In kind

Amita Kirpalani

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

In 2010, in association with the participatory artwork MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL, the seventy-seven-year-old Yoko Ono wrote this poem:

Mommy, I’m sorry.
How did I know
you were suffering silently?

Your touch, your warm voice and your smile
Will always be with me.

This is a tribute to you and
all mothers of the world
from each of your children.

We love you! 1

We listen for Yoko Ono’s poetic voice, so deeply enmeshed with and indistinguishable from her public image. We might find her text works catching us, netting our experience and appealing to our – perhaps clandestine – poetic selves.

Ono’s poetic voice gathers in her song lyrics, her instruction and performance works, and in her conceptual art projects where words and actions coalesce. Of one of the instruction works specific to Grapefruit, an artist book written by Ono and published in 1964, she insisted:

This is not a piece of poetry. Poetry is nouns or adjectives. This is verbs. And you have to do them. These are all instructions and when you just do it, then you start to understand it.3

This too is the logic at play in the participatory project MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL, on display as part of the Triennial. The artwork offers both a stage and ‘writing desk’ for visitors to write and/or draw their reaction to the bold poetic statement that frames the wall of the gallery: ‘My mommy is beautiful’. These ‘responses’ to Ono’s call can then be added to the gallery wall. Yet the work is not simply a participation – with MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL the viewer submits to the Yoko Ono poetic voice. The gallery visitor is coerced – by the compulsion to read the statement, its universal sentiment and the stage for public mark-marking – into engaging with the artwork and its call to collective, slightly performative action.

The Yoko Ono poetic voice is always performing, though often silently. The declaratively all-caps, lyric-as-lyricpoem text work I LOVE YOU EARTH, 2021, takes the form of public billboards and banners across cities and public spaces, including, for the Triennial, on the facade of the National Gallery of Victoria. I LOVE YOU EARTH is also the title of a song on Ono’s 1985 album Starspace.

We are already open to a particular state primed for noticing, reading and listening when nearing and entering the ‘art-space’ – a term that refers not simply to rooms and areas for housing artworks, but also to spaces where we might be culturally ‘mugged by a sense of belonging’.4 I LOVE YOU EARTH invites a double-take at a place/space usually tied to advertising, the rewritten billboards sitting uneasily – and maybe generatively – against our collective resistance to poetry. The art-space is similar to the poemspace, where the artist creates and points to meaning through and beyond the reader, who is encouraged to reach for speculation, understanding and reflection in the spaces, pauses and ellipses of the text.

In The Hatred of Poetry – a book that is in fact an incredible defence of the contemporary form in terms of its historical roots – the poet Ben Lerner suggests:

Most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility that cannot be realized by poems. The poet, by his very claim to be a maker of powers, is therefore both an embarrassment and an accusation.5

The ‘I’ and ‘My’ of Ono’s works I LOVE YOU EARTH and MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL offer the lyric poem’s brevity, musicality and subjectivity, while at the same time extending the personal particular to the universal first-person perspective. To read Ono’s work is to be included, accessed and constituted in the ‘textual commons’.6 Even against our will.

These works are twin visions. Ono’s words feel elegiac, and perhaps this is an affective magic trick: through language, at the end of the world, towards the end of a life. These instances of Ono’s public and participatory works are her final say, simultaneously silent and spoken.



This artwork exists as a temporal, gallery-based participatory installation and also an ongoing online project. See MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL, <https://mymommyisbeautiful.com/>, accessed 9 March 2023.


Emily Dickinson, ‘I dwell in Possibility – (466)’, in Ralph W. Franklin (ed.), The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1999, p. 215.


Yoko Ono, Twitter, <https://twitter.com/yokoono/status/1050735738491408385?lang=zh-Hant>, accessed 3 July 2023.


Claire Dederer, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Knopf, New York, 2023.


Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, p. 13


Lerner. The author discussing Walt Whitman: ‘Whitman offers an open space where American readers of the future can forge and renew their sense of possibility and interconnectedness’, p. 49.