Yoko Ono poses at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, central Germany, Thursday, Feb. 13. 2013. Four days before her 80th birthday the artist opened her exhibition 'Yoko Ono. Half-A-Wind Show' with her own works. The exhibition is open until May 12. (AP Photo/dpa, Arne Dedert)

Yoko Ono poses at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, central Germany, Thursday, Feb. 13. 2013. Four days before her 80th birthday the artist opened her exhibition ‘Yoko Ono. Half-A-Wind Show’ with her own works. The exhibition is open until May 12. (AP Photo/dpa, Arne Dedert)

80-year-old artist and musician looks back at her cutting-edge artistic practice

At 80, Yoko Ono remains an adventurous and committed artist as well as a woman who chooses her own path.

Half-A-Wind Show, a retrospective of Ono’s work, opened in Frankfurt in February. It examines both her new artwork as well as her earliest creations: the conceptual art she produced in the 1960s that first attracted the attention of her late husband, John Lennon.

He first met Ono while attending a London gallery opening where he climbed a ladder to read, with a magnifying glass, the word “yes” she had taped to the ceiling. Posting key words on gallery walls was among the early cutting-edge artistic ideas she put into practice — though at that time, in 1966, it was not picked up by other artists.

“I was inspired to do that and whenever I’m inspired, I don’t hesitate,” Ono told CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel.

The idea of halves and of what is “unknowable” is a frequent inspiration for Ono, she said.

“I was having a relationship with a guy, but I was not getting along too well by then, and one morning he didn’t come home so there is a big empty space on the other side of the bed,” she said in an interview for CBC Radio’s Wachtel on the Arts, a segment of Ideas.

“Chemically speaking or biologically, we research things, but we don’t know half of them. We only know our half of it — symbolically — and we don’t know ourselves more than half,” Ono said.

A pioneering conceptual artist and musician, Ono is also a dedicated peace advocate, from the days of her bed-in for peace with Lennon to the creation of the LennonOno Grant for Peace to her art project theImagine Peace Tower.

Born in Tokyo in 1933 to an aristocratic family, she describes her childhood as isolated, but privileged. Her banker father and painter mother moved the family to the countryside to escape the bombing of Tokyo during the Second World War. She also spent part of her childhood in the U.S. and was educated at Sarah Lawrence College outside New York.

“I got that rebellious nature from my childhood, from my parents, my grandparents. They were really living in a bubble, thinking that was how it should be,” Ono said. “I wanted not to join this group of people.”

She described how overhearing one of the servants in her childhood home describe a woman panting while in labour. It helped inspire some of the unique sounds she eventually used in her avant-garde music.

“I wanted to replicate what was in my memory. She was having a baby. She was [groaning] …What a strong, strong thing you have. You have this strong thing because we [women] created the human race,” Ono said. “We have very strong voice, that is why I did that.”

The reaction to some of the recordings was strong, she said. “Most people didn’t like it. ‘[They said] Oh my god, what is she doing?’”

Ono spoke to Wachtel about her inspirations, refusing to censor herself and how interactivity, long been part of her artistic process, has now come of age.

A controversial, iconic figure, Yoko Ono is today regarded as a multi-media innovator. At 80, she remains an adventurous and committed conceptual artist and musician, celebrated internationally. In a rare conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, she talks about her traditional, privileged upbringing in Japan, harshly interrupted by World War II, and the spirit of creative experimentation that informs her work in all its variety.

John Lennon once described Yoko Ono as the world’s “most famous unknown artist.  Everybody knows her name,” he said, “but nobody knows what she does.”

Yoko Ono has done a lot.  A pioneering conceptual artist and musician, a dedicated peace advocate, she’s been pushing boundaries since the early 1960s.  In fact, it was through her work that John Lennon first fell in love with her.  He attended an opening at a London gallery where he climbed a ladder to read, with a magnifying glass, the word “yes” taped to the ceiling.  Thus began the relationship and creative collaboration that made her a world famous celebrity.

Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo in 1933, into an aristocratic family, half Buddhist and half Protestant.  From an early age, she was exposed to both Eastern and Western influences.  Her father’s international banking career meant several moves for the family between Japan and the United States. Her privileged background included an elite education and rigorous musical training, but at the same time, she faced personal challenges that helped shape her independent spirit.

As the first female student to enter the philosophy program at the prestigious Gakashuin University, she was hungry for ideas and absorbed in metaphysical questions. In the late 1950s, she moved to the U.S., joining her family in Scarsdale, New York.

But soon she dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College to escape to New York City, where she became involved with the avant-garde collective called Fluxus, and innovators such as the musician John Cage.  Yoko Ono initiated New York’s first “loft concerts,” and she also began exhibiting her ground-breaking, interactive artwork – challenging traditional aesthetic values.

It wasn’t until that fateful meeting with John Lennon that she became a household name.  Today her own work is widely recognized.  She was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2009.  Last summer, London’s Serpentine Gallery mounted a major retrospective during the Cultural Olympiad.  And just a couple of months ago, her largest ever retrospective, called Half-a-Wind Show, opened at the Schirn Kunsthalle Gallery in Frankfurt.  At the same time, she’s released three albums in the past five years, including her latest music for dance clubs.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Yoko Ono just after her 80th birthday at the end of February, at the CBC’s New York studio.


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