This is my third post that involves Yoko Ono (see here and here). Which is funny because I’m not really that obsessed or deeply engaged with Yoko’s work. Not nearly as much as—say—Clarice Lispector, who I have only written about here briefly on one occasion. But recently I purchased a copy of Yoko’s book of instructions called Grapefruit. The name was apparently chosen because Yoko considers the grapefruit to be a hybrid fruit, the unusually plump offspring of the orange and the lemon. As a Florida-native (and thus, natural citrus connoisseur) I feel it my duty to announce that this characterization is somewhat fictitious. The grapefruit is actually a cross between the pomelo (a freakishly large citrus fruit I ate regularly while living in southern China) and the sweet orange. Apparently, “the hybrid fruit was in 1750 documented by a Welshman, Rev. Griffith Hughes describing specimens from Barbados…. It was brought to Florida by Count Odette Philippe in 1823 in what is now known as Safety Harbor.” Safety Harbor is pretty much down the street from where I was raised. Yoko’s grapefruit and myself have a lot in common: I’m a hybrid (mixed-race Chinese-Italian) that was brought to Florida, too.
Origin stories aside, the grapefruit is an appropriate metaphor to use when thinking through Yoko’s text. Is it literature or just silly games? Poetry or performance art or avant-garde musical composition? Is the text the art object or just instructions for producing art objects? Perhaps all of those descriptions could be considered true. Grapefruit is a hybrid work, one that was highly influenced by the mores of the Fluxus movement and experimental composers like John Cage. Dick Higgins’s essay “Synesthesia and Intersenses: Intermedia” is a good piece to read when trying to understand the historical moment from which Yoko’s Grapefruit sprung.
I studied Fluxus and experimental composition in college, but honestly—I can barely remember any of it. The theory, at least. The pieces themselves stand out in my mind, like Pauline Oliveros instructional composition, The Sonic Meditations. I remember that since there was so much emphasis on play, we played around a lot. It was a good excuse to get our noses out of the books, to interact with each other and use those experiences for the basis of our theorizing. What we were often working with was a set of bizarre, open-ended instructions. (I made sushi once as part of my performance of John Cage’s Song Books. That’s liberal arts education for ya.)
John Cage was an anarchist. But he didn’t believe in pure freedom, in no rules. He believed in disciplined freedom and the creation of structures which—paradoxically—create the possibility for chance or chaos. 4’33” was essentially a frame, a pre-determined window of time where listeners were asked to turn their attention to this thing called “silence” so that they could discover that it wasn’t silence at all, just the absence of sounds organized by human intention. An open-ended framework such as this produces heightened perception and awareness, allows for unplanned possibilities. In this context, a good experimental work was not a good art object or flawless performance. (John didn’t believe that recordings had any value.) The role of the artist was to create outlines that would produce experiences that were singular, unreplicatable, unique to each performance.
While Yoko was interested in this notion of art as non-object, as the sum of the total experience, her aims were less collective-oriented than those of her Fluxus contemporaries. She used the term “events” instead of “happenings” to distinguish herself from other avant-garde artists. Yoko’s texts emphasized transformation at the individual level, unlike the group-oriented games created by Fluxus artists. The paradoxical nature of Grapefruit was meant to function like a Buddhist koan. She wanted to break apart mental fetters by subverting logic, common sense, and rationality. But Yoko’s text was meant to alter the social through the individual. She was obsessed with this notion of “reality” as nothing more than a shared belief, as the alignment of dreams between two or more people. Yoko’s outlook was whimsical. Like a child she thought, anything is possible if you just believe. Or rather, if two people believe. I actually find it kind of refreshing.
In many ways, at the crux of these procedural-based practices was the idea of the instructional text. I’ll admit that I’m partial to this form, not only because it animates a text by imbuing it with a performative dimension, but also because the reading experience itself generates a unique effect. Since the text consists of directions, the reader is directly implicated while imagining the different scenarios. Distance collapses because what we picture is ourselves—not a set of characters—performing these actions, which range from the everyday (breathe) to the impossible (extend your arm until it goes out of the stratosphere). Reading Grapefruit is oddly gratifying because it satisfies the part of the brain that longs for what is physically impossible (give a ‘moving’ announcement each time you die), mischievously fun (ride a bike around a concert hall; cut up famous paintings and wear them as underwear), and interactive in a magical way (send snow sounds to a person you like). Aside from a couple moments of gross gender essentialism, Grapefruit is actually a deeply compelling work, even if you don’t feel like eating a tunafish sandwich today.