by Simon Schama, Financial Times
Cover photo by Jillian Edelstein

She is 79 and still producing the kind of conceptual art that made her infamous in the Sixties. But had she not been Mrs John Lennon, would the world have heard of Yoko Ono? The answer, says Simon Schama, is YES


Yoko Ono’s education in being hated began early. In 1945, her mother, a granddaughter of one of Japan’s great zaibatsu financial oligarchs, took her and her brother to the country. They had survived the March fire-bombing of Tokyo in the family bunker, some way from the downtown that had been reduced to cinders. People of their class, fearing more such punishment, were fleeing to the resort town of Karuizawa where they had summered before the war. “Not going there,” she says, “was thought a shame.” But Ono’s mother, a Modern Woman, in her way “an artist, a painter on a very noble level, quite brilliant at design”, thought it somehow indecent to go somewhere redolent of deluded luxury and peace. “Let’s not join those despicable upper-middle-class people.”“For her it was going to be like André Gide’s La Symphonie Pastorale … how beautiful to go to the country.” So a farmhouse was rented. “It was a disaster,” Ono says, flashing the rueful smile she turns on recalling moments in her life when things didn’t work out as expected. The country people despised Tokyo people and were not going to indulge their romance of social solidarity. Besides, Ono’s family seemed half-foreign; somehow implicated in the catastrophe raining from the sky. She herself was the object of special loathing. “I was persecuted” – as a girl with an American background (her father had been the head of the Yasuda bank in San Francisco). “My mother’s dream was crushed. It would have been much better to have gone to the resort.” Reduced to getting food by bartering family treasures from a wheelbarrow, the daughter of the monied class of the empire saw and heard desperate privation. “One family, starving, went to the woods to find mushrooms and all died together … I will never forget things like that.”

Her mother went back to Tokyo, leaving Yoko and her brother to face the country people’s contempt. “I was persecuted in America and I was persecuted in Tokyo for having spent a certain time in the United States.” She gives a little cough and a smaller laugh. When she got back to Tokyo after Hiroshima and the surrender, she arrived on the back of a truck and when the driver called out “Tokyo, this is Tokyo”: “I couldn’t believe it; it was a big field of nothing, people living in shacks … But in a way, experiencing that, without food, was a lucky thing. I knew I could survive anything.”

©Jillian Edelstein

We are sitting in a non-minimalist suite in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a venue chosen, I guess, without any trace of irony, for its closeness to Hyde Park’s Serpentine Gallery where, this month, as part of the London Festival, Ono’s art – films, installations, “Instruction” pieces – will get its first showing in Britain for more than a decade. Knocking on 80, she still has the nimble appearance of someone for whom the word “elfin” was coined; a clear complexion and, when the trademark shades on the end of her nose are removed, a gaze merry and friendly. The word “artless” comes to mind, which, despite Ono’s many decades of making it, seems right since her work steals up on you rather than browbeating you into reverence. “Instructing” people to look intently at a match as it burns away, or at the patterning shadows as they fall on an unpainted canvas flag, frames otherwise-lost moments of quotidian grace as works of art of equal validity to fashioned paintings or sculpture. She makes no claims to be more than an enabler of this kind of self-discovery, but it is something nonetheless quite serious and registered with disarmingly sweet self-deprecation.

So will love finally replace the hate? Ono could not be more aware of the sore feelings that, after all this time, still simmer in the heads of the Sixties generation (now, like me, in their sixties), who still won’t forgive her for the break-up of the Greatest Band of All Time. But much of the resentment that came her way when that happened was a shamefully poisonous mix of racism and sexism coupled with an incomprehension that the beloved Scouser, such a gritty man of the people, could have fallen for some pretentious, talentless poseur whose work was more joke than art. Notwithstanding the fact that John Lennon was a grown-up when he met Ono in 1966 at her show at the Indica Gallery in St James’s; and that in so many ways – their common mischief with language, their embrace of the seriousness of whimsy, the search for a kind of redeeming simplicity – the two were obviously matched, somehow the British took it personally, as though Ono had conspired to rob them of a national treasure. Maybe they still do.

But you really hope not. If the question is: had she not been Mrs Lennon would the world have ever heard of Yoko Ono, “the most famous unknown artist” as Lennon described her, the answer after seeing the show ought to be a big YES (another of their favourite words). Long before she ran into Lennon, Ono had established herself as a multi-media innovator – a pioneer who anticipated all kinds of performance and conceptual art pieces which, every so often, achieve a kind of poetic essentialism that is genuinely eye-popping and often moving. You can capture some of this radically adventurous innocence in her films, the best of which will be included in the Serpentine show: “Cut Piece” from 1964, where she sits impassively on stage while audience members shear away pieces of her clothing – at first with nervous self-consciousness and then with cumulatively uninhibited ferocity. The effect is as disturbing as a Greek drama in which something elemental, a kind of sacrificial victimhood, is acted out beneath a mask of resignation.

©Yoko Ono’Fly’ (1970), film still, directed by the artist

Then there is “Fly”, an echo of 1930s Surrealism in which bluebottles busily commute over the body of a naked woman (doused in sugar water as bait), their knee-rubbing and excited excursions in contrast to the utter stillness of the Gulliveress gigantism of the recumbent nude. For a minute or two, one fat little buzzer alights on the fleshy upper lip of the girl, seen in profile. He rubs, he whirs; the little sucker’s really worked up. She doesn’t move a muscle. NO, you say, please no. But he goes there anyhow, down to her bottom lip, resting for a moment at the slightly moistened opening. Eeuw and ick. But also, wow and blimey. Against all the odds the effect is shockingly, spellbindingly beautiful. Did the films of Jean Cocteau make their mark, I wonder out loud? They did.

. . .

Not to discount the art and music that Yoko and John made together (some of it buttock-clenchingly awful but some of it, such as “Approximately Infinite Universe”, incontrovertibly wonderful and enduring). The story that takes her true measure is all about Japan and not at all about the Beatles. In this spirit I cue her to talk about the enthusiastic reception she has had from shows in Asia – in India and China as well as Japan. “Isn’t it amazing?” she says (a favourite phrase). Her vindication makes her happy because Asian countries, she says, don’t get on very well, unlike our famously “together” British culture (yeah, riotously together, I think). So she sees her art as a medium of reconciliation.

©Yoko Ono ‘Cut Piece’ (1964), performed by Ono, March 21, 1965, New York

It then becomes alarmingly apparent that, 40 years on, Ono is still Giving Peace a Chance. “People are still thinking of solving problems by violence and war and that has to stop.” Her position is simultaneously unarguable and absurd. After all, she says, steering the conversation right off the rails, President Roosevelt was deterred from going to war at Churchill’s request by peace people in the United States. I try to point out that if you were looking for the best case you could ever make for war, 1940 would probably be it, and that all things considered she probably wouldn’t want the quasi-fascist America Firsters to join her in a Bed-In for Peace, but she’s off on Icelandic geo-thermal energy sources (“amazing”) and, more understandably, the book-ended horrors of Fukushima and Hiroshima. “I was angry. Why Japan, twice?”

We return to her childhood and explanations of Yoko-ness fall magically into place. When she was four, she says, and had already been sent to a school for precociously gifted musicians (by her father, who had abandoned a career as a concert pianist to take his place at the helm of the dynastic bank), her homework assignment was to listen carefully to the noises of the day at home – the ticking or ring of a clock; the dripping of a tap – and turn them into musical notes. “Did you like doing that?” I ask. “It doesn’t matter. I had to do it anyway,” she laughs. Then, when atrocious obliteration was visited on Japan, an involuntary, extreme eradication of the clutter of life by military retribution, those moments of concentrated sense reception became correspondingly precious.

The look-again, hear-again, think-again Zen; the transfer of daily experience from the realm of the mundane to the realm of the transcendental stayed with her, all the way back to New York where her father was running the Bank of Tokyo. It doesn’t take deep anthropological insight to see that her Zen inheritance ran against the grain of the 1950s buccaneering materialism that for both the vanquished Japanese and the victorious Americans was supposed to be the reward for wartime immolation. Of all the places Ono could have ended up, suburban Scarsdale, Westchester, with its picture-perfect lawn, picket-fenced mansions and Chopin-playing prodigies embodied this unexamined equation of commodity gratification with happiness that was the antithesis of Zen. The only postwar recovery (both in America and Japan) she was interested in, she says, “was the recovery of the spirit.” After all, “How much do you really need to make a life a good one?”

But one of the Japanese Chopinistas she met, Ichiyanagi Toshi, was himself a rebel-explorer. Ono hooked up, married him and was exposed to lectures by D.T. Suzuki and his prize student John Cage. When she experienced Cage’s score for water being poured, and the famous four minutes of silence in which the mere sounds of a restive audience listening to nothing but themselves became the piece, she experienced a shock of recognition. Cage, she says, “was just trying to fine-tune people’s attention to something they usually can’t hear”. At a time when Abstract Expressionism was still king and Pop art was beginning, she joined the Fluxus group led by George Maciunas, for whom neither trend was quite adventurous enough. AbEx artists “would ask me whether they should put more red in it or green and I’d go yes,” she laughs. “For me it is very important that the things we make have a reason and there was no reason in Abstract Expressionism. And a sense of humour. I don’t think there was much of a sense of humour there!”

. . .

In a cold-water apartment on Chambers Street, New York, she gave a series of performances and concerts in which minimalist “instructions” and transient experiences replaced the static, monumental pretensions of framed pictures. The prompted eye and the receptive brain made the pictures instead. The technique was lovely, liberating and genuinely innovative. “I thought art should be like science, always discovering things afresh, and I wanted to be Madame Curie.”

With John Lennon in 1969 ©Getty

So when she and Lennon had their momentous encounter at Indica in 1966, Ono was already established as an avant-garde conceptual artist. She insists she really had no idea who he was or what he did. “I just saw this rather attractive guy who seemed to be taking my work very seriously”. Of pop music she knew nothing, “not even of Elvis Presley; just maybe some jazz.” Of what was about to hit them both out there in Beatlemania land she had no clue. “I was naïve. We both were … we thought that it was going to be really great.” It wasn’t. “My work totally disappeared and John, with all that power he had, was going to go down too.” She falls quiet for a moment; a flicker of sadness clouding the wide, expressively sunny face. “I feel very badly if maybe I was the cause of it.”

But then she remembers good things: the long night through which she and Lennon produced the first Plastic Ono Band album “full of things not done before”. Dawn light was coming through the window. “We did feel like Monsieur and Madame Curie, trying to change the world. I know this pride can be considered arrogance but isn’t that the reason to live?” She also remembers making the film in which – eventually – the impish, sometimes enigmatic Lennon face resolves itself into a wicked grin. And then you realise that Yoko Ono is really still, for all the world and for all her past, not so much a near-octogenarian as an ageless child for whom a smile is actually a work of art that no one, not even among the loaded readers of the FT, is rich enough to buy at auction.

‘Yoko Ono: TO THE LIGHT’ is at the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2, from June 19 to September 9,