Yoko Ono (born 1933, Tokyo) is a pioneering artist, film-maker, poet, musician, writer, performance artist and peace activist. Her prolific career has spanned five decades – she has embraced a wide range of media, defying traditional boundaries and creating new forms of artistic expression.

The Serpentine is delighted to present the work of artist Yoko Ono. The exhibition TO THE LIGHT features work from throughout her prolific career, including #smilesfilm, a large-scale participatory project that encourages us all to contribute to her global anthology of portraits.


TO THE LIGHT, a major exhibition of the work of celebrated artist Yoko Ono, reflects upon the enormous impact that she has made on contemporary art, exploring her influential role across a wide-range of media. This exhibition, her first in a London public institution for more than a decade, includes new and existing installations, films and performances, as well as archive material relating to several key early works. Ono’s continuing interest in the relationship between the roles of artist and viewer is evident throughout the exhibition.

Yoko Ono: AMAZE

A number of works in TO THE LIGHT position both artist and viewer as agents of change. For example, a series of instruction pieces written especially for the Serpentine Gallery can be completed physically or mentally by the viewer, while the large-scale installation AMAZE transforms the viewer from the observer to the observed.

Yoko Ono: #smilesfilm 2010


Ono also presents #smilesfilm, a worldwide participatory project to be exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery and inviting participation online. Conceived as a way of connecting people across the world, the project invites people to upload  images of their smiles to Instagram & Twitter (and other photo-sharing sites), accompanied by the hashtag #smilesfilm – from which all the smiles will be collected to create “a global string of smiles covering the planet and shooting to the Universe”.

For more information, see http://smilesfilm.com and look out for the accompanying iPhone App in June.



For the duration of the TO THE LIGHT show, there will be specialised #smilesfilm photo booths at the Serpentine Gallery to collect smiles and add them directly to #smilesfilm, which will be displayed on a large screen at the gallery.

About Yoko Ono

Working as an artist, film-maker, poet, musician, writer, performance artist and peace activist for over five decades, Yoko Ono has influenced generations of artists and received numerous prestigious awards. In her prolific career, she has embraced a wide range of media, defying traditional boundaries and creating new forms of artistic expression. Born in 1933 in Tokyo, she is a pioneer of conceptual art and her work has been presented internationally in major exhibitions and performances.

TO THE LIGHT at the Serpentine Gallery is part of the London 2012 Festival, a spectacular 12-week UK-wide celebration featuring internationally-renowned artists from Midsummer’s Day on 21 June to the final day of the Paralympic Games on 9 September 2012. For more information on the Festival programme visit www.london2012.com/festival.


19 Jun – 9 Sep 2012, 10am – 6pm
Kensington Gardens
London W2 3XA
T 020 7402 6075
F 020 7402 4103
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Ticket Information available April 2012

More info: London 2012 Festival & Serpentine Gallery

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Press coverage

Yoko Ono talks to Simon Schama, Financial Times, Saturday 2 June 2012

When Sam Taylor-Wood met Yoko Ono, The Observer, Sunday 17 June 2012

Yoko Ono: To The Light, Serpentine Gallery, review, The Telegraph, Monday 18 June 2012

Yoko Ono: to the light, Serpentine Gallery – review, London Evening Standard, Monday 18 June 2012

Yoko Ono at London’s Serpentine: ‘I was helped by the angels’ – in pictures, The Guardian, Monday 18 June 2012

Yakking with Yoko, BBC News, Tuesday 19 June 2012

Yoko Ono ‘To The Light’ Exhibition Review, Huffington Post, Tuesday 19 June 2012

Yoko Ono gets some overdue recognition with To the Light, The Week, Wednesday 20 June 2012

Yoko Ono: To The Light, Serpentine Gallery, The Arts Desk, Thursday 21 June 2012

Mark Wallinger: Site; Yoko Ono: To the Light – review, The Observer, Sunday 24 June 2012


“I am no longer a rebel”

Yoko Ono on The Today Show, BBC Radio 4, 19th June 2012

Yoko Ono has returned to London with an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery.

Speaking to the BBC’s Arts editor Will Gompertz, she said she never chose to be an artist but art “was like a survival message” for her.
On her marriage with John Lennon, she said they had a “certain arrogance” and thought the public would accept them. “It was a surprise that people didn’t like us,” she admits.

“I was always a rebel, knocking down the door,” she says about her image and reputation, “and now I’m not”.

“Now the door is suddenly open I don’t know what to do with it,” she says.

Yoko Ono at Serpentine Gallery, London with Miranda Sawyer on BBC TV’s The Culture Show

The Serpentine Gallery is hosting the most significant exhibition of Yoko Ono’s work to be seen in London for a decade. Miranda Sawyer met the pioneering conceptual artist.

Yoko’s barking up the right tree

Yoko Ono’s new London show is a spectacular journey from gloom into hope. Our critic is impressed.

by Waldemar Januszczak

Those crazy so-and-sos, the gods of art, have been particularly crazy in their treatment of Yoko Ono. First, they allowed her to emerge as one of the most inventive artists of the 1960s. Then they got her to meet John Lennon, so her story would for ever become entangled with his. Then they pretty much ignored her for the middle decades of her career, while simultaneously blackening her reputation with all sorts of weird and possessive national stuff about breaking up the Beatles. Now, finally, with Ono in her seventies, they are building her up again, organising important international summations of her work and admitting that she has been a tremendous force in art all along. If anyone out there understands this trajectory, please do a very Yoko Ono thing and send me the diagram on a postcard. I would love to understand it too.

While the rest of the world has been recognising Ono’s sense-stirring contribution to the story of progressive art, one important artistic territory has been holding out. It is, of course, Britain, and, particularly, London. Unbelievably, the beautiful Yoko Ono exhibition that has now arrived at the ­Serpentine is the first solo show she has had at a public gallery in the capital. It is not a retrospective, but then neither is it a collection of new things. Instead, it’s a seamlessly fashioned hybrid of the two. Indeed, I don’t think I have ever seen a show in which the old and the new have appeared quite so interchangeable.

Ono has always been a ­master of two colours: black and white. Her art has always had the clarity and sparseness of a crisp piece of text. Outside, on the Serpentine’s lawn, the first work visitors will encounter is a giant chess set consisting only of the white pieces. The board, too, is white. Black is present only in its absence. So this is a game of chess with no way to victory, no winners or losers, no friction, no war. All Yoko is saying is, give peace a chance.

The show ahead is called To the Light, and the journey it traces also goes, in typical Yoko fashion, from down to up, from darkness to brightness, from war to peace, from what we are to what we could be. We begin with a gloomy room in which a set of battered second world war helmets suspended from the ceiling sway ominously in ­memory of their former wearers. Also in the room, three heaps of earth, coldly entitled Country A, Country B, Country C, say something dark and accusatory about modern warfare in her allusive and elusive style. She doesn’t mention mass graves, anonymous victims or war’s murderous secrets. It is your imagination that adds those.

To complete the impact of this poignant opening room, a poster from the John and Yoko days has been stuck to the wall. It’s torn and faded now, so you have to lean in close to read its message. It says “War Is Over! (If You Want It)”. Ono’s past is speaking to Ono’s present. The 1960s are speaking to the 2010s. Vietnam is speaking to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The rest of the show forms a sequence of pristine white environ­ments that could happily be advertising Persil. We begin with pieces evoking her Japanese past, notably Painting to Be Stepped On, originally made in 1961, which consists of a shabby patch of canvas across which you are instructed to walk. The piece was prompted by a terrible episode in Japan’s past when Japanese Christians were forced to step on images of Jesus and Mary. Only recently have the museums of Tokyo begun to exhibit the trampled plaques that survive from those dark days of national apostasy.

A tad more explanation in the caption would have helped with the understanding of Painting to Be Stepped On, but it is not Ono’s style to explain. She’s a thrower of pebbles into ponds, not a history lecturer. The centre of the show, its most exciting space, features a display of ­pioneering films, including ­Bottoms, made in 1967, in which she photographed 365 naked bums — a particularly quotidian count of what we represent as a species. I enjoyed Smile, too, from 1968, in which a charmingly young Lennon allows a slow smile to emerge on his face, then sticks out his tongue at us playfully.

In the same gallery, an installation called Amaze features a Perspex maze through which you are encouraged to wander while the light plays tricks with your boundaries. At the centre, if you make it, is a pool of black water in which is reflected the shimmering ceiling above you. It’s a pretty effect.

The catalogue tells us that when Amaze was first shown, in 1971, there was a flushing lavatory at the centre. I like the sound of that. Ono’s best work is surprisingly gritty. In Fly, a remarkable film from 1970, a fly is followed around a naked female body as it investigates the woman’s crotch and the long hairs ­protruding from her nipples. It’s a piece about decay, but also about feminine reality.

Always on the side of the woman in the sex wars, Ono is always on the side of hope in the war of human consciousness. She’s big on participation, and a lot of the art here has the air of a free gift about it. It gives you pleasure in the way that the goodies handed out at the Ideal Home Exhibition gave you pleasure when you were a kid. Outside the gallery, you are encouraged to write down your wishes and pin them to a wish tree. She has a new app avail­able, too, which encourages you to photograph yourself smiling, then send your smile to a global smile network at http://t.co/LPBKeDSZ. I am grinning crazily somewhere out there, because the Serpentine show also includes an on-site smile-capturing centre.

With its fertility and free gifts, its journey from gloom to hope, its spectacular inventiveness and those occasional outbursts of grittiness, this is a mightily enjoyable and impressive homecoming. The piece of art at which John first encountered Yoko has been pointedly set up in the final gallery. It’s a white ladder with something tiny written above it on the roof. A handy magnifying glass hanging from the ceiling enables you to climb up and read this tiny message. It says “Yes”.

Yoko Ono, at Serpentine Gallery, Seven magazine review

With a new show at the Serpentine that’s playful and thoughtful simultaneously, Yoko Ono succeeds in making us all smile.

by Alastair Smart, The Telegraph

“Don’t let me down,” John sang to Yoko in 1969. And now, like countless occasions in the past, I find a Lennon lyric summing up my own sentiments precisely.

For many, Yoko Ono will always be the “Dragon Lady” who bewitched her way inside Lennon’s head and got him to abandon his wife, his band and musical muse. By denying the world a follow-up Beatles album toAbbey Road, they argue, she was as guilty of cultural crime as the Florentines who painted over Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari.

It’s almost forgotten that she was an artist in her own right and, for my money, a rather pioneering one, in the fields of performance, conceptual and video art. With a major new exhibition at the Serpentine, featuring works from the Sixties through to today, Ono is finally getting a platform to prove her detractors wrong. Come on, Yoko: don’t let me down.

The opening room isn’t encouraging. The first work consists of three mounds of earth, seemingly identical but actually each from a different (unspecified) country at war. The point, it seems, is to stress the artificiality of man-made borders and universal folly of warfare – no matter what bit of land is being fought over.

Nearby, a dozen Second World War helmets are suspended from the ceiling, all filled with jigsaw-puzzle pieces depicting the sky. The implication? That our war-fractured world needs piecing back together.Three Mounds (1999) and Helmets (2001) hark drearily back, then, to John and Yoko’s anti-war campaigning in the late Sixties and early Seventies – which, though worthy in intention, make for unoriginal, proselytising and one-note art. Give peace a chance? Oh, change the record, Yoko.

To be fair, with her next work, she does just that. For decades, Ono has been plastering the world’s billboards with the message “War is Over”, and a small poster from 1969 appears here: old, frayed and discoloured by time. Is this a veiled declaration that, though conflict still rages, her art has moved on?

The next room sees Ono at her best: playful and thoughtful simultaneously. Where do you go from here? invites us to sit in a white chair at a white desk and stare out of the white Serpentine windows into Kensington Gardens. Then, after your mind has transported you to some long-lost, far-distant or imaginary place, you’re invited to write it down on a white pad. (I got no further than my grandfather’s old vineyard in Calabria, but no doubt others will be more adventurous travellers.)

YES Painting, across the room, is the famous installation from Ono’s show at London’s Indica Gallery in 1966, at which she and Lennon first met. A white step-ladder leads up to an ostensibly blank canvas on the ceiling. A magnifying glass hangs down and, as Lennon found to his delight, close inspection with it of the canvas reveals the minutely inscribed word YES.

“I was relieved it didn’t say ‘No’ or F— you’, it was something positive,” he said, stressing Ono’s simple but eternal aim to put smiles on people’s faces (more of which later). Her fondness for all things white makes sense in this context too: Ono deploys the colour to bright, uplifting, ethereal effect rather than in the cool, soulless manner of much contemporary art.

Ono, 79, began her career as part of the frolicsome Fluxus movement in early-Sixties New York, and much of her work has an accordingly light touch. Very often it relies upon the viewer’s participation. For instance, on entering Amaze (1971), a Perspex labyrinth, the observer swiftly transforms into the observed, as we struggle transparently for our bearings.

Likewise, in the show’s centrepiece #smilesfilm, part of Ono’s ongoing bid to capture the smile of every person in the world, we’re asked to grin, smirk or simper at a camera, with the results displayed on loop on a vast screen. Ok, it may sound twee, but on the day I visited – despite the weary cynicism and economic woes of the average Londoner – everyone was getting right into the spirit of things.

Ono’s sprightliness is infectious. In the most conceptual cases, our participation takes the zen form of reading koan-like instructions on the walls and imagining the entire image in our heads (“Build a room with 31 windows. Throw your tears away in a bottle every day from them”).

In certain cases, the interactivity takes a darker turn, such as in 1964’sCut Piece – a Carnegie Hall performance, replayed here on video, in which the audience is invited to take a sharp pair of scissors and cut away at Ono’s clothes. It’s haunted by racist and sexist undercurrents, the passive Ono playing a role akin to sacrificial virgin.

On the whole, though, this is a fine, fun show, which – despite a sparsely Japanese lay-out – is infused with Ono’s irrepressibly childlike curiosity. Witness her infamous film No. 4, a loving close-up of 365 bare bottoms.

Conceived as an antidote to the heavy-duty Sixties films of Bergman, Antonioni and other auteurs, it serves now as a telling portrait of her detractors: they, after all, have been making a–es of themselves for years.


To Sep 9, www.serpentinegallery.org

This review also appears in SEVEN, free with the Sunday Telegraph

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