by John Robinson, The Guardian, 23 April 2005.
Described by her husband John Lennon as ‘the world’s most famous unknown artist’, Yoko Ono discusses her most creative moments with John Robinson
The 1960s had already been fairly eventful for Yoko Ono. She’d published a book of “instructional poems”, and submerged herself in the New York avant garde. At Carnegie Hall in 1961 she had amplified, to no particular critical acclaim, a flushing toilet. It was, however, at a private view of her Indica Gallery show in 1966 that she asked Beatle John Lennon to hammer a nail into a canvas, and inadvertently became half of one of the 20th-century’s most notorious couples.
With Yoko Ono, it was a conceptual show then, and it’s a conceptual show still. An artist who helped define what conceptual and performance art might be all about, in the 1960s, she arrived with ideas based around imagination, peace and dreams. And though she’s still happy to talk about them, this is not someone who’s part of the nostalgia business.
“It was a very exciting time,” she says now. “But life is always exciting. I don’t think that this generation should think that those times were much more exciting than now. Once you taste the excitement of life, it never fades.”
Faced with considerable hostility when she turned the Fab Four into a Fab Five, Yoko has since enjoyed a far greater respect. Undoubtedly a hip businesswoman, and curator of the Lennon legacy, it’s been her occasionally terrifying, often beautiful music which has benefited from a critical rethink. Always popular among like minds – John Lydon would DJ at parties with her music – down the years Yoko’s audience has remained a niche market, but a committed one.
It’s fitting then, that she should turn up at the Vincent Gallo-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties, alongside other mavericks of the decidedly leftfield.
“I’m totally nervous,” she says of this latest, perhaps unexpected career turn, “and at the same time, very happy that I was asked to do this one.”
“I am still excited every day,” she says. “Life is so fascinating! I love it!”
It’s been a full 72 years so far – and here she dwells on some of its defining events.
In New York in the early 1960s, Yoko was part of the Fluxus movement, a group of artists who took a humorous, perverse look at everyday objects. Long on the conceptual, Yoko gave instructions for people to imagine paintings and machines that didn’t exist. A sales list of the period lists Crying Machine at $3,000 which “drops tears and cries for you when coin is deposited”. “Artists with the same kind of spirit in those days all ended up in New York,” says Yoko. “We met, we created, we inspired each other, and, eventually, the world. It could be a book, but one I’ve no intention of writing at the moment.”
First published in 1964, Grapefruit collected Yoko’s “instructional” works. Before he and Yoko got together, John Lennon kept his copy by his bed, and was by turns vexed and delighted by what he read. “Instructions make the work more conceptual,” explains Yoko. “I was a poet who was writing haikus from a very early age. People used to say, ‘When Yoko takes steps, a poem comes out of her mouth as she stops.’ This was when I was about five years old, and the steps I was taking were very short. The haikus developed into instructions, so in terms of the form of my artwork it wasn’t much of a jump. I still use the form of instructions in many works.”
A performance piece – audience members were invited to take to the stage and cut off part of Yoko’s clothing. Performed first in Japan, in 1964, this put Yoko herself on the line, while still being an “instructional” piece. “I realised that it was more accurate to my artistic concept to use the form of instructions for my work,” says Yoko. “It went into creating situational events – now called performance art, I believe.” But what’s it like to have people you don’t know come on stage and cut your clothes off? “The first time around in the 1960s, I was a bit scared,” says Yoko, “but when I did it again in 2002, I was full of love for the human race.”
The Acorn Event
Since becoming a couple in May 1968, John Lennon and Yoko Ono had become inseparable, and together they planned to submit a piece to a contemporary sculpture exhibition: two acorns, to be buried in the grounds of Coventry cathedral. The plan? To bring together east and west. “We suddenly realised that when we planted the two acorns together, there was no distance between them,” says Yoko. “The famous poem of ‘East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet’ was true – but John and I brought east and west together out of our love.” The acorns were promptly stolen. John and Yoko supplied more, and a security guard to watch over them for the duration of the exhibition.
After their March 1969 marriage in Gibraltar, John and Yoko became “Mr and Mrs Peace” – spending their honeymoon in bed, in front of the world’s press at room 902 of the Amsterdam Hilton. One of Yoko’s ideas – “A dream you dream alone is a dream, a dream you dream together is reality” – was the basis of the plan. “I have a document in which I coined this line in New York before I came to London in ’66,” Yoko explains. “I made that statement when I was dreaming alone. In hindsight, you could say that the bed-in was a culmination of that idea. This is more proof that when one promises or wishes for something, it could really happen. So one should be very careful not to wish for anything negative.”
By December 1970, John and Yoko were in New York, surrounded by experimental film-makers and hungry for avant garde experience. For Up Your Legs Forever, they filmed peoples’ legs “for peace”. Fly was prompted by a joke. A man is caught staring at a woman with large breasts, and explains himself by saying he is looking at her hat. Fly was a film of the insect crawling across a naked woman’s body. “The experience of making Fly was really hilarious, actually,” says Yoko. “The shooting was done in one night and was over by dawn… just like the film. All night, we tried to catch a fly that flew away. There was definitely a shortage of flies. One assistant finally got some in the subway and brought them back.”
Season Of Glass
After John Lennon’s 1980 murder, Yoko made this unavoidably raw and personal album. The cover depicted a glass of water and Lennon’s bloodstained glasses – a statement which brought Yoko in for more criticism. “It never crossed my mind that it was somehow using him. John and I were like one person at the time,” she later said. “I am human, too,” she says now. “So of course, I don’t enjoy being the mark of hostility. But my take on life was that it was always invigorating, intense, and interesting. I had no time to lend my ears to hostility.”
Before they were a couple, Yoko sent John a box of sanitary towels – inside the box was a “mend” piece, a broken red cup for the recipient to mend. “My wife wondered who this woman was who sent me a box of Kotex,” Lennon said later. “I didn’t know what to do about it” After 9/11, Yoko devised Mend Piece For The World, and set it up in New York – a participation work in which viewers are encouraged to mend broken pottery. “The theme of the piece is to mend,” says Yoko. “It is an attempt to create a symbiotic mending between what you are mending – maybe a broken cup – and what you wish to mend. Like the world.”