YOKO revisited: Author and conservationist Polly Devlin first met Yoko Ono with John Lennon on an assignment for this magazine in 1971. The two women were reunited on the eve of Ono’s Serpentine Gallery exhibition, To the Light (June 19 to September 9, Serpentinegallery.org), in “Go Yoko”. “We were both young women then and she’s evolved in to an amazingly ageless person.” Devlin clearly made an impression, too: the couple’s parting gift was a mirrored Ono artwork entitled Box of Smile. “It’s the size of a cigar box – people open it with apprehension, look in and then they smile! It’s a remarkable pointer to character: unhappy people frown into it, children get the point immediately.”
“Everyone’s always whispering… “
Yoko Ono has survived being one half of the most famous couple in the world and, at 79, remains an unstoppable creative force. Polly Devlin meets her as she prepares for her latest exhibition in London.
For someone so epic, she’s tiny. You could blow her off the palm of your hand. I watch her being photographed in hot boy-shorts and bare legs without, apparently, one moment’s inhibition. There’s no hint of slackness, not an inch of cellulite; she has the legs of an adolescent and amazing big, round, high breasts, very much on show. How can anyone have high breasts at 79? Beats me, but then she’s been beating most people on many fronts for decades.
“How do you do it?” I ask, amazed and put out by her flamboyant and seductive response to the camera, her radioactive selfassurance; unable to reconcile the warm, rather shy and vulnerable person I know her to be with this crackling thing on stage, this feminine ferocity. She looks at me as though I am mad, and says, astonished, “Because I’m a performer. I just do the performance.” Of course. I forgot. I thought this was a portrait of Yoko Ono, but it’s a portrait of the person who has been invented by Yoko Ono. Her artistic identity is so tied up with her personal individuality that one could forget that this small, impeccably mannered person has an alter ego the size of a house and is fabulously famous; famous for so many things that she has created a hermeneutic Onotopia, where image and life and performances and variety are all one. She’s a peace activist, a film-make r, her art bridges minimalism and conceptualism, she makes crossover music, new-wave music, happenings, theatrical autobiography, poetry and performance art, whatever. She does what she wants, and she’s been doing it for 60 years. Yet, as Sam Taylor-Wood, who made Nowhere Boy about the early life of John Lennon, says, “Her work is really modern – if a young artist showed some of her pieces now they would be hailed as completely relevant to the times.” Stephen Holden, New York Times film and music critic, sums it up: “Yoko Ono gives us her all.”
When she comes down from in front of the camera, she is quiet, withdrawn and private. Then it’s back again to the walloping energy, wearing a little black jacket (mutual admiration between her and Karl Lagerfeld). She says she’s happy with her body and how it looks, again verging towards the unique among women. As the sitting progresses, she relaxes. “At the beginning, I was like this,” she says, hiding her face in her hands, “bur now I’m like this … ” and she moves even more commandingly. Her top hat makes her look slightly like a cartoon figure, a tiny Otto Dix.
Nick Knight suggests she doesn’t wear it. She rears up. “Without the hat I look like a mental case.”We laugh, relieved, since the one thing we’re always being told about Yoko is that she has no sense of humour; but she has a fine sense of playfulness. Many of her instructions and drawings in Grapefruit, her most famous book from the Sixties, are both joyful and funny. it’s like the original tweet, with visuals, giving instructions on how to live. It also makes you both actor and audience for your own piece of performance art. Try doing “Map Piece”, for instance: “Draw a map to get lost”; or the “Autumn 1953 Smell Piece”: “Send the smell of the moon,” she wrote.
Now she uses Twitter to spread her word. “Transform greed energy to giving. Give as much as you wish to take, and you will receive satisfaction.” Cornball stuff, you might think, but the sentiment is easier said than done. Mass global peaceful communications are a central part of her philosophy, and she seizes on information technology as a tool perfectly suited to her.
Yoko and I go back a long way. I first met her and John in 1971, when I went out to their house in deepest Ascot to start an interview for this magazine. Anything less suitable for this radical couple than that large, white, haute-bourgeoise house, full of staff and set in 100 acres of parkland with an arboretum could hardly be imagined.
The first day I was there, John and Yoko (in white antique lace, looking perfectly beautiful) were doing something involving a hearse and a helicopter. I never did find out what.
Our next meeting was in New York. They had taken rooms in the grand St Regis hotel and filled some with recording equipment and film machines. In other rooms were Yoko’s and John’s clothes. I stood stunned at the quantity, so at odds with their apparent simplicity. I remember one table simply piled with bracelets.
Yoko and I talked, and John hovered over me like a nanny afraid that harm may come to the beloved – his connection seemed biological. Yoko was his passion. No, passion is the wrong word. The word is thrall. He wondered if I was serious. “I can’t work out,” he said, “if you’re what you seem or the world’s biggest con artist.” They’d been so mauled by the press that he trusted no one. “You know Yoko is the world’s most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name but nobody knows what she does, and,” he added sharply, “it helps that she’s a genius.”
A few days later a Dada-esque motley caravan of journalists and hangers-on set out for the wilds of New York State, to Syracuse, for a show of Yoko’s work in the Everson Museum, which by then was under siege from Beatles fans. We all stayed in the same hotel and the atmosphere was pretty heady, made more so when we woke to snow piled up to the windows. Many took happily to drink to while away the hours before the thaw. The only snag was that they put it on John and Yoko’s bill so the frost outside was nothing to the frost inside. I didn’t drink so I got brownie points. I loved the show and had already come to the conclusion that John was lucky to have found her (not a popular conclusion). When I left, John and Yoko gave me a Box of Smile by Yoko, which brightens the faces of those who look into it.
And now here we are again, two young women of a certain age talking about smiles before Yoko’s first show in a London public institution for more than a decade – a major exhibition of new and existing works at the Serpentine Gallery, Yoko Ono: To the Light. One of the installations is #smilesfilm, a participatory project with a world series of photographs of people smiling to create a global anthology of portraits. “The smile is such an important thing,” Yoko says, smiling herself over the top of black shades, a dimple appearing on cue, “and I’ve waited 50 years for this.” She’s not exaggerating. In Grapefruit in 1964, she wrote, “My ultimate goal in film-making is to make a film which includes a smiling face snap of every single human being in the world.”
When I talked to other artists about Yoko, many of whom she has worked with – Jeff Koons, George Condo, Felix Buxton of Basement jaxx, Rufus Wainwright – and to Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director at the Serpentine (who worships at her shrine), they stress her influence, her amenability and always her originality. But I think this last one is partly a consequence of longevity. Hardly anyone remembers the beginnings of the Fluxus movement, in New York in the Fifties, a loose association of avant garde artists developed out of John Cage’s ideas. The father figure of that extraordinary generation of artists, his dissatisfaction with the prevailing rigid aesthetic boundaries of art and culture, his philosophy of “anything goes” and the concept of the use of chance led to the development of conceptual and performance art. Artists were dedicated to the intangible rather than the specific in the true bohemia that was the vivid, vigorous, almost anarchic artistic life of Greenwich Village in the Fifties. Yoko Ono was friends with John Cage and deeply involved with Fluxus. It was her stage, and money never seems to have been a problem. (It certainly isn’t now – rumour has it she is worth just over £300 million.) If you have money, you can be inventive with your life; invention is a means of escape, to change the course of your life. She did it and then John Lennon walked into a gallery and changed her life again, and there are many who believe her art suffered for it.
But I, along with many others in London at that time, thought that Yoko’s work was wholly original (and I think John Lennon thought so, too). Barry Humphries didn’t. When she was tied up in her famous Black Bag Piece at the Indica Gallery in 1966, he whispered into it: “Not original. Not clever.” But her provocative Cut Piece, and indeed Grapefruit, were startling to me, and that show an eye-opener. And Grapefruit was published in 1964, yet for years before people like the composer La Monte Young in New York were doing parallel stuff. She published it through her own imprint, Wunternaum Press, in what used to be pejoratively called “vanity” publishing, but again she did it far in advance of her time, when women knew their place. It is now a cult classic. Hans Ulrich Obrist says he is still certain of her pioneering spirit. “Her influence is always growing, and in the past few years the world has caught up.”
She’s always been the subject of gossip, avid, often rancorous. She shakes her head ruefully. “Everyone’s always whispering. It’s not occasional, it’s every day, always, people trying to get close. Even with close relationships you have to he careful.”
The gossip is less about her art and her music than about her way of life, her lovers (she’s not with anyone), her clothes and her collecting. OK. Some gossip. Her wardrobe is vast and legendary, kept in dedicated rooms in her multiple apartments in the Dakota Building on 72nd Street and Central Park West. So many clothes, so many shoes, so many hats are shipped wherever she goes that even Vogue’s stylists’ eyes pop at the racks ready for this sitting. A friend in New York – herself no slouch in the dressing department – whispered sagely, “I do know that Yoko is a famous shopper. The purported number-one customer at places like Bergdorf’s for years.” Yet she seems to be always in a uniform, albeit an expensive one, black or white, jacket and trousers, short shorts, and tinted glasses.
John adored her in heels and bought endless pairs, which she put in a cupboard and never wore again. She’s a collector: clothes, apartments, houses, shoes, sunglasses, art (her collection, including works by De Lempicka, Magritte, Leger and Warhol, has its own curator), and she has a fine library of rare books, which she seeks out herself. In his seminal book Collecting: An Unruly Passion, Werner Muensterberger posited that collecting is provoked by “the lack of affection on the part of not-good-enough mothering”. It matches what I know about her rather well. Yoko (the name means “ocean child”) was the eldest child of a rich mother, Isoko Ono, a painter from a traditional upper-class japanese family. “I adored my mother, but she was busy with her own life. She wasn’t that tactile but warm enough – you know what it’s like when you’re from a family like that, it’s to do with nannies and convention.” Her father was a classical pianist who became a banker. His family was Westernised. Two weeks before she was born, he was transferred to San Francisco, so Yoko only met her father when she was two-and-a-half and they moved to join him. She remembers her mother saying, “Whatever you do, people aren’t going to think you did it. People will think a Japanese person did it. You are a representative of your race.” “And I remember the first thing when I went to school was hearing, ‘She’s not white.'”
She’s suffered racial abuse all her life. Esquire once ran a photo of Yoko with the headline “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie”, and she was described by Albert Goldman (in his book The Lives of John Lennon) as “simian-looking”. She winced, she said, when having suffered so many different “isms”, she found ageism lying in wait. But she’s happy to be the age she is.
“When I became 70, I started to learn so much … I’m thankful. If I’d died 10 years ago, I would have died dumb.”
She was never dumb; here in her grand suite in a hotel overlooking Hyde Park she is quick as a whippet. She leans towards me, laughing, when I mention the hearse at Ascot. When I ask about her childhood, the words tumble out in her soft accented voice. When she was four, her family moved back to Tokyo. “There I was also accused of being a foreigner.” She went to Gakushuin, the grandest school in Tokyo. One classmate was the future emperor – but then, in 1942, her mother sent her with her brother and sister to the country, aged nine, to get her away from the bombing. “The people there had written letters to my mother saying we have milk, chicken and honey, but there was nothing. They gave us a hard time. They felt we were so spoiled and now it’s our turn. The housekeeper who came with us was crippled so I had to take care of her as well as my two siblings. I was always hungry. It was a good experience but it was not a good childhood.”
After the war she joined her parents in Scarsdale in America. I wondered if they recognised how clever she was. “Yes, they recognised that and they encouraged me. I went to Sarah Lawrence College but it wasn’t creative, and I loved being creative.” She dropped out in her third year. “I didn’t go anywhere but found a loft with enough space for a studio and living space.”
She was born a magician but her schooling and background certainly helped her to get to where she could make it as an artist. In her loft at 112 Chambers Street, she curated exhibitions and happenings where the audience was considered as object and its behaviour as events. In 1956, she met her first husband, the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was studying with Cage, and they moved back to Japan. There, unsurprisingly, in such a different milieu, and one she had already fled, she became severely depressed.
I used to stay with Peggy Guggenheim in Venice and once in the visitors’ book I saw, surprised, the name Yoko Ono. It transpired that John Cage and Peggy Guggenheim had gone to Japan in 1956, and Yoko was their guide and translator, and also took part in some of Cage’s performances. Peggy and Yoko often shared a hotel room. Yoko was having an affair with a young American, Tony Cox, and Peggy allowed them to use the bedroom. She wrote to me, “I liked Yoko immensely, otherwise I would not have allowed her to make love in my room with me in bed.” The letter was typed but the last four words were added in her handwriting. Tony Cox became Yoko’s second husband and they had a daughter, Kyoko. Even though, after her marriage to Lennon, Yoko was awarded custody of Kyoko, Cox kidnapped her when she was eight, changed her name to Rosemary, and her mother was not allowed to see her again until she was 31. It is one of the great sadnesses in her life, although she and her daughter are now friends.
Accounts differ of the legendary meeting of Yoko and John at John Dunbar’s gallery Indica in London in 1966. Did he, as he told me, see “a lovely virgin painting into which you could hammer a nail for five shillings. I hadn’t got that much money on me, and so I said I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings if you’ll hammer an imaginary nail for me”? Yoko liked his style but, incredible as it seems, was one of the only people in the Western world who did not recognise him, and when they next met they were both nervous and shy. (Julian Lennon, John’s son by his first wife, Cynthia, will have none of this talk of shyness. He said on a television programme: “Yoko is very manipulative. She plays the innocent but she had it all planned. I think she knew exactly what she was doing from day one.”)
“I was totally amazed by John,” she says. “I went into a bookshop to get a copy of In His Own Write to check it out and it was almost beside my book. Well, L is near O, but I felt an incredible connection … ” Later she visited Abbey Road on behalf of John Cage. “I turned up and they were all there, and John Lennon wasn’t nice to me. He was being very macho; picking up the scores and the music, and saying, these will all become LPs, the most avant-garde LPs. Later he invited me to his house, Kenwood. There were times when Cynthia was there and times when she was not. Our minds were there.” (This is quite a nice gloss on the famous story of Cynthia returning early from holiday to find John and Yoko – wearing Cynthia’s bathrobe – sitting in her kitchen staring into each other’s eyes. According to popular legend, John roused himself long enough to say, “Hi.”)
I ask her if she has always been shy. “I was not only shy as myself, I was shy as an artist. I don’t think I shook off shyness until John passed away. I opened up then. I felt a responsibility – there was such a reaction, girls jumping off roofs, despair. I really felt I must help them, and I did. I promised then that I would bring out something of his every year. I said I would do it for 10 years. And I’m still doing it.”
The concept of expiration seems never to have entered her consciousness (although she suffered the greatest expiration a wife can the night John Lennon was murdered in front of her). Songs she wrote decades ago are constantly being remixed. Sonic Youth love her, she sings with Rufus Wainwright, with her and Lennon’s son Sean (to whom she is extremely close), and with Basement Jaxx. Co-founder Felix Buxton says, “In this youth-led culture, she has a complete understanding of everything that is going on. Initially when we started working together, I thought being Yoko Ono she would be controlling or demanding, but she wasn’t at all. She said, ‘What would you like me to do?’ She has an artistic understanding of collaboration.” On the video, she prances about like a young woman, legs and arms flailing. How does she do it? “It’s important for bodies to be limber and versatile.” If you watch her performance of Scream, Voice Piece for Soprano and Wish Tree, you are simply amazed, not just by the primal, almost feral noise that is issuing from this tiny body, but also by the sheer lung power. Yet her singing voice is a small, sweet, unsteady soprano, never more evident than in “Walking on Thin Ice”, the song she and John were working on the day he was shot. Re-released in 2003 with remixes by dance artists including the Pet Shop Boys, it was a huge hit, beating Madonna and Justin Timberlake to number one.
But these things are as nothing to her primary work; she does so much, so often, so everywhere. Vast light installations in Iceland, openings in Barcelona and Brazil, exhibitions all over the world, gigs in major cities… She works endlessly on Lennon’s legacy, taking care of his fans, supporting charities. She has many honorary doctorates and wins awards all the time: a small sampling – the Golden Lion Award for lifetime achievement in the 2009 Venice Biennale; the International Association of Art Critics USA Award; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Japan Society of New York. Wish Tree, her installation in the MoMA sculpture garden in New York, is one of the museum’s most popular draws.
The big question is, where does she find the time to do all this? Time doesn’t seem to have found her. The art historian and critic Leo Steinberg once wrote that it took only seven years for each new generation of artistic enfants terribles to be domesticated, but Yoko’s seven years has been turned into ten times that.
I took John’s description of her as a genius with a small pinch of salt. So I asked some of the artists who so admire her now if they would agree. Sam Taylor-Wood mused: “I wouldn’t say the word genius – she’s a trailblazer. And astonishing. When I saw her on stage performing with her son Sean in LA it was unbelievable, a whirling dervish.” George Condo, the influential American contemporary visual artist, tells me: “With regard to the word genius, I would say yes, Yoko does have the ability to reflect something beyond words. And when I got to know her I found her an extraordinary woman of serenity and warmth, but also with this raw energy. And she pushed open the doors to feminism – there was a masculine lockdown in society, and she opened the door to freedom.”
When I am in New York, I walk to work every day through Strawberry Fields, one of the most verdant and delightful places in Central Park, just opposite the Dakota Building, and now endowed with the same magic power as Stonehenge to draw pilgrims. It is John Lennon’s memorial place and there is an almost sacerdotal reverence. In the centre of a circle, the word “Imagine” is inscribed, garlanded with fresh flowers thrown by fans who sit on the benches gazing at the image. One person is always playing a Lennon ballad mournfully (and usually direly) on the guitar. And the fans stare up at Yoko’s apartment as if she might appear like a heavenly apparition. For a long while they were the most famous couple in the world.
The Beatles were idolised, and she was blamed wrongly for their break-up, so predicated on being worshipped by every girl they met that they couldn’t cope with someone who paid them no mind. Their attitude was epitomised by George Harrison who, when told on a television programme he was sitting on the same chair that Yoko Ono had sat on, jumped to his feet as if burned. Paul McCartney, too, was against her, and regrets it. “She’s honest. I thought she was a bad woman but she’s a loving, caring woman. I think I thought she was pushy, which is wrong, I don’t think she is. She’s herself, she’s determined – more than some people – to be herself. Some people will give in, she won’t.”
Jeff Koons is also a fan. “I’m always happy to participate in anything that involves Yoko. I’ve always admired her as an artist, for her place in the avant-garde, how her work presents people with the opportunity to become what they wanted to be, for her optimism. When I was young, she was a woman who represented great ambition in art, great vision and yes, great risk-taking. And, of course, her belief that one person can affect the world, that the world can be what you want to be.”
Yoko Ono is a seer in both senses. There is no sign when I am talking to her of the passionate egoism of most artists. She writes to me after the interview: “I feel I’ve known you for the longest time.” But I haven’t known her; she’s unknowable. Perhaps one person did know her, the person to whom she wrote the lyrics, “No, one can see me like you do. No one can see you like I do.”
The repressions of society can break some people. Deprivations, a lack of maternal love, all contribute to keeping you in your place. But others find a way to get over that key moment when a life hangs poised, pulled downwards by its own inertia, suspended between gravity and the unexplored space of our future. Only the most magnificent boost of energy will surmount that inexorable pull and shoot us up into the stratosphere where we can be what we want to be. Yoko Ono is already there, ages ago, dancing.
“Yoko Ono: To the Light“ is at the Serpentine Gallery, W2, from June 19 to September 9 (Serpentinegallery.org).
“Innocence and Experience“, including work by Yoko Ono and curated by Marianne Faithfull, is at Tate Liverpool until September 2 (Tate.org.uk/liverpool)