Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Written by Adt.
Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo in 1933 to a wealthy Japanese family. They lived between Japan and the US. During the second world war, Yoko was in Japan. She lived through the heavy bombings on Tokyo. The war was devastating for Tokyo, and her family had to sell their belongings and beg for food. After the war, her family moved to New York, however, she remained in Tokyo. Eventually, she returned to the US to go to the Sarah Lawrence College which was, at that time, a prestigious college for women. While here, she started to befriend artists and creatives involved in the New York art scene.
She initially skyrocketed to fame and became a part of pop-culture as ‘The Woman Who Broke Up The Beatles’. Most people don’t know that Yoko married four times and her fourth husband, the famous John Lennon, was assassinated in 1980. She has two children. When she met John, she was already an established artist, and continues to be influential even today, a contemporary artist whose works lie on the boundary between fine-art and pop-culture. While she was married to John, they formed the ‘Plastic Ono Band’ together, recording and releasing many albums. Her music was avant-garde and often misunderstood, and continues to be today. She frequently collaborates with musicians and continues to make music.
In 1964, Yoko first performed Cut Piece, a performance that was repeated several times by Yoko and other performers. In the performance, she kneels on the floor with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience is invited to cut off a part of her clothes to take with them. This performance is a perfect example of Yoko’s generosity with her work – her work cannot be complete without the audience. By inviting them to take a piece of her clothing, she invites them to be a part of the work and confronts them with her own vulnerability. Many of Yoko’s further work would also reflect the same ideas with the participation of an active audience.
Yoko is normally associated with the Fluxus movement which had a heavy influence on her work. Fluxus came from the word ‘flux’, which means many things. It can mean something that is in constant flux and hence, keeps changing. It can refer to substances that make chemical reactions faster. The Fluxus Movement was an anti-art movement that was rooted in the ideas of Marcel Duchamp and other conceptual artists. Fluxus artists thought that anything could be art and anyone could be an artist. Fluxus was against institutional and elitist art and it tried to make art more accessible to the masses. It was against the way art functioned in the market and tried to bring art back to life. Fluxus was founded by George Macuinas, a Lithuanian-American artist, and including artists like John Cage and Allan Kaprow, Fluxus developed in the 60s and it had a presence in Europe and America. Allan Kaprow famously said that even the act of brushing one’s teeth every morning can be an artistic act if one is aware of it. Yoko was close with John Cage, an experimental sound artist, who is said to be her mentor. John Cage explored sound as music and music as sound. His most beautiful piece is one entitled ‘4:33’, where he sits in front of a piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. This was the sensibility of Fluxus and in turn, of Yoko’s work.
The same year as ‘Cut Piece’, Yoko published a book of drawings and instructions called ‘Grapefruit’. In the book, Yoko gives the viewer instructions such as “listen to the sound of the earth turning.” These ethereal instructions can sometimes be followed and sometimes not, but they conjure up sensations in your imagination when you read them. With these, Yoko gently asks the viewer to complete her piece in another way – either by performing it or by imagining it. Yoko would enact some of her instructions as performances. She used the written word as it was meant to be used – a way to enter the minds of her readers and paint a picture. Again, the piece does not work without someone to imagine her world and complete it.
In 1981, Yoko began her longest on-going project – Wish Tree. Inspired by wish trees in Japanese temples, she invites viewers to write down their wishes and tie them to a tree. She believes that the wishes have more power when they come together. This piece has been repeated many times since 1981 in New York, London and Japan, among other places.
Her work sometimes feels more like it is part of her spiritual or religious practice, rather than an artistic practice. It marries beautifully the spirituality of the east and the west, asking questions and leaving the viewer to find their own answer. You can tell through her work that Yoko Ono can turn making breakfast into an artistic practice if she decides to. Yoko lives her life and her practice lives with it, it is art in motion, moving in time, growing, ageing and living in time.
John Lennon met Yoko Ono at one of her exhibitions. In the gallery, there was a hole in the ceiling and a ladder held up to it. When he climbed up the ladder, he looked through the hole to see the word YES printed on the ceiling. While married to John Lennon, Yoko successfully used her celebrity to bring to the mainstream news ideas that are not normally seen here. For their honeymoon, knowing that it would create a media storm, John and Yoko used the opportunity to perform the Bed Peace. They sat in their hotel room with posters hanging around them. These ‘bed-ins’ were inspired by political sit-ins. For two weeks, John and Yoko sat in bed in protest against wars and in support of the young people then who were also bringing up similar issues. In 2011, Yoko made a documentary about the Bed Peace, which is freely available on Youtube.
John and Yoko frequently made music together, much to the dismay of Beatles fans, who were eager to villainize her. She made unusual sounds in her music, sounds that were referred to as ‘shrieks’ or ‘screams’ by listeners. Yoko considered her music to be expressive, which it definitely is. She once said that if she was sad, she would not say that she was sad, she would scream it out. After John was assassinated, she released an album called Seasons of Glass dedicated to him. The cover image on this album is a photograph of John’s glasses with blood still on them. Yoko continues to support and work for various charitable causes through organizations she started in John Lennon’s name.
Yoko Ono is an active artist, political activist and philanthropist today. She is currently 87 years old and continues to work. Last year she showed her piece Refugee Boat, which consists of a white room with a white boat in it. Here, viewers are invited to write and draw all over it, completing her work. Participation is important, symbolizing solidarity with refugees and immigrants and highlighting the need to come together.
Yoko’s works are magical and peaceful. I always imagine her as an old wise monk with all the answers. Her work represents a feminine sensibility that is subtle and so often ignored as a cheesy byproduct of pop-culture – the message of love and its universality.
In February 1972, Yoko Ono called for the feminization of society. Among other things, she called for the active participation of men in childcare.
“I am proposing the feminization of society; the use of feminine nature as a positive force to change the world. We can change ourselves with feminine intelligence and awareness, into a basically organic, noncompetitive society that is based on love, rather than reasoning. The result will be a society of balance, peace and contentment. We can evolve rather than revolt, come together, rather than claim independence, and feel rather than think. These are characteristics that are considered feminine; characteristics that men despise in women. But have men really done so well by avoiding the development of these characteristics within themselves?”
Her essay seems most relevant today – a time of global domestication, a time where a lot of us are indoors, domesticated and in the traditional sense of the word, exploring our ‘feminine’ nature, the part of ourselves that exists at home. At a time when many women have been pushed back into their traditional roles, it’s time to reclaim these roles and assert the importance of the participation of everybody, regardless of gender, in domestic life.
“What we need now is the patience and natural wisdom of a pregnant woman, an awareness and acceptance of our natural resources, or what is left of them. Let’s not kid ourselves and think of ourselves as an old and matured civilization. We are by no means mature. But that is alright. That is beautiful. Let’s slow down and try to grow as organically, and healthfully as a newborn infant. The aim of the female revolution will have to be a total one, eventually making it a revolution for the whole world. As mothers of the tribe, we share the guilt of the male chauvinists, and our faces are their mirrors as well. It’s good to start now, since it’s never too late to start from the start.”
Yoko Ono. (2020, July 01). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoko_Ono
Ono, Y., & Lennon, J. (2000). Grapefruit: A book of instruction and drawings. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Yoko Ono Cut Piece. (2010, March 26). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zfe2qhI5Ix4&list=PLE134B742FC77491E
The Misfits – 30 years of Fluxus (1993). (2020, April 7). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3S7JFwtIzQ
Yoko Ono. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://frieze.com/article/yoko-ono-1
YOKO ONO: REMEMBERING THE FUTURE. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.everson.org/explore/past-exhibitions/yoko-ono-remembering-future
We’re All Water. (2010, February 14). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfZvHuh7wKM
Ono, Y. (2018, January 31). The Feminization Of Society & O Sisters O Sisters. Retrieved from http://imaginepeace.com/archives/23270
Ono, Y. (2012, June 22). BED PEACE Starring John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRjjiOV003Q
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