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Yoko Ono: We’re All Water

“you are water / I’m water / we’re all water in different containers
that’s why it’s so easy to meet / someday we’ll evaporate together
but even after the water’s gone / we’ll probably point out to the containers
and say – that’s me there, that one – / we’re container minders”


The human body, in different times of child and adulthood, contains between sixty and seventy-five-percent water. It surrounds us in the womb, assuages our thirst, bathes, buoys and otherwise nurtures us all throughout our lives. Vessels to contain this element are nearly as old as life itself. Throughout history, people from every corner of the planet have drawn up sweet water to be stored in earthen vessels and cisterns. Water, humanity’s common staff of life, provides the locus for new work by Yoko Ono.

Yoko Ono, We’re All Water, detail from installation at the Gallery 360, Tokyo, October 2005, photo credit: Fang Photo.


One hundred and eighteen ceramic bowls, many of which were filled with water and labeled with the name of a person, lined the walls of the Gallery 360 Tokyo, perched along a continuous white shelf. Each vessel was identical to the next, like the water it contained, distinguished only by association with a person. The visitor who ventured to gaze into one such bowl would have seen his reflection in the aqueous mirror. With this simple, elegant gesture, Ono reveals the one in the many and the many in the one. While the Christian baptism and Jewish mikvah use water to express a spiritual cleansing or rebirth, Ono’s ritual reinforces the importance of clarity, cognition and shared experience. As a limpid, pure substance that reflects light and sustains all life on this planet, water serves as a vehicle toward both self-awareness and empathy.

Yoko Ono, We’re All Water, detail from installation at the Gallery 360, Tokyo, October 2005, photo credit: Fang Photo.

Summer Tea Bowl

One of the most intriguing aspects of this work is its allusion to the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Refined by Sen Rikyu in the 16th century, the tea ceremony expresses by means of gardening, architecture, flower arranging, utensils and gestures, a heightened awareness of nature and our relationship to the natural world. Central to the tea ceremony is the “wabi” aesthetic, which favors simplicity and imperfection like the depression in a stone that collects water or the asymmetry of a tree that is sculpted by the wind. During this ceremony, a Tea Master prepares green tea in a raku ceramic bowl. In the winter, this bowls takes the form of a high cylinder, with heavy walls to retain heat for the tea. Summertime calls for a different form, which is more like a Western soup bowl. It’s shallow form and thin clay walls allow the tea to cool more rapidly. This latter bowl, which would be familiar to a Japanese audience, was chosen by Ono to represent the vessel that is every man and woman. The tea ceremony is also about a shared experience between the Tea Master and the guest who each imbibe tea from the same bowl. Aesthetics, graciousness, respect and appreciation of Nature and her life force are all embodied in this Japanese tradition.

Yoko Ono, We’re All Water, detail from installation at the Gallery 360, Tokyo, October 2005, photo credit: Fang Photo.

Water Ritual

A round white table and chair sit within the gallery. On it rests a clear glass teapot filled with water, ceramic vessels, note cards and a pen. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to collaborate with Ono by writing a name on a note card and filling a vessel with water. Each new water offering affirms commonalities between people and broadens the scope of Ono’s project. Like Rikyu’s tea ceremony, “We’re All Water” is a ritual of offering and receiving, which fosters contemplation of our common bond to the natural world and the people around us.

© 2006 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved.

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