When Sam Taylor-Wood met Yoko Ono

Sam Taylor-Wood befriended Yoko Ono during the making of Nowhere Boy, her acclaimed film about John Lennon’s early years. But they have much more in common. Here, on the eve of a Yoko retrospective, the two artists talk about creativity, world peace – and what it’s like to be the older woman…

by The Observer

Yoko and Sam

Sam Taylor-Wood and Yoko Ono, photographed at the Serpentine Gallery, London for the Observer New Review last week.
Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Before the opening of Yoko Ono‘s major solo retrospective at the Serpentine this week, she does something unusual: she summons another artist, who on the face of it has nothing to do with her show, to come and join her. But then nothing about Yoko Ono is usual. And when she explains she would like to have Sam Taylor-Wood by her side, you don’t question it. You wait to see what will happen. Yoko likes to do things her way. And, unlike most of us, she knows what her way is. It is an overcast morning as she steps into the Serpentine Gallery looking like – well, looking like herself. The first accommodation on meeting such a colossal celebrity is to remind oneself one has never met her before. In a sense, she could not be less “colossal”. This legendary but diminutive woman cuts a dash in her regulation black suit offset by a trilby of dove-grey felt. “Yoko’s hair is never a problem,” confides the makeup artist she has in tow, “she always wears a hat.” And I observe they have brought a reserve selection of trilbies.

Sam Taylor-Wood arrives a minute later, known to Yoko not so much as a Turner prize-nominated artist as because of Nowhere Boy, the film she directed about the adolescent John Lennon. Sam has a last-minute glamour: she wears a blue and white striped top, as if at any moment she might be thinking of setting sail. She has extracted herself from a house with four children – including a baby. “I shouldn’t be talking about my children as if I wanted sympathy,” she laughs. You can see how at home with herself she is – and warm. It is easy to understand why she has so many famous (and otherwise) friends: Elton John, David Beckham, Kate Moss and, now, Yoko Ono.

Yoko is eager to show us her work but some exhibits have yet to arrive, others are still bubble-wrapped. This does not deter her. And the tour of what is not there makes one aware of how vividly each piece exists in her mind’s eye. She speaks in a soft, precise, Japanese little girl’s voice. She giggles and sighs. I am struck by her sweetness and animation. John Lennon once called her “the world’s most famous unknown artist”. I suspect there has always been a need to make her voice heard. Eight months away from her 80th birthday, her unchanging youthfulness is astonishing. And, as a peace activist, she has not changed either. When I ask whether she seriously thinks world peace a realistic goal, she answers with determination: “At this point, it is a luxury for us to have negative thoughts – we can’t.” Optimism is her vocation, as the exhibition’s title, To the Light, makes clear.

John and Yoko’s Bed-In in Amsterdam, March 1969

John and Yoko’s Bed-In in Amsterdam, March 1969. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

We stare through the bubble wrap at a hybrid photograph of three men: her father, John Lennon and her son, Sean. Whose face dominates? “My father’s,” she says with something between a sigh and a giggle. I can only see John Lennon. She shows us high-heeled shoes in which blood is pooling – part of her sequenceFamily Album (1993) about what it is to be a woman. She leads us towards an elegant, perplexing Perspex maze. Difficult to plan? “Yes,” she says, with satisfaction. She shows us two sets of footprints – hers and John’s. Hers are tiny besides his. “Goodness,” I exclaim, looking at her neat black feet. “What size shoes do you take?” She brushes the question away like a fly – the answer, in every sense, beneath her. The last room, as though to test what the maze has taught us, asks: “Where do you want to go from here?”

We want to go upstairs. And what I am about to find out is that these women have more affinities than you would have thought possible – in life and art. I am already, in fantasy, curating a double bill of a show in which Sam’s Crying Men – of famous actors weeping – is placed next to Yoko’s Smiles in which not-so-famous people, from all over the world, smile. And – even more tempting – I would love to see Sam’s beautifulfilm of fruit as it decays alongside Yoko Ono’s study of a wizened apple. And had it been possible, one might even have explored a connection– if only because of the intimacy of the ideas – between Sam’s film commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery of David Beckham asleepand John and Yoko’s famous Bed-In for peace.

Sam Taylor-Wood’s 2004 video of David Beckham

Sam Taylor-Wood’s 2004 video of David Beckham sleeping at the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph: Adam Butler/AP

I am aware, too, of a deeper overlap in the lives of the two women. They are survivors. Somehow, Yoko has lived through Lennon’s assassination (on 8 December 1980). Sam has coped with cancer (colonic and breast). Each woman has experienced painful separation. Forty-five-year-old Sam’s father then mother left her when she was a child. Yoko’s daughter Kyoko was abducted by her second husband, American art promoter Tony Cox, when she was eight and Yoko did not see her again until Kyoko was 31. Yoko also had to weather the disapproval of conservative, aristocratic parents when she first got together with Lennon. They put out a press release saying: “We are not proud of Yoko Ono.” On a more trivial level, there is the older woman tag they have had to live with – Yoko was seven years older than John; Sam Taylor-Wood is more than twice the age of 22-year-old Aaron Johnson, who played John Lennon in her film and is father to two of Sam’s four daughters. There is going to be so much to talk about.

But the conversation begins with a present Sam has brought for Yoko, wrapped in bright tissue paper: a Japanese tea cup and “salty caramel” chocolates from Cocomaya in Bayswater. Sam has persuaded the shop to sell her the cup that was not for sale. How did she pull that off? “I can be persuasive,” she says, and one sees this is true. “I love chocolate,” exults Yoko. The teacup, Sam explains, reminds her of the last time they saw each other at Yoko’s home, in New York, overlooking Central Park. Yoko pours tea into her cup (“I like strong green tea”) and I ask how they first met and we begin:

STW I met Yoko before she knew who I was – at an exhibition in Islington.

KK But you met properly through the film?

YO Let me tell you how I met Sam, because it is important people understand about how these things happen. She was probably in a difficult situation like I was in when I made the Yes painting in 1966 [you had to walk up a ladder, with a magnifying glass, to find the word “Yes”]. I was in a totally difficult situation in my life and I thought: what I need is a Yes, and so I put the word on the ceiling. I never thought it was about to change my whole life by 180 degrees.

STW Amazing how positive a word can be.

YO It was that Yes painting that brought John into the gallery. He saw it and said great. Because the thing is that, unbeknown to everyone, John was going through some hard times too and feeling alone. I was feeling totally alone too.

KK And are you saying that Sam needed a yes too?

YO Yes. She had so much talent and incredible energy. She wanted me to give her the rights to use John’s anthem Mother in her film. I thought, I’d like to see that film and was flabbergasted by it because it was so beautiful. But I must have a very strong prejudice about Englishwomen because I thought, how can a woman make this thing? It was a very bad way of reacting. And then I saw her and she is not a teenager but looked like a teenager and I thought, what is she doing? This is a miracle. I was impressed. Since then, I have got to know her way of life and it is incredible. Did you know there is a very old idea in China that a woman can keep on having a child every four years? And if she keeps on doing it, she can go on for ever – until she is 80 or 90?

KK You’d have a lot of children.

STW I am happy with four.

YO No [laughs], but the idea to remember is that women have the power. I am not trying to have a baby myself but people might say: she is 80, she does not have to do anything any more. And yet we can do anything we want. We have such freedom with our bodies.


KK Yoko’s Smiles and Sam’s Crying Men share emotional directness. How important is it?

Yoko's Smile

Yoko’s Smile. Photograph: Yoko Ono

STW Emotional directness is imperative. It is so exciting to see [work from Yoko’s retrospective] To the Light, which is so emotionally direct. To see the footprints of John and Yoko walking up the room made me well up. And I think something as simple, beautiful and elegant is what has been lost somewhere. I have not seen anything like it for a while and I need to see it. In the current climate, people want to feel more.

YO I think Sam has been a little bit lonely. You see, when you become very famous, other people talk to you and they are not really friends. What you need to share is not what they want to hear from you… although you try to be truthful.

STW I think so.


KK Sam’s film of David Beckham asleep; Yoko’s Cut Piece (1964), where she allowed people to snip off her clothes until she was naked involved trusting and being trusted. Another affinity?

YO I trust myself. You need that to survive. And how we are surviving is like almost drowning in a tsunami, a big wave. To come out of that, you have to trust yourself.

STW Although I had met Yoko socially, we did not have a relationship where I could talk to her about Nowhere Boy. So I wrote to tell her about it and asked: Is there anything you want to say to me? Her response was to trust. No interference at all. And she said something so simple to me that it makes me cry. You said [to Yoko]: “John loved Aunt Mimi and Aunt Mimi loved John and that is all that you have to think about when you make this film.” That was my guiding light through the film. And there was trust between us.

YO I really think John would have loved the film.

KK The emotional centre of it seems to be a line where John says about his mother: “There is no point hating someone you love.”

YO That is beautiful. It is very difficult for us to know we love somebody because it is an insecure position to be in. But in the end, it is important to be honest about your love because life is not that long…


KK John was separated from his mother; Sam’s mother left her when she was small. Yoko’s daughter was abducted.

YO With my daughter, the thing that was done was done. I can’t be too hooked on that. But now I am very happy she is around because we have a good dialogue.

STW Relationships can go wrong very simply, very quickly, and when you have children you become more aware of relationships around you. I had to repair the relationship with my mother. I couldn’t afford to be angry or feel anything apart from: I need you back in my life. And it is not easy.

YO No, it is not easy.

STW I remember Yoko saying that if you hold on to anger and hate, it physically affects you. And if you think on a global scale about Yoko’s messages of peace and her peace tower in Iceland, it is all about projection of hope and love. You have to do it on a grassroots level to be able to do it on a global level.

KK But, realistically, are you serious – what chance do we hopeless human beings have of achieving peace?

YO The reason we will make it is because we are people who have a tremendous talent to conquer negativity. I really think we will do it. The reason I had to learn about this was when John passed away. I would see the mirror in the morning and I looked terrible. And I would think: oh my God, I can’t be looking like this for Sean even. So then I thought, why don’t I just smile? And when I smiled at the mirror, it was phoney but I kept doing it and, finally, the smile started to come from my body and was very good. But also the funny thing is that, in the 60s, I had this vision of everyone in the world smiling together. People might have thought it was a kooky idea. But we are doing it now [in Smile film, part of the retrospective]. It is amazing, isn’t it? It will be very good for healing.


YO May I say something I really want printed? Countries have lost their culture because what they wanted was money. Money became the running theme in every country and culture was sacrificed. With the Olympics coming to England, we can show people what life is about. It will be so good for this country – which I have always felt was a very spiritual country – because of John mainly, but even before John too. There is too much focus on billionaires when this is a country of poets. Let us go back to that! What we need is spiritual energy.

KK And yet you both have tremendous physical energy and use your bodies in your work. I was interested that Yoko once said this was narcissism. Did you really mean that?

YO What is wrong with narcissism? We need to take care of ourselves.

STW I love the idea that Yoko can be a trailblazer of narcissism. I find that I put my body in my work when I am at a particularly difficult or joyous point because I want to feel that moment.

Yoko Ono's Apple

Yoko Ono’s Apple (1966). Photograph: Iain MacMillan

YO I was evacuated during the war and it was very hard because I did not have much to eat. My mother would visit from Tokyo for a day or two and what she said was: “You are a good writer. Why don’t you write about this? It could be like Gone With the Wind, but more interesting.” From then on, I was always writing in my mind. It is important never to be totally involved – so a part of me is always in a corner from where I am watching myself.


KK How are you seen as artists?

YO Women artists are still treated differently from men.

STW I had a difficult scenario recently with an American gallerist. He said: “I’d like to show your work, but I don’t know, now that you have four children, whether you are as strong an artist any more.”

YO Oh my God – I can’t believe it.

STW I was so struck by what he said, I found myself being defensive. He then listed all these men artists and said: “How can you compete?” I said: “But they have children too.”

YO And what did he say?

STW And he said: “Of course they do, but does it affect their work in the way it will probably affect yours?”

YO No! You are not competing against anybody. When I was 21 and we had a university party, I remember a guy saying: “You are pretty now but in 40 years you are going to look like a fat Spanish woman.”

KK How wrong he was! What do you both think of the New York art scene compared with London?

STW I feel the art world in New York has a stronger following than Britain. If you go to a New York art district on a Saturday morning, it will be so busy with families and openings – art is much more ingrained in the culture.

YO I don’t know, it goes up and down. I think London, from the US point of view, is really happening now.


KK Both of you have been defined by men – Yoko on a mind-boggling scale. Is it fair to define anyone through their sexual relationships?

STW It is – in a way. I am happily defined by my relationship with Aaron. It is a big part of who I am and I can’t allow people to come at me and attack.

YO In my relationship with John, it is complicated. I would like to think of John as independent and not just my partner because he was an incredible guy and with his independence and creativity, he will do a lot of good for the world. And he has. What I am doing is different from John. Together, we created an incredible, powerful image, but it would not have been unless we had been independent of one another. And we were.


KK You have both experienced tremendous loss in your life – how far does adversity feed your art?

STW Art is my way of controlling it, not allowing it to take over my life. Sometimes, I get afraid it has defined me, that sense of grief, loss and illness. But actually, it is about allowing myself to take hold and say: this is part of who I am, but not only who I am.

YO I say in a British way that everything is a “blessing in disguise”, though sometimes I wish the disguise was less thick.

KK How often do you think of yourselves in terms of your ages?

YO I don’t. Only the outside world makes me think about it.

STW I was about to say exactly the same thing. It is not something I get up and think about.

KK I don’t know if Yoko got a hard time for being seven years older than John – but I suppose that was always a mere nothing compared to the 20 years or so between Sam and Aaron?

YO She topped me!

STW I am not ever aware of it in my relationship. I don’t think about it. I never think: if only I were 25….

YO We don’t want to be 25 again, do we? [laughs].


KK How often do either of you find yourselves wishing you could be anonymous?

YO: Celebrity helps me communicate my work, so I don’t think that.

STW Anonymity would be a fantastic umbrella. I don’t like intrusion.

KK What matters most to you?

STW The simplest things: love, trust and…

YO The first word that came to me is health; spiritual, mental and physical. But also without love and trust, you will not have health. When people ask me what the most important thing is in life, I answer: just breathe.

STW And that is amazing because that feels like the essence of so much of your work. When you look at something like the films, there is such humour and simplicity. But I want to tell you how I saw Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band perform in LA. It is one of the most extraordinary things I have seen. I wrote her a fan letter afterwards. It was almost shamanistic.

YO [laughs] Maybe!

STW You are very upfront with your emotions. And I was surprised because I had thought: she must be fed up with being defined by John sometimes. But you ran films of him and he is still very much with you and a part of your work.

YO Yes… always together.

STW And I felt proud of you for being there and still integrating John into your life and also having Sean on stage. I watched him looking at you with loving pride. You have helped me to define myself. People want to know: are you a film-maker now or an artist? I just say: “It is me and I am a creative person.” Yoko makes music, films, sculptures. Sometimes you can’t be defined as one thing.

YO Don’t censor yourself!

STW And I feel that having my children is as creative as – and more challenging than – making a film.


KK Did it change your art?

YO No, although I was not prepared to have my daughter and I was amazed: is this what women go through? We were never told. But from her, I learned to be grounded, which is good.

STW I felt giving birth was the most creative act of all my creative acts – literally creation!

YO We are goddesses, creating the human race!

STW We are – and it is as powerful as anything you could ever do. Being a mother is part of my work and world.

KK Tell me this then: why be an artist at all?

YO Because that is who I am. I didn’t try to be – but I was always an artist.

STW I tried not to be, but I couldn’t be anything else. I tried many other things but I didn’t know what being an artist meant other than being myself.

YO Yes. It is exactly the same with me.

As she stands up, Sam says the conversation has been “inspiring”. Yoko is still sparking – ready to talk all day now, it seems – but the conversation is almost over. I have one last question as a post-script: would they have got on if they had met as children?

They were, they agree, isolated little girls. Yoko has “no idea” but wonders whether they might have “pushed” each other around. She remembers: “I was always very much myself” and, looking at Sam, asks: “Were you?” Sam replies: “I was fiercely independent but I really wanted friends.” And Yoko starts to laugh: “How good it would have been to have an intelligent friend.”

Yoko Ono: To the Light is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 from 19 June to 9 September