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Yoko Ono’s ‘Morning Peace’ Turns Dawn into a Work of Art

The view from the Getty Center before sunrise (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
The view from the Getty Center before sunrise (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — It was still dark when I set off on the uncrowded freeway, the few other people on the road either partiers coming home late or workers on their way to the early shift. You’ve got to have a good reason for being up that early and mine was attending Yoko Ono’s sunrise “Morning Peace” at the Getty Center. After driving drowsily for half an hour, I pulled off Sepulveda onto Getty Center Drive. Instead of parking and boarding the tram, I was instructed to drive to the top of the hill, a rare occurrence for non-staff. At that early hour, the grounds of the Getty Center had an eerie, almost post-apocalyptic feel, virtually empty and surrounded by fog. The normally harsh, gleaming travertine took on a mellow, purple/grey cast.

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I was guided to the event site where other attendees were milling about, chatting, signing a guestbook, or drinking much-needed coffee. The mood was a mixture of sleepy-eyed delirium and anticipation, as we awaited sunrise. Although it was mostly an invite-only affair, it lacked an air of exclusivity, perhaps because of the varied backgrounds of attendees, perhaps because we were all united in our struggle to stay awake. Those gathered included artists, curators, writers, and art historians, as well as members of the general public who had received tickets from the ForYourArt arts nonprofit organization.

As the fog blanketing the hill gradually lightened in hue, people continued to trickle in, including artist Barbara T. Smith, Hammer Museum Curator Jamillah James, CalArts Dean Thomas Lawson. The coffee ran out and was refilled. Glass jars of oatmeal pudding courtesy of Sqirl — cheekily called Yo(l)ko Morning — arrived and were quickly gobbled up. The fog was so thick we couldn’t see the sunrise when it came at 5:47am PT. There was no gong, no fanfare. Many of us were oblivious, engrossed in conversations with old friends or new acquaintances, awkwardly touching each other as per Ono’s instructions, or contemplating the obscured landscape. I looked at my companions, asking them “Was that it? Did we miss it?” That was it, but we hadn’t missed it at all.

(via instagram)
(via instagram)

Morning Peace 2015 on Sunday, June 21 was held 50 years after Ono’s 1965 performance of Morning Piece held on the roof of her apartment building in New York City (she had performed the piece a year earlier in Japan). At that performance she sold shards of glass with small pieces of paper affixed to them, onto which were written future dates with specific periods of the morning: “until sunrise,” “after sunrise,” or “all morning.” (This year’s attendees were all given lanyards with a future date and time of day on them.) She told buyers, “You can see the sky through it,” and indeed the power of the work does not reside in these shards as static objects, but in their role as vehicles through which to experience something as simple and universal as the dawn.

In conjunction with Ono’s current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), One Woman Show: 1960–71, she restaged the piece in New York and invited seven other venues around the world to put on their own versions, thereby allowing the sunrise celebration to span 24 hours.

“She changed the title from Morning Piece to Morning ‘Peace’ and produced a new original drawing and instructions, making the entire happening a new work of art in effect,” said Sarah Cooper, public programs specialist at the Getty, who was responsible for producing the Getty’s event. “While occurring on the 50th anniversary of the New York performance in 1965 and inspired by ‘Morning Piece,’ Yoko Ono’s new instructions, to be openly interpreted, made it something new, rather than a recreation … (MoMA) welcomed each partnering institution to define their own events on their own terms in ways that worked best for them. Our agreement with them was essentially that we’d hold an event at sunrise on the summer solstice of June 21st and the rest was up to us!”

MoMA put on a festive party featuring 500 guests and performances by Blood Orange and Ono herself. Partly due to space and staff limitations, the Getty’s event was low-key by comparison, with no performances and only 67 attendees, which was still double what they had planned for. Despite the intimacy of the event, it was widely shared on social media, with the Getty’s four tweets receiving 135,000 impressions on that morning alone.

Yoko Ono, "Self Portrait"  (1965)
Yoko Ono, “Self Portrait” (1965)

After the anti-climactic sunrise, guests were invited to the Getty Research Institute where John Tain, a curator at the Getty, had assembled some of Ono’s works from the Getty’s collection. Lacking the full-scale retrospective taking place in New York, this was a great opportunity to put “Morning Peace” into the context of Ono’s oeuvre. Works such as a glass key to unlock the sky and a Fluxus box containing a mirror to create a self-portrait share a whimsical and humorous quality.

Work by Yoko Ono in the collection of the GRI.
Work by Yoko Ono in the collection of the GRI (glass key at bottom right).

There was also a catalogue to her 1971 “Museum of Modern (F)art” exhibition featuring a cover image of Ono holding up an sign with an “F” on it under the MOMA’s awning, a comic jab at the hubris of the self-important art world. Through simple means, Ono’s works transform the world around us ever so slightly.

Far different from the gala events that so often characterize the contemporary art world, “Morning Peace” was expansive and meditative, linking participants at partner institutions around the world as well as inviting others to host their own events simply by following Ono’s instructions:

On the solstice at sunrise
celebrate mornings of
past, future, and now.
Listen to the world.
Touch each other
when the sun comes up.

“We found the experience disorienting and lovely,” Claire Evans, one half of the group YACHT and a founder of 5 Every Day, told me via email. “We always appreciate being taken out of our element by an event which compels the breaking of routine — for us, that was the rewarding thing. Taking the time to actually sit with the sunrise, whether or not it was visible that day. It’s a reminder that the world doesn’t stop being the world when we’re not looking.”

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Morning Peace 2015 was held on Sunday, June 21, 2015 at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, Los Angeles)

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