Part 1/4: Childhood

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Part 2/4: Passages For Light

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Part 3/4: Five Films & Chair Piece

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Part 4/4: Q&A

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Yoko Ono’s lecture at Stanford University on 14 Jan 2009
Courtesy of Yoko Ono, Stanford University &
Lectures & Films ©2009 Yoko Ono
Video Footage ©2009 Stanford University
All Rights Reserved.

Yoko Ono reflects on her life, work and public perception

ono and chang
History Professor Gordon Chang and Yoko Ono answered questions from the audience after Ono’s
presentation Wednesday in Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

by Cynthia Haven, Stanford Report, January 15, 2009
Tickets vanished within a few hours.

Clearly, the appearance of Yoko Ono caught the attention of Stanford’s busy campus, even at the beginning of a new term and a new year.

By the time the avant-garde artist and peace activist spoke Wednesday night, the “wish trees” set up as part of her visit—one small lemon tree at Tresidder Union and another outside the Stanford Bookstore—were already fluttering with the scribbled hopes of many in the Stanford community: “I wish to go to an American university,” said one. “Keep on giving peace a chance! Never give up!” said another.

After the trees are removed on Jan. 16, the wishes will join a half-million others that are buried at the foot of Imagine Peace Tower, a column of light projected 30 meters into the sky off the coast of Reykjavík, Iceland.

“She’s one of the most original and creative artists of our times,” said history Professor Gordon Chang, who introduced Ono before her talk, titled “Passages for Light.” The event was sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts in collaboration with Chang and the Asian American Art Project at Stanford.

Citing her work as a writer, artist, performer, activist, composer, musician and filmmaker, Chang said that “in each area, she has broken boundaries, expanded horizons.”

Ono was once one of the most hated women in the world; now the effervescent and indefatigable 75-year-old activist is a celebrated icon. Although she has a dizzying schedule of exhibitions (a major retrospective opened in London last month), performances and speaking engagements, the New York-based Ono found a few minutes to talk to the Stanford News Service about her life and art.

You’ve been a celebrity for so many years. People must approach you with so many expectations and preconceptions.
[laughs] That’s for sure.

How do you handle it?
I don’t feel I’m handling it. “Handling” it is not the word I think of. I’m just going through it.

I understand you just took your first trip to China.
Yeah. I did that. That was great. I just didn’t know what to expect, but the strange thing is that they knew about my work so well, and I said, “I’ve never been here, so what’s the deal?” And they said, “We all look on the Internet.” It’s really a global village now.

You’ve taken a great interest in the global village. I understand that you’re on Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter – you’re more plugged in than most of us.
I think it’s something we should all be doing. The more we do, the more we will be united. It’s a “being on the same page” kind of thing. We’re all on the same page, we’re all in the same boat.

You’ve had a background in Japan and America going back all your life, really. How do you think the two cultures have influenced your art and your work?
I don’t know. I just leave it to the critics. For me, I’m just doing what I can do, and what I feel like doing.

Yet many have commented on a Zen-like quality in your work.
I was very interested in Buddhism at one time, when I was in high school. But in Japan, they comment that my work is very Western, too.


I found a video recording on the Internet of CUT PIECE, in which you let members of the audience cut away pieces of your clothes with scissors. It’s unexpectedly powerful.
Which one?


This was one from Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965.
After I did that one, I went to London—swinging London, at the time—and the minute I put the scissors in front of me, 20 people came up on the stage and made me totally naked. Oops! It depends on the audience really; it’s a dialogue between me and the audience.

It seemed to draw violence out of the audience, like a poison.
It always draws something out of people. I mean, that’s why we’re doing this.

You said about your Paris 2003 performance of CUT PIECE that it was intended to fight sexism and racism.
Yeah. But also, I wanted to show that we have to trust each other. If I’m going to say that, I have to do it myself. I have to trust people myself. Now it’s a very different situation in society. I did think that, really, it could be a bit dangerous. But then I thought, we have to trust each other.

You’ve gone from one of the most reviled public figures—the one that was blamed for breaking up the Beatles—to a celebrated international icon. How did you weather the storms?
I think that I was very lucky. I went through the most horrible situation where I could have been killed. There were people who really wanted me dead. I don’t know how I survived that. You can’t advise people. It’s such a severe situation when people go through it, I don’t know what they can do. All we can do is do our best, whatever that is—our best to survive.

Of course, when you burst on the world stage with John Lennon in the 1960s, World War II was only two decades in the past, and the women’s movement had not yet been launched.
Exactly. [laughs]

Do you feel sexism and racism played a role in your treatment?
Definitely. It was very upfront, very clear. I think maybe I was used as an example of something—to make people understand what one goes through. Maybe in that sense it was beneficial—beneficial to society, maybe.

I remember those early clips of you. When you were silent, you were seen as a sort of black spider, sitting in the background. When you spoke, you were seen as domineering.
I think that in some ways most women do go through that. You can’t really stand up for yourself, because then people say, “How dare you!” and if you’re silent, then they will think there’s something really creepy about it.

What do you hope to accomplish with the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER and the wish trees?
It’s growing, and it is doing what I hoped that it would do. Many, many wishes are being made and they are being sent to the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER. There’s an incredible power of people’s wishes that are concentrated in the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER. Also, light has the same vibration as love. The light that’s in the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER—which is the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER—I think many people enjoying it, somehow, feeling part of it.

What would you say to critics who say these works are too—
I know. People say it is too simplistic, or whatever. Some people say, “Oh well, maybe when you get older you want to do something simple.” I thought that was ageist. My work was always minimal. Minimalism: I believed in that. It was always very simple. I think it is as simple as breathing. Breathing is very important. I don’t feel that that’s bad. I was very surprised myself that the wish tree has become so important in people’s lives. I’m very honored that I was used for that, instead of some very complex, highfalutin work. Sometimes something simple gives more to people.

Yoko Ono, Passages for Light

by Ellen Huet, Stanford Daily

Yoko Ono is nothing if not well-known. “Yoko Ono is one of the most recognizable names in art today,” explained Professor Gordon H. Chang, director of the Asian-American Art Project, during his introduction for Ono’s visit to campus on Wednesday. Whether her name recalls her music, filmmaking, performance art, activism or her marriage to John Lennon, her renown is indisputable. Ono’s lecture, titled “Passages for Light,” was made possible by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (SiCa), and brought in an audience so large that tickets were gone only a few hours after being made available.

Once Ono had sauntered onto the stage in her iconic hat and sunglasses, she had to use a stepstool to be seen over the podium. At 75, her energy seems to have refused to dwindle over the years. She introduced the first part of the program: old 8mm film clips from her childhood. Her parents, especially her mother, were keenly interested in capturing young Yoko on film, and decades later, audiences were able to view the legend in some of her earliest moments: crawling, taking a bath with her mother, imitating her father playing golf on the front lawn and dancing. The most precious images showed Ono alongside her father; him in a stiff stance and her, half his size, dancing in place with reckless abandon — already showing the free spirit for which she is so famous today.

Ono, born in Tokyo in 1933, moved to San Francisco with her family when she was two years old. The videos showed the city in the mid-’30s: cable cars, old buildings, the unfinished Golden Gate Bridge, etc., to which Ono commented with a laugh that “It just shows that I was there before you.” As other footage showed Ono immaculately dressed and always wearing a hat, she joked, “Now I know where my hat thing comes from.” Reflecting on images of her childhood, Ono brought the audience into her life’s experiences from the very beginning.

Next, she skipped forward to recent years and showed the audience a video about her two newest projects of light, love and interaction. Onochord and the Imagine Peace Tower both tie into the lecture’s title of “Passages for Light” by using light to convey human emotion and unity. Onochord, a project that is characteristically Onoesque with its simple yet poignant message, is a way to flash the message “I love you,” using light: first flashing the light once, then twice, then three times, and repeating. She explained it as a way to share the message, easily and with everyone, and as she flashed the message to the audience, they flashed it back, creating a twinkling sea of lights within the auditorium.

Compared to Onochord, the Imagine Peace Tower takes the same concept but expands it to a much larger scale: It sends the message of peace with light — except instead of a tiny flashlight, it’s a 10-meter-wide base that projects a 4000-meter beam of light into the sky. Situated in Reykjavík, Iceland, and running on geothermal energy, the tower is dedicated to John Lennon and was unveiled in 2007. All the wishes from the Wish Trees that Ono brings to her appearances are buried at the base of the tower, sending their energy up with the light into the universe. Ono fondly recounted the inspiration behind the tower: When she first met Lennon, he asked her about her plans to build a “house of light,” not realizing that the idea had been just a conceptual idea and not a real house, and four decades later, she has built for him a building made of light, just as he originally had wanted.

Moving on to her performances and art, Ono then showed video clips of some of her work over the years, describing her belief that “the simplicity of life gives you power.” The films certainly reflected the concept: “Freedom” was simply a woman trying to rip off her brassiere in slow motion, and “Cut Piece,” one of her most famous performances, showed Ono sitting on stage while audience members filed by and cut off her clothing with scissors.

Her most intriguing performance of the night, however, was shown live: Without explanation, Ono brought a wooden chair out on stage, and after announcing, “I don’t know this chair, but I’m going to try to have a relationship with it,” proceeded to do just that. She examined it, turned it on its side, crawled on the ground and entangled herself with its legs (showing surprising agility for her age), threw it passionately to the side, only to pick it up and cradle it — showing us that no matter how long she’s been around, Ono always has surprises for her audiences.

Even through the last two videos, “It’s Time for Action” and “Outro,” Ono was full of energy; despite the dimmed lights and the audience’s attention directed at the screen rather than at her, she danced across the stage to the music in the videos. “I was dancing,” she explained after the videos had finished, “because I think it’s important to dance rather than to march through life — it’s easier, safer” — a perfect example of why Professor Chang introduced her as someone who fully embodied the assimilation of art into life.

The second half of the evening comprised of a question-and-answer session. The topics ranged from her art to her childhood, and she answered some honestly, and some with a sharp, no-nonsense response. For example, when asked, “What is the subtle, sneaky, important reason that you are a human being and not a chair?” she laughed and simply responded, “I’ll leave it up to a critic like you to decide.” Never one to be fazed by others, Ono spoke candidly about her reasons behind “Cut Piece,” explaining that “In life, we try to give what we want to give, but instead, we give what they want to take.” When discussing her 2003 reprise of the original 1965 performance, she explained that she wanted to use it to show her trust of those around her by exposing herself in such a vulnerable position.

Ono also touched on her background and family; when asked when she first realized she was an artist, she answered instead about her father — a banker, who, according to Ono, spiraled down into drinking in his later years because he never realized his repressed potential as a musician. As for her childhood, she remarked that as a result of always being under the eye of the camera from a very young age, she developed a “very private” side of herself that she could hide away from her exposed self.

Throughout the question-and-answer session, Ono shared small, simple pearls of wisdom regarding her unique take on life. When asked about her art’s inspiration from life, she replied, “I don’t separate art and life. My life is art, my art is life,” and later, described how she conquered life’s obstacles by dancing: “Dancing is a way of dealing with life,” she explained. “Through life, you should be dancing very carefully.” She recounted a tale of a Japanese dancing warrior, who, outnumbered by eight enemies, fought off all their sword blows not with his own sword, but by moving his body nimbly so that each blade never managed to cut him — in this way, dancing his way out of danger.

As a final crowning moment, a large picture of a vase about five feet tall was brought onto stage along with a pile of vase shards. Ono explained that all the shards were once part of a vase much like the one pictured, and that everyone in the audience should take a piece, hold on to it, and in ten years return to rebuild the vase together. Practical? Not likely. Idealistic and naïve? Perhaps. But if nothing else, “Passages for Light” taught audiences that Yoko Ono is as spirited as she ever was, and regardless of personal opinion about her work, should be universally admired for her courage, energy and determined faith in the human power of love.


with Gordon Chang, Professor of American History & co-director of Asian-American Art Project at Stanford, who kindly hosted the event.

with Dr. BJ Fogg, Persuasive Technology Lab, Stanford.

The Production Team