The most famous thing anyone ever said about Yoko Ono was, inevitably, said by John Lennon, and for years it held true. He called her “the world’s most famous unknown artist, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does”.
As the artist, musician, film-maker and peace activist nears 80, that could be changing. After decades demonised as the witch who destroyed the Beatles she is emerging from the shadow of that complicated personal history.
Since a groundbreaking exhibition in New York in 2001 re-established her reputation, she has come back into focus as a significant artist, winning the accolade of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale. New generations of artists have discovered her as an inspirational figure.
Basement Jaxx, Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her in recent years. Younger visual artists as different as Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster cite her as an influence; the photographer and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood even jokingly calls herself an “obsessed fan”.
This summer the artist – a tiny figure, usually to be seen wearing trademark sunglasses and hat – will be the focus of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
According to Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the gallery, it is her prescience as an artist that makes her an intriguing figure for today. “As her relationship with the Beatles fades into the past her own reputation is crystallising. What is so extraordinary is that her work chimes with the times we live in now. Her activism is immensely relevant for today, in the age of Occupy.”
Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, organised the 2001 exhibition at New York’s Japan Society. She says Ono’s importance is only just being fully appreciated “after 40 years of her being dismissed – either as a Japanese artist, or a woman artist”. She adds: “What makes her so slippery is that she is so wide-ranging. She is a musician and a poet, a peace activist and a performance artist, a maker of objects and a conceptual artist – and married to John Lennon.”
The sheer breadth of her output, says Munroe, has taxed curatorial and critical skills. But, she says, Ono’s originality cannot be underestimated, even though it has often been unrecognised.
“She was the first artist, in 1964, to put language on the wall of the gallery and invite the viewer to complete the work. She was the first artist to cede authorial authority to the viewer in this way, making her work interactive and experimental. That was the radical move of art in the 1960s.”
Ono’s energy remains undimmed and she continues to make new work and harness new technology. Her Twitter followers number 2.3 million. Recent works include her Imagine Peace tower (2007), a column of laser-light on an island near Reykjavik, and My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004), an image of breasts and vagina that was exhibited on posters around the city of Liverpool, causing controversy in some quarters.
She was born in 1933 into a wealthy Japanese family firmly ensconced in the ruling classes; her father was a banker. She began piano tuition at two and was educated at a specialist music school as her family shuttled between New York and Tokyo. War brought unfamiliar deprivations to the aristocratic family. In 1945 she took charge of her siblings, at the age of 12, when they were evacuated to the countryside after the capital’s fire bombing. They struggled to eat. Her father was imprisoned in a Saigon concentration camp.
After the war Ono completed her education, becoming the first woman accepted to read philosophy at Gakushuin University. The family moved to New York, where she studied at Sarah Lawrence College, and, in 1956, she married the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. By this time Ono was discovering a downtown scene of musicians, composers and artists, with John Cage and La Monte Young key figures.
After the collapse of her relationship with Ichiyanagi she married the American producer and art promoter Anthony Cox, and they had a daughter, Kyoko.
By the early 1960s Ono was working on the periphery of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus group, organising performances and happenings in her Chambers Street loft in Tribeca.
A key work was her book Grapefruit, first published in 1964, which has artworks framed as sets of instructions, or “event scores”; as such it is an important early example of conceptual art. (One example, entitled Painting to Exist Only When It’s Copied Or Photographed, runs: “Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.”)
Another significant work of this period was Cut Piece, a performance work in which Ono invited the audience to take scissors and snip away her clothes as she sat, silent and still. The critic Michael Bracewell notes: “It is amazing how well that piece has lasted. When you see film of the piece done originally, she seems so vulnerable as a young woman, especially a young Asian woman. There are extraordinary undertones – submissiveness, the idea of the geisha. Enacted, it becomes incredibly tense.”
Bracewell saw the piece when it was re-done in Paris in 2003. “The piece had automatically updated itself. It had become a piece about celebrity. The place was crammed to the gills, a couple of rows full of gilded young people, and absolutely no security. There she was, this elegant woman in her 70s and anyone could approach her with a bloody great pair of scissors.”
For Munroe, Cut Piece was “absolutely revolutionary. “The idea that the artist’s body in time and space is itself a work of art was totally radical.”
In 1966 Ono held a show at the Indica Gallery, London. John Dunbar was the gallery’s director. “I introduced John and Yoko,” he recalls. “I was a friend of John and Paul, and suggested they come in; I thought John would enjoy it. Yoko had never heard of John. I had to explain that he was a rich person who might buy something … It wasn’t immediately clear that anything was going to happen. She is a strong woman. John had never met anyone like her.”
After two years they got together. But the corollary was that Cox, after a custody battle for Kyoko that Ono won, effectively kidnapped the child, and Ono did not see her at all between the ages of eight and 31.
Ono’s union with Lennon of course represents the pivotal moment in her life. According to Bracewell an immediate effect was her artistic influence on Lennon – which also served to damage her, since she was “regarded as the demon face of the avant-garde and, particularly in Britain, what she did was largely seen as unintelligible”.
Sean, Lennon and Ono’s son, was born in 1975, five years before his father was gunned down on the street outside the Dakota Building in New York . Ono still lives there with her superb collection of art that includes Magrittes and Warhols. And mother and son have collaborated on music projects in recent years.
An often expressed doubt surrounding Ono is that the peace-and-love mantra she expresses through her art and through her activism can look like a relic of a lost time, a statement stuck in the era of the 1960s.
For example, her Wish Tree, which she has instigated in various locations and will appear outside the Serpentine this summer, is a tree on which members of the public are invited to attach labels on which they have scribbled their wishes.
Bracewell, who believes Ono has suffered from “a sexist and racist response to her from people who regarded her as a giggling, inscrutable Japanese woman who had stolen one of our national treasures”, argues that to regard such works as childish is unfair.
“Why would we have a problem with Yoko doing peace and love when we are quite happy for the Beatles to sing All You Need Is Love?” he says.
Perhaps Ono has, in the end, more right than most to tackle hatred and violence in her own way. She experienced war in Japan firsthand; her husband was shot down; her life was clearly soured by hatred directed at her from some Beatles fans.
It is her resilience in the face of disaster that, for the musician Antony Hegarty – who has collaborated with her on performances – makes her a personal as well as an artistic model. “She has shown me, by her power of example, how to stand by one’s values, even in the face of fear,” he says. “She has endured brutal storms and never surrendered.”
Munroe agrees. The peace-and-love message, she says, is authentic. “She really believes in love as the transformative energy in the world. That’s her faith.”
Born 13 February 1933
Career Ono has worked in the avant garde of the art world since the 1950s, her practice taking in music, film, poetry and performance – including her two famous week-long “bed-ins” with her husband John Lennon, a twist on the sit-in.
High point Meeting Lennon at a preview of her exhibition at Indica gallery, London, in November 1966; also her 2001 retrospective Yes Yoko Ono, which cemented her work’s reputation.
Low point Ono was vilified for decades for breaking up the Beatles and even after Lennon’s death in 1980 attracted little public sympathy. Also suffered the abduction of her daughter Kyoko by her second husband, Anthony Cox.
What she says “No one person could have broken up a band, especially one the size of the Beatles.”
What they say “I learned everything from her … That’s what people don’t understand. She’s the teacher and I’m the pupil.” John Lennon, 1980
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010