Why must I smoke my pubic hair? My wild day following Yoko Ono’s avant-garde orders

<span>‘I feel about to retch’ … Oobah Butler smokes his pubic hair, in accordance with the instructions in Ono’s book Grapefruit.</span><span>Photograph: Maria Spann/The Guardian</span>
‘I feel about to retch’ … Oobah Butler smokes his pubic hair, in accordance with the instructions in Ono’s book Grapefruit.Photograph: Maria Spann/The Guardian

We crave instruction. We always have, however mundane or obvious. “If it is not right,” wrote Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, “do not do it.” He is still revered to this day. More recently, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life begins with this advice: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” It has sold more than 10m copies.

No matter how comically banal the instruction, it seems people will give it credence if they believe it will lead to enlightenment and advancement. This was recognised by avant garde artist Yoko Ono in her 1964 book Grapefruit. It contains 200 sets of instructions, composed between 1953 and 1964. They are, in her words, incomplete works of art. The aim is to inspire readers to “finish” them – by complying, or by somehow responding to them in their mind. There’s a whole wall full of her instructions at the recently opened Ono exhibition at London’s Tate Modern.

Their language is disarmingly straightforward. Yet what reads like the instructions off the side of a ready meal often contain complex and even nonsensical demands. A work called Painting to Exist Only When It’s Copied or Photographed bids you: “Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.” The non-sequiturs and surreal imagery, meanwhile, can be laugh-out-loud funny. Back Piece I instructs: “Put the light out. Stand behind a person for four hours.” Smell Piece suggests: “Use a name card without a name. Put an address and a smell instead.”

I worry that I’m not quite understanding it all, but help is at hand. In 1971, Ono gave this clue: “To understand the pieces, you must do them. Even doing them in your mind is making a step part of the way along the road to better communication with yourself.” So, 60 years after Grapefruit’s publication, I decide to do exactly that – and in New York, too, where it was written.

Plane Piece

My first, called Plane Piece, begins at JFK airport. “Hire a plane,” it demands. “Invite everybody. Ask them to write a will to you before boarding.” I decide to first seek legal advice.

“I don’t know any real lawyers who would do this,” says the lawyer, preferring to remain anonymous. “Most of them don’t have a sense of humour. Perhaps you can find a barred lawyer who can make documents – but doing this is illegal.”Fortunately, I find just such a lawyer, bedbound with Covid and willing to humour me. He writes a contract that essentially declares: “Should I die while flying from JFK airport, I bequeath all my property to Oobah Butler. Should I survive this flight, this bequest shall be null and void.”

Now I just need to persuade somebody to sign this will and potentially hand all their belongings over to me. Standing in line for an Etihad Airways flight, I meet Fahad, who is accompanied by his daughter. He’s flying business class to Abu Dhabi for work. As a businessman, he’s probably used to desperate pitches, so I give him my best.

“Sure,” he laughs. “Why not?” Before I know it, Fahad has agreed to sign away, in the event of his death, everything that is inside his suitcase: designer clothes, laptop, smart shoes. Today could be a successful – if tragic – day. We shake on our deal and, before I leave the airport, I calculate his sizes and make a note of his flight number.

Conversation Piece

This one is a bit longer. “Talk about the death of an imaginary person,” it begins. “If somebody is interested, bring out a black framed photograph of the deceased and show. If friends invite you, excuse yourself by explaining about the death of the person.”

I mull this one over, walking over to Tompkins Square park in the winter sun, fearing this may not be a nice thing to do. I’ve come straight from the art supplies shop, armed with a new black frame. A few hours earlier, I’d put these words into an AI image generator: “Show the funeral booklet of a sympathetic person who has died too young.” The result is a picture with accompanying words, but every one of them is gibberish – apart from something that could just about be a name: Eabi.

“Can I take a seat next to you?” I say to a man on a bench holding an acoustic guitar. He stares up at me. “Yeah sure.” He shifts over slightly and tells me his name is Jacob. I sit and, slowly and silently, try to generate enough courage to interrupt the silence. “You know,” I say, “I lost a friend recently.” I produce the frame. Jacob makes a sympathetic noise and stares. “My friend Eabi.”

“I’m sorry,” he says and I nod, staying silent. “He looks so young. Do you mind me asking what he passed away from?” I swallow. I hadn’t planned for this. “I do mind, actually,” I say, then pause. “A disease. A bad disease.” Jacob stares at the frame, and the cogs in his mind begin to turn. He’s noticing the indecipherable text, isn’t he? He’s going to call me out!

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” says Jacob and gives another wholesome nod. The exchange ends, and I decide to go, wishing him well. I’m pouring with sweat. I head back to my flat.

Fog Piece II

Enough interaction, I think. It’s time to look within. Fog Piece II seems perfect: “Polish an orange.” I pick up a piece of fruit and start furiously polishing. There’s not a whole lot to it, so I decide to reflect on what I’m doing today. I feel like a marionette having its strings tugged. When writing her instructions, Ono presumably had an expectation of what people will do – and where they’ll draw the line. I’ve been playing right into her hands, I realise. It’s time to get a step ahead, to do something she wouldn’t expect, to liberate myself from this avant garde puppet master.

Smoke Piece

“Smoke everything you can,” this one instructs. “Including your pubic hair.” I step out on to my fire escape, holding an apple bong fashioned via WikiHow. I load it with pinches of freshly snipped pubic hair, take out a lighter and set the mound ablaze. Immediately, the smoke hits the back of my throat and burns. I cough and feel about to retch. Smoke billows out of my mouth – smoke from my pubic hair! The reality of what I’ve actually just done hits me hard. The joke is on me, isn’t it?

I’m nearing the end of my Grapefruit journey, but I’m not feeling any closer to enlightenment. In fact, I feel as if I’ve taken rather a lot of dangerously regressive steps, each one of which could be called: “The moment it all went wrong.” With expectations low, I leave the flat, preparing for my final prompt.

Painting to Shake Hands (Painting for Cowards)

I’m standing at the top of the stairs at the Union Square Park subway station, holding a canvas. I’m ready. Fire away, Yoko. “Drill a hole in a canvas,” this one commands, “and put your hand out from behind. Receive your guests in that position. Shake hands and converse with hands.”

As the crowds climb up the stairs and pass me, I punch a hole in the canvas, push my forearm through and extend my hand. Somebody grabs it! And shakes it! Then another! I lower the canvas and notice a woman is documenting all this with her phone, smiling. Then I’m approached by a middle-aged man in a baseball cap. He wants to talk.

“What a powerful image,” he says, excitedly. “Art is controlled by foundations and the bourgeoisie. Your handshakes create alliances against corrupt art. Powerful image, powerful image.” He walks off.

Related: ‘She gave me Lennon’s shirt to wear on stage’: Moby, Peaches and more on their encounters with Yoko Ono

Dropping the canvas, I realise I finally have what I hadn’t known I was looking for: an interpretation, a meaning of sorts. Later, I pull a page from Grapefruit: a postcard created by Ono on which she instructs me simply to draw a circle. But this time, I decide not to obey. Instead, I write down the words spoken to me by the man in the baseball cap.

Then I take it to the post office and send it to nowhere.