine’
Since the introduction of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” in 1917, which – despite being labelled by the artist himself as a readymade – is arguably one of the first examples of conceptual art, the movement has long been misunderstood or denounced entirely. As a practice based on ideas rather than materiality, aesthetics, or technicality, it’s understandably the Marmite of the art world. Writing in The Art Newspaper in 2009, Ben Davis levelled, “Conceptual art is no different from ‘traditional’ art: There is plenty of interesting painting and sculpture today; there is also plenty of boring, derivative painting and sculpture.” Artists whose conceptualism followed in Duchamp’s footsteps are also some of the most boundary-pushing artists in history, from John Baldessari to Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Yayoi Kusama. However, it’s Yoko Ono – whose late husband John Lennon once described as “the world's most famous unknown artist” – who is one of its most important, and pioneering, associates.
Born in Tokyo in 1933, during the frightening years of World War II, Ono took refuge in art as a child and has cited starvation as the spark for her earliest artistic contribution. Speaking to the Guardian in 2013, she described how, after being evacuated in the aftermath of the heavy bombing of Tokyo during World War II, Ono’s brother was “really unhappy and depressed and really hungry because we did not have very much food.” Her solution was to turn to their imaginations. “I said, ‘OK, let's make a menu together. What kind of dinner would you like?’ And, he said, ‘Ice cream.’ So, I said, ‘Good, let's imagine our ice cream dinner.’ And, we did, and he started to look happy. So, I realised even then that just through imagining, we can be happy. So we had our conceptual dinner and this is maybe my first piece of art.”
In 1953, a 20-year-old Ono moved to New York City. Having withdrawn from her studies at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University, she applied for New York’s Sarah Lawrence and soon found herself entwined with New York City’s burgeoning art scene. On a trip to London in 1966, Ono met John Lennon when he attended her exhibition opening at the Indica Gallery. The pair married in 1969 and by the time The Beatles had broken up in the mid-70s, any of Ono’s artistic contributions had been overshadowed by her new role as the woman who broke up The Beatles. Although recognised as an artist in the mainstream press thanks to the pair’s 1969 Vietnam War protest, Bed-Ins for Peace, which was performed in both Amsterdam and Montreal, Ono had in fact been independently creating groundbreaking art for well over a decade.
While Ono never claimed loyalty to a particular movement, she has long been associated with fluxus and conceptual art – the former which embraced change (‘flux’) as an important part of life and ultimately laid the groundwork for the latter. Existing at the axis of these is her 1964 book, Grapefruit – described as a “one of the monuments of conceptual art of the early 1960s”. Originally released as an edition of 500 copies while Ono was back living in Tokyo with her second husband Anthony Cox, Grapefruit was reprinted in 1970 with an introduction from Lennon himself. Following the instruction from Ono to “Burn this book after you’ve read it”, Lennon wrote: “This is the greatest book I’ve ever burned.”
“Many of the Grapefruit pieces were written for my sake, to save me. They were my therapy in a way” – Yoko Ono
Titled such because Ono considered herself to be a hybrid of Japanese and American, just as the grapefruit is a lemon and orange, Grapefruit is composed of what the fluxus movement dubbed “event scores” – a performance script which consists of actions as opposed to speech. The original 1964 edition featured instructions, poems, and drawings categorised under five headings; Music, Painting, Event, Poetry, Object. It was expanded for its 1970 reprint to include Film, Dance, and Architecture Pieces, as well as a Letters section, which publishes correspondence with gallerists and Ono, and Information, to provide details on when, where, and how Ono herself performed the event scores.
Calling upon the four elements, water, air, sky and earth, the event scores occasionally involve obtaining mundane materials such as a canvas, glass, a telephone, stones, clothing, etc. But what is most intriguing about Ono’s Grapefruit – and perhaps appropriate in our current state of isolation – is its dependence on pure imagination.
In terms of what to expect from the event scores, Ono, naturally, makes the options infinite. There’s the slightly unnerving “Stay in a room for a month. Do not speak. Do not see. Whisper in the end of the month”, the maddening “Keep laughing for a week”, the banal “Take the first word that comes across your mind. Repeat the word until dawn”, and the downright dangerous “Smoke everything you can. Including your pubic hair”. There are ethereal additions that are zen-like and potentially borrowed from Buddhism. “Stand in the evening light until you become transparent or until you fall asleep”, “Light a match and watch til it goes out”, “Put your shadows together until they become one”, and “Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in”. And there are some which will have to be shunned entirely during the quarantine. “Steal all the clocks and watches in the world. Destroy them”, “Carry a bag of peas. Leave a pea wherever you go”, and – the ultimate Covid-19 crisis no-no – “Touch each other”.
While it’s seemingly a book reliant on the reader’s actions, in 1971, Ono stressed to the International Times that it is simply an imagination which is most needed to unlock the potential in its pages. “To understand the pieces, you must do them. Even doing them in your mind is making a step part of the way along the road to better communication with yourself.”
That same year Lennon also gushed to NME about Grapefruit’s ability to remedy a chaotic mind. “I think this is an important book to help people act out their madness. If you do some of the things in it, you stop going crazy in a way. This Yoko book has changed some people’s lives.” In fact, he was so moved by Grapefruit, that he wrote one of the greatest songs in history, “Imagine”. In a 1980 interview with the BBC two days before his death, Lennon had said “Imagine” “should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song, because a lot of it, the lyric and the concept, came from Yoko”, especially from Grapefruit. He continued: “But those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book.” It would be 46 years until Ono received her songwriting credit.
Just like the ice cream dinners she imagined with her brother when they were hungry children, using “the powers of imagination to survive”, Grapefruit provided Ono her escape. She told Vogue in 1971, “At Sarah Lawrence, I was often very desperate and many of the Grapefruit pieces were written for my sake, to save me. They were my therapy in a way.”
But reflecting on Grapefruit to the Guardian almost 40 years after its original publication, Ono revealed that it was also about having a laugh – of not taking everything so seriously. “It’s important to be mischievous,” she said. “I think Grapefruit is very much a mischievous book for now.”
While the experimental mindset of the 1960s that Grapefruit was first released into might be a world away from 2020’s Covid-19 crisis, the space which has opened up for our imaginations to play in this moment of pause feels like a small blessing. We finally have an opportunity to focus on the process over the end product, to give ideas precedent over tangibility, and find new neural pathways which are absurd, banal, or even normal. Whether that’s to “Listen to the earth turning”, “Make music only with overtones” or “Throw a stone into the sky high enough so it will not come back”. When all we have for certain are our imaginations, perhaps there’s no better time to embrace Grapefruit – or, dare I say, conceptual art – than right now.