Take a tour through Yoko Ono’s show, Anton’s Memory, at this year’s Venice Biennale with the show’s curator, Nora Halpern, and Yoko herself.
Further interview with Yoko, talking about Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, isolation, inspiration & instructions.
Click on the image below to see the full story on Yoko Ono at http://www.flypmedia.com/issues/34/#1/1
Yoko Ono Anton’s Memory
Film and review from Scribe Media Art Culture
One of the best things about Yoko Ono’s solo exhibition ‘Anton’s Memory’ at Pallazetto Tito in Venice is that the coldness of her minimalist conceptual work is altered by the old traditional Venetian house. Somehow it feels more personal and sentimental.
The second best thing about the exhibition is no mention of John Lennon. This year Ono received the Lifetime Achievement Golden Lion at the 53rd Venice Biennale. “The world’s most famous unknown artist” as Lennon called Ono finally got recognition for her work, not her famous marriage. (Arguably, though, that might have helped.)
The show is mostly based on her early work, known as “instruction pieces.” These almost haiku-like pieces acquire an almost religious meaning in the Venetian house. The Catholic iconography of “Touch Me” becomes more profound when presented in Italy. It consist of body parts carved out of white marble and a granite bowl of water that mimics a water stoup at a Catholic church. The audience is invited to wet their fingers and touch the marble body parts.
The show’s curator Nora Halpern worked with Ono to combine old and new works to create Anton’s Memory. Halpern describes it as a physical representation of a son’s fading memory of his mother.
Many pieces are reworked versions of classic performances or sculptures such as Cut Piece, White Chess Set, Painting to Be Slept On, Sky TV, presented along side their newer incarnations.
The title of the show, ANTON’S MEMORY, reflects “a woman’s life we see only through her son’s eyes – his faded memory.” as Yoko Ono herself says.
The exhibition has been designed especially for the rooms of Palazzetto Tito and is a series of new installations that incorporate some earlier works as points of reference. It includes films, sound compositions, sculptures, and drawings, as well as a number of interactive installations. There will also be elements to do with the corporeal and the sense of touch: for example, Ono’s sculpture “touch me III,” containing fragments of the female body, as if crammed into a simple chest of drawers. At the centre of the display, two filmed versions of her 1964 performance work “Cut Piece,” from 1965 and 2003, will be shown. In this work, the artist lets the public cut away parts of her clothing little by little. In the first version Yoko Ono is thirty-two years old, and in the second version she is seventy, giving a sense of the marks left on us by the passing of time. Military helmets from the Second World War with pieces of sky inside; the film of a woman desperately attempting to free herself from her bra (a metaphor for women’s liberation); an insistent coughing sound; tables, pens and paper for whoever wants to write their own thoughts and leave a trace of them; the book of recipes for artistic actions, “Grapefruit” (1964), left lying around like a generative element for all the rest; tables for playing all-white chess in peace and quiet, in the main chamber of a Venetian chamber between lancet windows opening onto nature or closed with coloured glass… all this and much more, along with a moving soundtrack, will complete the exhibition, punctuated also by the hand of the artist, who will write new pieces directly on the walls.
The entire exposition in the rooms of Palazzetto Tito will constitute a unitary whole evoking “ANTON’S MEMORY”; something that may be looked on as a codified memory, i.e. the story of an adult son rethinking through the existential vicissitudes of his mother through symbols and objects.
In the words of the curator of the project, Nora Halpern: “ANTON’S MEMORY reflects Yoko Ono’s ideas of universal inter-connectedness and the temporal realm that we all inhabit. Through her installation at the Palazzetto Tito, as well as related works throughout Venice, Yoko Ono seeks to evoke memories that are simultaneously overtly personal yet evocative of collective desire and a communal connection.” An artist’s book, Other Rooms, will be published on the occasion of “ANTON’S MEMORY,” serving as a lasting extension of the exhibition. There will also be a brochure with texts by the curator Nora Halpern as well as Angela Vettese, President of the Foundation.
About the artist
Born in 1933 in Tokyo, Yoko Ono was one of the pioneers of Conceptual Art, and one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. In 1952 she was among the first women in Japan to study philosophy. In the mid ‘50s she moved to New York, where she took part in the vibrant artistic scene which included the composer John Cage and artists of the likes of La Monte Young, among others. And it was with Young that in 1960 Yoko Ono set up a series of concerts and events in her loft near Canal Street, which were frequented not only by young artists and musicians like Jasper Johns, George Maciunas (who went on to found the Fluxus movement), and Robert Rauschenberg, but also icons of the art world like Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim and Isamu Noguchi. From the beginning of her career right up to the present day, the works of Yoko Ono have never stopped influencing generation after generation of artists. Her commitment to peace, which continued together with her husband John Lennon, has never ceased, not even after his death.
On the occasion of the 53rd Biennial of Visual Arts, Yoko Ono will be presented with the Golden Lion for Career Achievement.
For the Press
The artist will be available for a press conference on 28th May at 11 am, before the opening of her solo exhibition at the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation on June 3. She will then return to Venice to receive her Golden Lion on 6th June 2009. Yoko Ono’s solo exhibition is the result of the collaboration between the president of the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, Angela Vettese, the project curator, Nora Halpern, together with Jon Hendricks, curator of the works of Yoko Ono, and Anita Sieff, Venice coordinator.
The exhibition has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation and The Peter Norton Family Foundation; The Bell Family Foundation; The Broad Art Foundtion; Fondazione Bonotto ; Galerie Lelong, New York ; Provisions Library and anonymous donors
ANTON’S MEMORY by Yoko Ono
in collaboration with Angela Vettese
Curator of the works of Yoko Ono
Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa
Palazzetto Tito, Dorsoduro 2826, Venezia
28 may – 20 september 2009
Thursday, 28 may, 2009
3,00 full price – 2,00 cut price
Wednesday to Sunday from 10:30 to 17:30
Monday and Tuesday closed
Yoko Ono artworks in Anton’s Memory
About Yoko Ono: Anton’s Memory
by Nora Halpern, Curator.
Who is Anton? What part of his past is conjured up through the provocative image of a single breast?
Could this be a lover’s memory of a sensuous encounter? In fact, the starting point for this exhibition is more fundamental, as “ANTON’S MEMORY” is, as the artist describes, “a woman’s life we see only through her son’s eyes – his faded memory”. (1) The cover image evokes both a sense of longing and loss, as it is the image of a child’s first conscious memory of his mother…the source of comfort and sustenance, for needs both corporeal and emotional.
Yoko Ono’s ANTON’S MEMORY conveys a life studied and remembered by a metaphorical son distanced by time and experience. However, as is the case with much of Ono’s work as a visual artist, activist, writer, performer, and composer for the past fifty years, the simplicity of her message belies many layers of complexity, possible meanings, and interconnectedness. As such, ANTON’S MEMORY can also be read as the artist’s reflection on her own life and her role as an artist, mother, social activist and world citizen.
Many of the themes present in ANTON’S MEMORY are rooted in concepts that Yoko Ono has been exploring since the 1960s. For just as this exhibition is a reflection back through memory, so too does the artist’s process include a thoughtful reweaving of early ideas into new contexts and different artistic forms.
In Yoko Ono’s seminal book, Grapefruit, originally published in 1964, more widely distributed in 1970, her Book of Instruction and Drawings is a call to action that asserts its power not only in Ono’s more recent work, but also throughout the broader world culture, looking forward as well as backward. As if a contemporary reflection, the artist has produced, in conjunction with the installation, THE OTHER ROOMS, an artist’s book which extends the exhibition beyond its physical boundaries by including close to one hundred conceptual “spaces” within its pages which instruct the reader to participate as fellow artists and curator.
The Palazzetto Tito location was a powerful inspiration to the artist’s “domestic” approach to the installation, through which viewers are made to feel as if they have literally entered a private home rather than a public gallery. ANTON’S MEMORY takes the concept of artist in residence to a new level, and becomes an integrated part of its environment rather than simply being placed within it. Yoko Ono is very sensitive to the power of spaces and the histories that reverberate within them, and the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation has a rich history: established more than 200 years ago as a place to nurture contemporary artists, it is also the former home of artists Luigi and Ettore Tito.
Entering the Bevilacqua space one encounters the first instruction work, Cough Piece, 1961, recorded in 1964. Is this a faint and staccato reference to someone nearby or someone who has already passed through…? What memories does it summon and what is it calling you towards?
Another example of Yoko Ono’s instruction paintings from Grapefruit, Painting to Be Slept On, 1962–2008, suggests: “Hang it after sleeping on it for more than 100 nights”. The 1962 exuberance of capturing 100 nights of dreams, passion, and pleasure is juxtaposed with a sober bed that looks as if it has served a more utilitarian purpose, a bed that, rather than inspiring dreams of the future, was perhaps a final resting place. By seeing the 1962 instruction transformed in its more recent incarnation, one is reminded how a place often associated with conception, can also be perceived as a site of one’s ultimate sleep.
Within this same gallery, the monitors of Sky TV, 1966, reflect a live feed of the Venetian sky. Is this a reference to sleeping under the stars? Has the departed body transfigured towards the heavens? Or is this simply a reminder that we are all one under the same celestial umbrella? Works such as this have the power at once to evoke universal and personal interpretations, serving as a reminder of the interconnectedness of all people.
Un Un-to, a song from Yoko Ono’s new album Between the Sky and my Head, which is also the name of a recent retrospective of her work, is about the power of memory and plays in a number of rooms throughout this exhibition. But the concept of the space between us and the sky also represents an important aspect of Yoko Ono’s world view in which she considers the celestial sphere as one of her artist’s materials. Far less literal than James Turell’s capturing and contextualizing the heavens at Roden Crater or Yves Klein’s efforts to trap and imprint atmospheric conditions in his Cosmogonies, Yoko Ono uses sky and light to remind us that who we are and what we do as individuals mingles in the ether, ultimately sprinkling back down in a composite of us all. This sentiment is particularly poignant in her IMAGINE PEACE TOWER built off the coast of Reykjavik, Iceland, where a structure of geothermally powered light beams pierces and illuminates the sky.
Open Windows and Love Letters, both 2009, prompt viewers to consider notions of travel, community, and intimacy. Visitors are invited to write love letters or thoughts about travel, which are then placed inside a set of luggage. An inverse of the tradition of pasting souvenir stickers on the exterior of traveling trunks, in these works, intimate experiences are chronicled in a public environment but kept private, anonymously gathered inside the suitcases.
All of the windows in the palazzetto are considered as paintings-perspectives to be observed and absorbed. Each window is labeled by the artist and we are left to wonder if these views exist in real time, or if they are mirrors of vistas past?
Spontaneous automatic drawings of biomorphic shapes articulate a unique moment in time in Franklin Summer Drawings, 1994–present. Within the context of the exhibition as a whole, these sketches stand apart as representations of the subconscious, the private unshared spaces where memory and emotion intertwine.
A powerful metaphor for and exploration of the personal journies of women, gender roles, and human nature, Touch Me III, 2008–09, has its origin as a Touch Poem from 1963, in which Ono encouraged the people present to touch each other. In Touch Me III, fragments of a female figure are encased in small boxes lying flat on a table. The piece is accompanied by a font filled with water and viewers can wet their fingers and touch the woman, an act that can seem both religiously ritualistic and sensually intimate. In its first realization, the figure was made of flesh-colored silicone, evocatively mimicking the pliancy of flesh. During its initial installation at Galerie Lelong in New York, the work was jabbed and prodded by viewers to the point where parts were torn off. Surprised by this aggressive response, Ono continued to exhibit the piece with an explanatory label: “The artist has chosen to leave the damage visible as a sign of the violence women experience through life”. (2)
Touch Me III was later repaired yet damaged again during separate installations around the world. In this newest incarnation of Touch Me III, Yoko Ono replicates the work in marble, rendering it physically impenetrable, and also echoing the ways in which women have had to harden themselves. Additionally, small mirrors placed beneath the work are a reminder that every member of society is responsible.
Ono’s facility with engaging both the universal and the personal is perhaps reflected most poignantly in MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL, 2004, in which a room is filled with blank canvasses and viewers are invited to inscribe a thought or memory, or a photograph or memento related to their mothers and attach it. What begins as emptiness becomes a vital, shifting collage of emotion, experience, and memory. In this city of churches, MY MOMMY IS BEAUTIFUL becomes the ultimate adoration of the holy mother.
The arc of a women’s life journey is profoundly felt in two videos of Yoko Ono’s seminal performance work, Cut Piece, 1964. One shows Ono at age thirty-two in an early performance of the piece at the Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, while the other, filmed in Paris at the Theatre Le Ranelagh in 2003, depicts the artist at age seventy. In both instances, Ono enters the stage carrying a pair of scissors. She invites the audience to cut off her clothing, sitting silently with the scissors in front of her, waiting. At the 2003 performance, the artist said, “When I first performed this work in 1964, I did it with some anger and turbulence in my heart. This time I do it with love for you, for me and for the world”. (1) The contrast of the two videos depicts personal evolution and also examines the ways in which an individual can remain true to his or her essential core, despite the challenges of life’s journey.
In harmony with Cut Piece, Play it By Trust is an affecting coda to all the pieces which comprise ANTON’S MEMORY. An interactive installation, Play it By Trust presents a chess set wherein all the pieces and every square of the board are painted white. It is soon clear that there are no distinct sides and the viewers must rely upon each other in equal measure. What begins as an adversarial competition quickly falls apart as one side becomes indistinguishable from its “opponent”. While echoing the sensibility of Marcel Duchamp, this work is unmistakably that of Yoko Ono, for it is a reminder that a life lived based on trust and emotional interconnectedness creates memories worth reflecting upon and is a game worth playing.
(1) E-mail exchange with the author (December 29, 2008)
(2) Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono, Touch Me (Milan, Charta, 2008), p. 22
The Other Rooms
Who was she?
What was she thinking?
I invite you to awaken her memory by interacting with her in these rooms and in THE OTHER ROOMS, to find ways to open doors to her where there are no doors.
You may realize that her doors were your doors, and you were the one who left the rooms by only leaving a handful of dust from your world.
You may realize that this time, you may want to leave more than the dust.
Be a space transformer.
Yoko Ono Venice ’09
A primary artist’s book, white and shining like light, tells “the life of a woman seeing through the eyes of her son” as Yoko Ono says. Blue Room Event, Rooms And Footsteps, Passages For Light, The Garden Sets, Rooms of Various Lightness,
SPACE TRANSFORMER, The Room To Work On Your Hometown In, A Simple Arithmetic… Page after page, or better room after room, the artist is walking us through the thoughts of an adult child who thinks again, with signs and finds, at the existential vicissitude of his mother.
The Other Rooms
paperback – 14×13.5 cm
co-edition: Wunternaum Press, New York
cover price: 24.00 €
exhibition special price: 20.00 €
The Other Rooms will be available in bookstores as white clothbound hardback edition at 32.00 €
Available from Amazon.com
The Search for the Good Breast
by Angela Vettese, President, Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, Venice
Yoko Ono was born into one of the most well-known families in Japan; she went to the school for the children of the Emperor; she was the first woman in her country to study philosophy; she moved to New York at the age of 19, in 1952, going on to study at Sarah Lawrence and later Harvard. She immediately took her place in the American intellectual avant-garde scene: in her first loft on Chambers Street, which she rented independently and together with La Monte Young, staged an important cycle of performances there. She brought together a highly mixed circle of visual artists, dancers, jazz and classical composers, heedless of artistic currents or generations. This group included Richard Maxfield, Walter De Maria, Henry Flynt, Jonas Mekas, Ay-O, Yvonne Rainer, Ornette Coleman, Simone Forti; not to mention Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, George Maciunas, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim and Isamu Noguchi.
Yoko Ono’s roots thus run along these lines, between Japan and New York, as well as her conflicting desires to undertake an artistic career and to have a family: three weddings and two children, marked by divergences, abductions, divorces and mourning. Given the wars that she lived through, from those between different peoples – she remains a witness of the atomic attack – to those between the four walls of her own home, or outside in the street, where her third husband was killed before her eyes, the titles of her works such as Imagine Peace and I Love You cannot but come across as messages of hope.
Her art seems to take on the role of a shelter carved out over and over, designed to stymie an ever-latent sense of conflict. Yet it would be a mistake to think that this way of using art as a kind of therapy, branching out from the self to the rest of the world, might have hindered her professional development: quite the opposite is true.
The fundamentals of her theoretical approach to art are laid out – what’s more in a deliberately synthetic fashion in the ostensibly practical form of a cookbook – in her little volume entitled Grapefruit. The title was inspired by a specific performance in 1961: A Grapefruit in the World of Park, “a piece a for strawberries and violin and AOS” with David Tudor at the Carnegie Hall in New York. The volume is divided into different chapters, dedicated to various fields of artistic activity: music, painting, events, poetry, objects, considered here as pearls of the same necklace yet not welded together and most of all not seen as one in the name of a confused sense of multi-disciplinism.
As the artist says in her own words: “My paintings, which are all instruction paintings (and meant for others to do), came after collage and assemblage (1915) and happening (1905) came into the art world. Considering the nature of my painting, any of the above three words or a new word can be used instead of the word, painting. But I like the old word painting because it immediately connects with “wall painting” painting, and it is nice and funny. Among my instruction paintings, my interest is mainly in “painting to construct in your head”. (1)
On the other hand, the artist is not at all naïve in terms of the way in which she defines her work, and above all the way in which she sidesteps canonical definitions. At another point in Grapefruit she notes: “People ask me why I call some works Event and others not. They also ask me why I do not call my Events, Happenings. Event, to me, is not assimilation of all the other arts as Happening seems to be, but an extrication from the various sensory perceptions. Is not a get togetherness as most happenings are, but a dealing with oneself”. Also, it has no script as happenings do, though it has something that starts it moving – the closest word for it may be a “wish” or a “hope”. Once more, there is no script as is the case in most happenings, rather there is something that starts to move it – the closest definition could be a “desire” or a “hope”. (2)
Yoko Ono trained as a musician and seems to understand both the effort and the skill required to achieve noteworthy results. This is the reason why she refuses one of the key ideas behind that mingling of disciplines implicit in the idea of the happening and the other actions close to George Maciunas’s notion of Fluxus. Ono would rather work on the fragment, the segment, the creation of a mental image able to take hold as a point in the memory and the thought reached through meditation.
The point is to create visions. “One may give instructions to watch the fire for 10 days in order to create a vision in one’s mind.” It is the thinking mind that must introduce small-sized suggestions, ones which are then capable of setting off infinitesimal yet active transformations: thus may there be no illusions with regard to the potency of her work, starting from her ability to put together different approaches, often comparable to a duplication of life itself. Almost set for a full-on collision not only with the various hypotheses of the total artwork, but also for a much more subtle clash with Kaprow when he proposes a “blurring of art and life”, in which the borders between art and life are to be confused, as if in a throwback to Romanticism. Yoko Ono sets out to embody her own role as an artist trained to be multi-disciplinary, yet not a victim of it. Her aim was to: “…make yourself dispensable, like paper. See little, hear little, and think little”.
One of the criticisms that is most commonly launched against the artist is that at the end of the day, she has moved away from the execution of her work, preferring the repetition of her minimal gestures to any shift towards the monumental, of having maintained an inconsistency of the work every since the days of her earliest conceptual approaches. Yet this evanescence of the material element is not only something she is fully aware of, it is something she has theorised about in the form of her writings and a forma mentis clearly rooted in sources that are not easy for us to trace, given the artist’s Japanese origins. At any rate, it is natural and perhaps not misleading to remember the Japanese definition of the world as “floating” and thus substantially ephemeral.
Let us see how the “smallness” of the actions and the projects led not only her but also some ten other Japanese artists to plan and implement transitory artistic works earlier – or at least in a more radical fashion – than others. Think of the precociousness with which the Gujat group shifted visual art from the stroke of the calligrapher to its macroscopisation, i.e. to the blowing up of the action and thus its own possible/inevitable fragility. In May 1957 the group organised an event in Tokyo and Osaka, the title of which may be translated as “stage art exhibition” in which Atsuko Tanaka also appeared, dressed in light bulbs, the stage filled with balloons. In 1965 Atsuko Tanaka appeared on the proscenium of the Cinemathèque on East 4th Street in New York, painting on the floor, crouching down, a paintbrush inserted inside her vagina: every reference to the sexuality and discrimination against “uterine” women compared to “rational” males was absolutely intentional. In 1965-66 another Japanese exile, Yayoi Kusama, turned the Castellane Gallery in New York into a labyrinth of mirrors: the floor covered with an infinite number of phallic forms each covered in polka dots; at the centre, her own body lying down, overcome and disorientated by the obsessive presence of the phallus, by the attempt made by her mother, by her society of origin and even by the political context to restrain its exuberance. The political side of these actions became most clear in 1968, when she set about her famous Anti-War Naked Happenings, in which groups of naked young adults, painted with dots, appeared as provocative living statues in key sites around New York such as Central Park, Wall Street and Brooklyn Bridge. (3)
It doesn’t matter how much Yoko Ono knew about or supported these things; suffice to note how some common element among those brought up in the Japanese tradition led them to implement “floating” events with a certain insistency. For a Westerner it is perhaps more difficult to do without the reassurance provided by a more permanent support: a canvas, a piece of bronze, a music score that may be repeated ad infinitum.
In 1963, Yoko herself reached the apex of the “small” and the ephemeral by inviting others to listen to the sound of the Earth turning, the sound of stone aging, the sound of the room breathing, or to use their own blood to paint with and to continue to paint until the onset of death. (4)
In her Cut Piece (first performed in Kyoto in 1964), the audience was called upon to cut away pieces of the artist’s clothing with a pair of scissors. Performed both when the artist was very young and more recently, this work – consisting of letting the audience cut pieces of her clothing as she sat on the stage – has become even more powerful over time: by putting the videos of the two performances from different eras side by side, one also brings together two different dangers: that of the girl’s intimacy invaded along with that of the eroticism of the young mother, and that of the woman made fragile by age, for this reason appearing exposed to a different and perhaps more disrespectful form of violence. (5)
Seen today in the two different versions, that video speaks clearly about just how much hurt we are prepared to withstand, how much we inflict, and our capacity to endure it, which is probably directly proportional to the amount of love that we managed to obtain and store away as children. Through this consideration, the work tells us of the relationship that we had with our own mothers or the other parental figures that provided us with – or perhaps denied us – the ability to hold out.
After all, knowing how to hold out against the present or moments from one’s own past also has to do with the positive resolution of our earliest conflicts. And so the maternal figure returns once more as the dispenser of calm, also in terms of a body that we are allowed to touch and that is made available to us without protection.
The exhibition held at Palazzetto Tito, and of which this publication will constitute a memory, seems to embody this very need for salvation in a space chosen by the artist by virtue of its particular layout: that of a home, of a place designed to be lived in and which, in its internal disposition, maintains the traces of every possible moment of shared living (eating, talking, sitting in front of the fire) and of separation (sleeping or even dying). The home has often featured in her works, albeit perhaps never as radically as now. The renowned Bed Ins (1969) were an attempt to bring peace to the world right from the centre of the home, the most intimate of places and that in which a new life may be conceived.
Let us not forget the image that Yoko Ono chose as a guide in order to communicate the sense behind this exhibition: a single human breast. The newborn baby sees only one breast at a time and is not able to recognise them as a pair. The relationship with food, with the mother, with the family and with the world starts with the yearning for a single breast. Melanie Klein’s psychoanalysis tells us how every newborn hallucinates that the missing breast, the “bad breast”, the one that makes the newborn perceive hunger, is in actual fact a part of him/herself that the child fears to have destroyed when s/he is still unable to conceive that it is part of another body and that, in general, there may exist other bodies outside his/her own: this is the origin of a depressive and often auto/hetero-aggressive position that may last one’s entire life. Initially the child and then the adult would appear to be tormented by a thought which is never expressed in clear terms, yet which may be translated more or less as: “I have destroyed the good part of myself”. Melanie Klein’s main pupil, Anna Segal, suggests how any creative act may represent a path towards the rediscovery of the breast and thus also of the self. Through a reconstruction of the “good breast”, the one that is there, that feeds, that gives milk, art thus becomes a means by which to rid oneself of the desire for self punishment and to let oneself die.
President, Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, Venice
(1) All the following texts, unless indicated otherwise, are quotations from the artist taken from: Yoko Ono, “To the Wesleyan People” (1966), in Grapefruit (Tokyo, Wunternaum Press, 1974; reprint with an introduction by John Lennon (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1970) without page numbering).
(2) With regard to the central role of Yoko Ono’s “events” in the history of performance (in particular of the piece Maps, presented at the exhibition Information curated by Kynaston McShine) cf. Roselee Goldberg, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, Thames & Hudson, p. 154.
(3) With regard to the vitality of the performances of Japanese origin, cf. Shinichiro Osaki, Body and Place, Action in Postwar Art in Japan, in Paul Schimmel (ed.), Out of Actions, Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979, Thames and Hudson, 1998, pp. 121-158).
(4) Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object, University of California Press, p. 14.
(5) Cf. Furthermore, with regard to the links between this work and the female performances of that period see cf. R. Krauss, H. Foster, Y-A. Bois, B. Buchloh.
By Rachel Spence, Financial Times, May 29 2009
Before he died, John Lennon described his wife as the “world’s most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name but no one knows what she actually does.”
Thirty years after Lennon’s death, that scenario is set to change. At next week’s Venice Biennale, the world’s most famous rock widow is to receive the Golden Lion award for a lifetime’s achievement in the visual arts.
Talking to me in the lobby of Venice’s luxurious Hotel Danieli, Ono makes it clear that her curious fate, to be simultanously iconic and obscure, is the legacy of her marriage not her upbringing: she recalls that her mother enrolled her in music classes even before she went elementary school.
Born into a cultured Japanese banking family, she was the first female student to be accepted onto Gakushuin University’s prestigious philosophy course. By the time she met Lennon, she was a prominent avant-garde artist and musician. She hosted concerts by John Cage in her Manhattan loft and created eloquent conceptual works herself, most famously the precociously feminist 1964 performance “Cut Piece” where she invited the audience to cut the clothes from her body.
For a woman bent on escaping sexual objectification, marrying a Beatle was not a good move. In the popular imagination, Ono became the exotic siren who lured a Liverpool boy away from the world’s favourite band, destroying it in the process. Since Lennon’s death, she has been hounded for exploiting his memory; just last week she was castigated for including Lennon’s blood-stained clothes in a New York exhibition, a decision she justifies as a work of political art. “When there is so much violence in the world, people still seem not to face the fact that a violent situation robbed the life of somebody they loved.”
In person, Ono is neither cynical nor naïve. Now 76, her boyish, black-garbed figure looks decades younger in her trademark dark glasses and a jaunty straw hat. Having detached herself from her entourage to talk to me alone – although an assistant sits at a nearby table – she gives an impression of a woman who is simultaneously powerful and vulnerable.
She declares herself “honoured” to have received the Golden Lion. “I was shocked because I felt that I was an outsider.”
She has no illusions as to the cause of her marginal status in the contemporary art world. “When I met John I was already a famous artist,” she recalls. “I was at the top of the hill and it looked like a lonely trip,” she continues. “I thought: ‘Great, together we will erase each other’s loneliness.’ And then I realised there was a little trap there.”
Despite her fears, she married him in 1969. At first, with performances like the legendary “Bed-In” of 1969, it seemed as if her creativity would flourish. Yet as the 1970s unfolded, Ono’s projects slipped under the radar of a public more concerned with the drama of her marriage. In 1975, following a two-year separation, the pair reunited and Ono gave birth to their son Sean. Five years later, Lennon was assassinated by a fan as the couple returned home.
“I could write a book about being a woman who has lost her husband,” she murmurs, her voice infused with a new intensity as she recalls a period when she says she found herself the target for financial exploitation by men “who hit on widows”. Ono’s gritty refusal to relinquish control of the couple’s multi-million pound empire is also responsible for much of the venom she subsequently attracted.
Even at the height of her grief, she went on with her work. “I think music works such as ‘Walking on Thin Ice’ and ‘It’s Alright’ were pretty interesting but nobody really noticed,” she says without rancour. “I was like a prisoner drawing on the walls or someone doing cave paintings. I was laying things for the future, for the next prisoner who might notice it.”
Ono had to wait out the century. Around 2002, a new generation of club DJs started remixing her singles into funky dance tracks. In 2003, she installed her artwork, “Wish Tree” at the Venice Biennale and a series of major retrospectives followed.
Her new Venice show, Anton’s Memory, is a collection of installations that evoke the figure of a mother through the trope of her son’s memory. “I wanted to show that there’s a little difference between what she went through and what was observed by her son,” explains Ono, adding that she chose the name Anton “because it had nothing to do with me”.
Ono denies that her own experience of motherhood has influenced this wistful visual voyage. “My son knows and likes me through my work and also as a mother.”
More traumatic was her rapport with Kyoko, her daughter by Tony Cox, Ono’s husband before John and after the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. Kyoko was kidnapped by her father at the age of eight and only reunited with Ono in 1995.
Ono describes the experience as “terrible”, though later she emails to say that her husband “may have been justified in his actions” because he thought her life with John “was not conducive to raising a child of that age”.
She is clearly anxious not to risk anew her relationship with Kyoko. “I don’t want to go into the detail of it, since he is the father to my daughter and I don’t want to hurt her feelings.” Yet the air of frail equanimity that she maintains in person is undermined by the acute sadness that pervades the exhibition itself.
Described by Ono as “my best work ever”, it could only have been produced by an artist with a profound, no-longer fashionable awareness of the traumas that have shaped her own and other women’s lives. The centrepiece is “Touch Me”: wooden boxes containing marble female body fragments – limbs, breasts, a mouth – laid on a tomb-like black table next to a font of water with directions to spectators to perform a secular baptism. Another key work is “My Mommy Was Beautiful”, an antique desk with cards for participants to record memories of their mother, which will be mounted on wallboards.
Crucial to the exhibition’s rhythm is the presence of dozens of meticulous, pointillist drawings of organic, uterus-like forms, potent expressions of fertility that are a counterpoint to the merciless bleakness of installations such as the metal bed frame naked save for a small pile of unmatched sheets and a black, leatherbound bible.
“All my observations of what women suffer have culminated in that particular show,” she explains. “We are so privileged. Think about women in Arab countries. Their pain is unspeakable but they are women too, you know, and I carry their pain in me.”
This earnest, irony-free language mirrors the character of her art. In an era that lauds the savage, self-mocking wit of artists such as Tracey Emin, Kiki Smith and Sophie Calle, I cannot help wondering if there is still room for Ono’s intimate, Zen-like expressions of sorrow with their unique fusion of the feminist, the intellectual and the heartfelt. Yet as we say goodbye, and I watch her re-embark on the eternal female battle to retain power yet remain loved, I fervently hope so.
Yoko Ono: ‘Anton’s Memory’, Palazzetto Tito, Venice, to September 29. Tel: +39 041 5207797
The exhibition has been designed especially for the rooms of Palazzetto Tito and is a series of new installations that incorporate some earlier works as points of reference. It includes films, sound compositions, sculptures, and drawings, as well as a number of interactive installations. At the centre of the display, two filmed versions of her 1964 performance work Cut Piece, from 1965 and 2003, will be shown. In this work, the artist lets the public cut away parts of her clothing little by little. In the first version Yoko Ono is thirty-two years old, and in the second version she is seventy, giving a sense of the marks left on us by the passing of time. Military helmets from the Second World War with pieces of sky inside; the film of a woman desperately attempting to free herself from her bra (a metaphor for women’s liberation); an insistent coughing sound; tables, pens and paper for whoever wants to write their own thoughts and leave a trace of them; the book of recipes for artistic actions, Grapefruit (1964), left lying around like a generative element for all the rest; tables for playing all-white chess in peace and quiet, in the main chamber of a Venetian chamber between lancet windows opening onto nature or closed with coloured glass…all this and much more, along with a moving soundtrack, will complete the exhibition, punctuated also by the hand of the artist, who will write new pieces directly on the walls.
The entire exposition in the rooms of Palazzetto Tito will constitute a unitary whole evoking “ANTON’S MEMORY”; something that may be looked on as a codified memory, i.e. the story of an adult son rethinking through the existential vicissitudes of his mother through symbols and objects.
An artist’s book, Other Rooms, will be published on the occasion of “ANTON’S MEMORY” (Charta, Milan)