Born in 1933, Yoko Ono has engaged with some of the most tragic and inspiring events of the 20th century – from the fire-bombing of Tokyo during the Second WOrld War and the death of her late husband, John Lennon, to her involvement with Fluxus and the ‘Bed-In for Peace’. Despite, or perhaps because of her storied past, Ono refuses to weigh herself down with the burdens of legacy and pushes forward with greater ambition than before. Here, she speaks to the need for perpetual renewal and collective leadership in an age where time is elf is becoming less of an obstacle.
Interview by Justin Fowler.
The Baby Boomers that drove the counterculture movement are now beginning to hit age 65. Having served as a key role model for that movement, do you feel compelled to continue to lead by example?
I’m just being myself, doing things I think are still needed. I always believed in the mass leadership, which will work as a powerful force to bring a healthy future to the planet and beyond. The existence of a leader always stops people from making their own judgements and own actions. It is totally counter productive for activists to believe in the existence of a leader/leaders. We had many daddy figures we believed in. You can assassinate a leader, but it’s hard to assassinate two billion people. It’s time for each one of us to take responsibility of being the one to do the right thing together. And we will. It is the only way. And it will be a powerful ending to the second dark ages we are experiencing now.
Can new social movements gain traction while the memory of the counterculture era remains alluring? Does the past overshadow the future?
Any thoughts of looking back is “entertainment.” We are now living in the age where we are entertained to death. Now the entertainment department realized that the Gods of entertainment today are starting to get boring. Bringing back the past gods will be a great addition to what we love: more entertainment. When are we going to lift our eyes and look beyond the screen?
“Bagism” originated with the belief that total communication would be possible if we could disregard external appearances and focus on ideas and emotions. Is its message the same when transferred from the long-haired counterculture figures to today’s aging individuals?
It’s all up to who would use the message in what way. John and I released the message to the world. What you do with it – ignore, forget, variate, create your own – is up to you. If you got something out of it, it was worth the trouble. Thank you.
Should we seek to empathize with the old or is total communication blind to age?
What is old and what is new? I think we are all together. That’s all I know. I would not use the word “blind” there? Total communication has no age.
You’ve said that you welcome medical advances that will cure aging. What will you do if science enables us to live forever?
I always thought I needed more time. Time was the only thing which was stopping me from doing more things I wanted to do. I will probably feel the same, when I am on Mars, missing gardening at my farm on planet earth.
In the absence of death, could creative expression lose its urgency?
There will be so many new situations to cope with. We will use our creative mind in each step of the way to survive and enjoy.
How old do you feel?
I really have no idea. I hope you will not pass judgement like, “she must have gone bonkers.” No. I am clearer than I have ever been. And I see further, too. But I feel totally ageless. NO. To be exact, I feel as though I am of every age I’ve experienced, re-experiencing them, simultaneously as vividly tactile one life. I never thought it will be like this. I very rarely go beyond 42, though.
Are there creative or lifestyle practices you engage in to remain active?
I hate becoming a dependent, physically. So I try to keep myself healthy. But I am what I am, and I get more interested in watching the sky, than going to the gym and do cattle walking…. that’s what ! think! To me, there is something very wrong about doing too much exercise while you rest your other senses. I feel more human when I’m just walking and wandering around out in the world.
You’ve made your home in the Dakota for a number of years. How have you evolved the space? Are there elements that have remained unchanged?
Mostly unchanged. Not because I am Miss Havisham, but there was no reason for a drastic change. I am comfortable and that’s what counts.
Do you have any attitudes that have changed dramatically with age?
Not so much attitudes, because attitude is mostly something others experience of you. (They might have a story to tell you!) But in terms of knowledge, I have received so much knowledge I didn’t have before my 70th birthday, It created a quiet revolution inside me that only I am aware of. I don’t think it is age related, by the way. It has to do with what we are going through now together on our planet. It’s the age of mass revolution.
What are the challenges of pursuing the calling of the avant-garde today as opposed to three to four decades ago?
All rockers are avant-gardists now. Indies particularly. I think the word avant-garde is dated. It was already dated when I left the so-called avant-garde world in the 60s. If you are thinking of avant-garde as another word for high art, well high art is still alive in many forms. Many artists are quietly creating high art revolution, and not minding being stepping stones for the future. I consider myself one. There is a peculiar pride in being that. It is a form of giving that is less recognized. The fact that it is not noticed so much may be an important factor to it’s creativity. Like the birds you hear but not understand. What will happen if we understood what the birds are chirping about? Would we be tempted to intrude? Would our intrusion change their music? Would we attempt to shift the gear of their music to something more understandable by us? What will happen to their music then….
It’s generally presumed that wisdom is passed down from the old to the young. Given that you are still very much an active force in the music and art worlds, do you find yourself learning from the younger generations of artists who you yourself have influenced?
New things are happening. Digital mixing in music, for instance. But it does not impress me as something new. Read a book John Cage compiled called NOTATIONS. It has many scores by the twentieth century composers. There, you see plenty of examples of graphic scores which is what digital scores are. We were doing it. Except we didn’t have the computer. But our stretch of imagination was even more interesting because we were doing it conceptually, without the computer. That’s what avant-garde does. Imagine and make it happen.
Are there avenues of creative expression that you worry are facing extinction?
I have no use for something that will be extinct. Let it be, including yours truly.
You’ve pursued the cause of peace for the better part of your life and have set up a grant for artists living in regions of conflict. Do you believe that the eradication of violence will come through a process of societal maturation or does its persistence require perpetual activism to mitigate its effects?
Not through Societal Maturation! Society does not mature on it’s own. We are the society. So we have to work to bring true awareness to ourselves. You call that perpetual activism as if it is burdensome. Well, yes. You are right. But there is joy in perpetual activism. It’s like breathing. It’s not a burden. We just do it, and enjoy the fruits of it. Violence? We will forget words like that very soon as long as we keep working. Have you noticed that so many people are getting very, very wise? It’s the start to the next millennium.
Your childhood was split between Japan and the US and you witnessed firsthand the horror of global conflict. Since that time, you’ve continued to live in a cosmopolitan manner. Going forward, do you feel that greater global and transnational connections can help to serve the cause of peace?
Of course, we are making greater global transition by being close to each other. The only positive bi-product of wars – and we had many – was finding out about strange lands and strange people – and suddenly noticing that you were actually them. Our planet is full of beauty and joy. Let’s stay on it for the longest time.