Yoko Ono - My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004)

Yoko Ono – My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004) Photo by Simon Hilton ©2004 Yoko Ono

Contemporary Magazine 2006: Issue 84

MICHELE ROBECCHI: You’ve been based in New York since the late 1950s, and have had a unique opportunity to witness very different times and swings – from the Fluxus days through the East Village boom of the 80s and the consequent crisis of the 90s. Do you think that your work has somehow been influenced by these changes through the years? Obviously the audience in the 60s was very different to the audience of the 90s. Do you feel people have perceived your art differently?

YOKO ONO: Well, in a very strange way, I saw Pop Art happening and then Op Art and all that, but I wasn’t affected by it so much, you know. Before that was Abstract Expressionism… When Pop Art was very fashionable – I use the word fashionable which is maybe not fair to them, but it was – people expected Pop Art to be the only thing that you should be doing. If you were not doing that then you weren’t a good artist. But there were still some cult followers of my work; there were always some people who liked this kind of art side of work.

MR: I was especially thinking about the 80s because it is normally assumed that it was a very joyful, if not slightly hedonistic time. I’m talking about the pre-AIDS days, when all of a sudden there was a lot of money involved and many social concerns seemed to be brushed aside.

YO: Well, I was never on that boat. [laughs] I always missed the boat, and that’s fine. It was probably better that I missed it.

MR: Absolutely. I think it’s good to miss the boat sometimes. Were you annoyed by the reaction to My Mummy was Beautiful (2004) at the Liverpool Biennial? (1)

YO: Yeah, I didn’t understand that at all. I was very shocked, because when I thought of the idea, I thought of covering the city of Liverpool with all those beautiful elements of my mother, or motherhood, and I thought it was my way of saying thank you to Liverpool. I wanted to say thank you by giving something. And I thought they would love it, I thought they would love the experience of it. I never thought it was going to create controversy.

MR: Especially for such an image. I mean, Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde is over a century old and one would expect society to have covered some ground after that.

YO: You see, that’s another very interesting thing. You were all born from a woman’s body but you don’t want to think about it, you want to always sweep that under the rug. You don’t want to face a woman’s body on that level. But why? That’s where you came from. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that that’s where the perversion of society starts. In other words, you are debasing women. You have received a lot from women but would like to ignore that. You would like to ignore the power of women in a way, and of course the female sex feels that and their position is one of resentment and anger. It’s not healthy. It’s almost like you’re ignoring or abusing half the world and their energy. If you allow that energy to blossom then it’s better for the world, the world that you live in.

MR: You have a piece here in the exhibition, We are all Water. Is it the same piece you showed in London in 1966?

YO: I think that I first showed it in 1971. It’s basically the same one but here it’s in a different form.

MR: You also did a song called We are all Water at about the same time, which I gather was another evolution of the same concept.

YO: Yes. It was very interesting. I was just inspired to do that. The idea was the fact that we are all the same, just water. So it should be easy for us to communicate. But then Dr Moto discovered not an idea, but the fact that water can understand words and it changes quality when we put certain energies through it. It’s just fantastic – I really like the fact that it was almost like what I was doing was proven by science [laughter], and that gave more legitimacy to it.

MR: Don’t you think it’s crazy that people buy water?

YO: Yeah. Isn’t it amazing? Water is such a basic element. You and I are the same element. Only the container is different. So that’s why I understand you and you understand me. Of course sometimes we are fearful of understanding each other, so we pretend that we don’t. It’s just pretending, you know.

MR: The association of a visual artist like Matthew Barney with a pop star like Björk doesn’t seem to create a stir like it did in your days. Quite the contrary, the art world now seems more receptive to these ‘stardom intrusions’ than in the past.

YO: Yeah, I think it’s great, because we have more freedom that way. Why were we limiting ourselves to one field? I think it had a lot to do with practicality, in the sense that you have to limit yourself to one job and have a name card saying ‘I am an artist’, no, ‘I am a musician’, ‘please hire me’. Especially in the art world, somebody was saying – I don’t think I should actually quote the person’s name, but a pretty important artist was saying that once you establish yourself as an artist in a certain form, then you are known for that, and if you change your ways of expressing yourself you may become less popular and you lose your job in effect. It doesn’t sell anymore. You know how to do this type of painting and you suddenly say, ‘No, I’m going to just do photography’ or something like that, nobody’s going to buy it. So, in a way, it’s establishing yourself as a monetary value.

MR: Where do you think this need to categorise people in this way comes from?

YO: It’s because you want to make sure that you can support yourself and you can make money by your art, and for that you have to say, well, ‘I’m like this, and if you buy my work in five years it might become more expensive.’ It’s like a name card. And, of course, I don’t have a name card.

MR: One of my favourite pieces of yours is the all-white chess set Play It By Trust (1966). I assumed it was about showing that we are all equals, right?

YO: Yes. It’s very much like the We are all Water piece.

MR: But there are different dynamics involved in chess. There is a battle; there is competition.

YO: It immediately dispenses with the idea of war and a battle, because if you are the same, you don’t have a war. Who are we fighting? And why?

MR: Your work for peace in the late 60s left a deep mark. Today war is still a big issue but the majority of artists seem to be dealing with the subject in a different way from the artists of your generation, and you especially.

YO: In what sense?

MR: Well, I get the impression that you were sending a global message in a more propositional and positive way, whereas today artists’ works tend to be more documentary oriented. And I was wondering if this change is more the result of our society growing more cynical, or becoming part of an ‘it didn’t work out that way, so let’s try it this other way’ attitude.

YO: I think both. I really think that many people in the young generation feel that what we did didn’t work. But I say that it did work. I say that if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t have the world now. It helped to keep the world going and also it probably made the world into a more complex and interesting society. Some, in their minds, only focus on the destruction of society. But let’s focus on what we have achieved. We have achieved an incredible, sophisticated civilisation and the ideas in our heads are very, very interesting and wise. I think that when you watch the TV you will see that some of the things talked about by ordinary people could be the words of somebody very special like a philosopher, a guru or a priest in the 16th or 17th centuries. And nowadays it’s just normal for all of us to be just talking like that. Even on TV they are expressing ideas that are very interesting, considering what it was like three or four centuries ago.

MR: So do you think that the media and the evolution of the media have played a role in this?

YO: Well, the evolution of the media has to do with meeting the demand of the people. There is an incredibly strong desire to communicate, and of course communication is everything that we have. I think that exchange and communication, and especially the exchange of information, gives us more and more power.

MR: But at the same time don’t you think it’s overwhelming?

YO: Well, I don’t know, of course we need pause, some time to rest and some time for entertainment. And that’s what I think artists are doing. Artists are doing something that’s two-fold: one is to wake people up, the other is to entertain them. And when I say entertain people it sounds like it’s less of a thing than the effort to wake people up, but it’s not really. Entertainment can be extremely wise and intelligent.

MR: And educational too.

YO: Right – game playing on the level of an exercise for your brain. So I really think in that sense the only hope we have is to try to change society through science and art.

(1) My Mummy was Beautiful consisted of a series of banners, posters and stickers, posted all over the city of Liverpool, depicting a woman’s naked breast and vagina. A BBC poll and a Times inflammatory editorial described the work as offensive, and the fracas eventually resulted in the work being removed from the St Luke War Memorial. Paul Domela, deputy chief executive of Liverpool Biennial, declared that ‘We were aware that some would object to it. But, at the same time, we realised that a great many would love it as well […] In the campaign for the election in the European Union, there was an image of a woman breast-feeding. The campaign was aired across Europe, including some very Catholic countries. Over here, the difference was that the nipple was removed. This baby had its mouth open into nothingness. What does that say about the relationship we have in this country to motherhood? To begin to think about that and talk about it is very important.’
Yoko Ono, Cory Arcangel, Larry Clark, Hellen van Meene, Elmgreen and Dragset, Paul Chan, Smadar Dreyfus, Art in Puerto Rico, Veronique Branquinho and Lucy McKenzie in conversation

COVER: Yoko Ono, 2006
PHOTO: Tomas Vandecasteele
COURTESY: Galerie Gianluca Ranzi, Antwerp