I have been thinking about Yoko Ono. She turned 81 recently—the announcement was accompanied by an image of the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland, a stunning example of her peace activism. She also recently appeared at the Grammy celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles: Ono was in the front row—a guest of honor, of course, because she was married to the late John Lennon. The video caught Ono dancing, the tone of the commentary more of caricature than admiration for a woman, although forever attached to John Lennon and the Beatles legacy, who is a remarkable artist and peace activist. Yoko Ono, as a woman in her 80s who is creating, contributing, and advocating, is an incredible example and role model for women of all ages.
From a feminist perspective, I am bothered that Yoko Ono does not receive the cultural regard that she has earned through a lifetime of creative and social justice work. While John Lennon is revered for writing the iconic song Imagine, it was Ono who inspired the lyrics and used the concept of “imagine” in her own poetry before Lennon wrote and performed the song by this title. While we tend to see Lennon as a peace activist, it was Ono who experienced war first-hand as a child as Tokyo was devastated by bombing during WWII. I believe that it was Ono who inspired the couple to actively protest war… Here is a little of what I know about Yoko Ono.
My spirit is an outsider, perhaps because I am Asian and a woman as well. There is an organic element in my work that is not easy to understand. My work is just part of my soul, but there’s no linear presentation of it.
When I make music or artworks I’m not really in control, because I’m just passing on messages in my mind.
My works are always unfinished, because my art is an ever-changing process just like life itself… I have never believed in definite things. (Yoko Ono http://www.a-i-u.net/helsinki/html)
Yoko Ono was born in 1933 in Tokyo, Japan. Her first name, Yoko, means “Ocean Child.” Yoko literally grew up bi-culturally: her father (an accomplished pianist) gave up his career in the arts and became a banker in Tokyo, working also in San Francisco and New York. Yoko, with her mother and siblings, lived in Japan and the U.S. in the early years as she was growing up. Yoko’s family lived within the upper class elite in Tokyo. As a young child she attended an elite school which was only open to members of the imperial family and she was schooled at the prestigious Jiyu-gakuen Music School, the educational site for many Japanese composers. Yoko learned classical piano and composition, received voice training in opera, and remarkably performed her first concert at age four. According to her online biography, Yoko found the context of her privileged family to be “stifling and lonely” and knew, from a young age, that she would forge a unique path for herself. Although her parents were quite liberal by Japanese standards of the times, they were “too narrow-minded to Yoko.” Yoko reflects, “It was very claustrophobic. I would have died on a spiritual level if I had not got away.” Yoko tells of her loneliness as a child, where she would ring for the maid just to have contact with someone: “The maid was not allowed to enter her room, even when summoned: she had to kneel outside in the hall and ask what little Yoko wanted. ‘When she brings the tea, she can come in but not before. The only reason I asked for tea was because I wanted some communication. And so I think that’s where I started to dream. All sorts of things come into your mind,’ she says. Yoko dreamed of breaking out but also of forging new ways of thinking her way beyond her isolation.” (www.a-i-u.net/onolife2.html)
I am particularly interested in the feminist spirit which seems to be threaded through Yoko Ono’s life. It seems unlikely that a Japanese girl, born in the early 1930’s, would have the courage to step outside of the circumscribed cultural roles for girls. Yet, the times were as unusual as the girl, this Ocean Child. Yoko was a young woman in post-WWII Japan, a time which saw a surge of feminism and the emergence of a radical intellectual climate. Women’s equality gained some footing from post-war American influence, as women made gains in legal rights under a new constitution. In a men’s war, the men were defeated; the women “saw Japan’s surrender as simply another man-made crisis to be survived.” (Yes Yoko Ono 53) At the same time Yoko was in the midst of an unprecedented climate of social and political change in Japan in the aftermath of war and the collapse of long-standing totalitarianism: “While despair at the devastation of fifteen years of war created a post-surrender psyche of exhaustion, remorse, and despondency, and outpouring of relief, optimism, and liberation prevailed. Receptivity to new social, political, and cultural ideas created a spirit of freedom and openness unprecedented in modern Japanese society. As historian John W. Dower has written, ‘People were acutely conscious of the need to reinvent their own lives’” (Yes Yoko Ono 15).
The seed for Yoko’s creative spirit seems to have grown within a confluence of people and events: a traditional, but not quite, Japanese family who invested in her early artistic training; a context in which women possessed particular strength during and after the war; and a stimulating (even radical) intellectual time which fueled freedom of thought. Perhaps Yoko’s bicultural upbringing, the influence of living in the U.S. and Japan, also fueled her spirit with an expanded conceptualization of options for women and avenues for artistic expression. Although fate placed her in this time and place, Yoko’s spirit is very much her own and she took her future into her own hands at a young age: she shares a telling story about standing up to her father in her early teens:
The time was 1946, place: Tokyo. I was confronting my father who, as usual, sat in a deep comfortable chair with his pipe and suede jacket. I had told him that I wanted to be a composer. I would not have dreamt of making such a bold statement unless it just jumped out of my mouth, which it had. Initially, my father had called me to his study only to tell me that I should give up on being a pianist. “You’re not good enough. Just give up practicing. It’s a waste of time.” It was said in a kind and gentle tone.
My becoming a pianist, however, had been my father’s wish, not mine. I felt relieved that I did not have to practice anymore. “Actually, I want to be a composer, father,” I said. There was silence. I sensed I had inadvertently dropped a bomb, and felt butterflies in my stomach. “Well,” my father said after a considerable silence, “there are not many women composers in the world, Yoko. At least I haven’t heard of one yet. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe it’s a question of women’s aptitude. I know you are a talented and intelligent child. But I wonder…I don’t want you to struggle in vain.”
How could he have known that it may not have been a question of gender aptitude? In those days, the fact that a father would discuss a daughter’s career was already considered quite unusual. Daughters were brought up to go to finishing schools and hoped to get married before people started to raise their eyebrows. I am still thankful that my father cared at all about my career.
Eventually he made me take voice lessons to sing German lieders, saying that that would be a vocation which would satisfy both my love for poetry and music. “Women may not be good creators of music, but they’re good at interpreting music,” was what he said. I rebelled, gave up my voice lessons, and went to a Japanese University to study Philosophywhile being a closet song writer. (www.a-i-u.net/onolife1.html)
At age nineteen, Yoko was the first woman to be accepted into a Philosophy course at Gakushuin University—she followed her dream. (Yes Yoko Ono 15)
Fluxus: Artistic Acts—Continuous Flow
“Idea” is what the artist gives, like a stone thrown into the water for ripples to be made. Idea is air or sun, anybody can use it and fill themselves according to their own size and shape…Instruction painting makes it possible to explore the invisible, the world beyond the existing concept of time and space. And then sometimes later, the instructions themselves will disappear and be properly forgotten. (Yes Yoko Ono 22)
Fluxus is Flux: the act of continuous flow and change. During the exhibition, do not let the artists’ statements about Fluxus stay on the wall like words carved on stone. Paint over the wall with the color you like. (Yes Yoko Ono 50)
Yoko did not stay in the Philosophy program more than two semesters; she was disillusioned with academia and continued to rebel against her parents and their privileged circumstances. She moved to Manhattan, eloped with a young Japanese pianist and composer, Ichiyanagi Toshi, and joined with the avant-garde arts community. Did Yoko help to shape the New York art scene in the early 1950’ and 60’s or was the art community influential in shaping Yoko? The answer may be as fluid as the art. As a Japanese American woman, Yoko was a natural fit for the emerging trends which combined Asian thought and Western avant-garde art. Fluxus is the term given for a movement which was drawn to the esthetics of Buddhist and Jungian thought to challenge Western culture. They challenged the staid idealism of bourgeois (Western) culture and its corollary angst of subjective alienation” (Yes Yoko Ono 16-17). Fluxus was a shift from the experience of art as an object (a painting, a sculpture) by an expert (the artist), to conceptual art—art as “a presence and a sign of energy within reality. Thus, ‘Fluxus’ has functioned as a moving front of people, rather than a group of specialists, following not so much a tactic of experimentation in new languages as a strategy of social contact, with the aim of creating a series of chain-reactions, or magnetic waves, above and below art” (http://the-artists.org/index.cfm). Yoko is associated with the Fluxus movement as someone who made significant contributions through her visionary artistic expressions. Yet, at the same time, Yoko’s work goes beyond and is independent of Fluxus (Yes Yoko Ono 50).
Yoko’s independent spirit and resistance to being hemmed-in extended from her family into her relationships in the arts community. Although Fluxus associates Yoko with the movement, she articulates the affiliation with a different slant: “Even in the avant-garde I was rebellious about it all. It’s not just being a woman. If you’re a good girl, so to speak, and kind of following the tradition of the avant-garde and using their vocabulary, then I think they’ll allow you to exist. So that’s why I don’t really know if it was the woman in me that offended them or the fact that I was rebelling. It’s all a mixture of things, but women, especially, are not supposed to rebel” (www.a-i-u.net/onolife4.html). Yoko seems to have asserted her independence even in the venue of a radical arts community, as an Asian woman challenging the male dominated avant-garde subculture. I can imagine how difficult it may have been for female artists, like Yoko, to negotiate and attain influence in such a male-dominated world. This context makes Yoko’s accomplishments even amazing and perhaps groundbreaking for other women artists.
Yoko’s Instructions for Paintings seemed to grow out of the Fluxus form known as “event scores” where a performer or reader initiates a concept that is then completed by the spectator, thus, the artistic act is a kind of energy or wave that flows through the spectator. “The early Fluxus scores were characterized by clarity and economy of language…They could be performed in the mind as a thought (their visualization being performative), or as a physical performance before an invited audience” (Yes Yoko Ono 18). Two of Yoko’s iconic event scores (performance art) are entitled Lighting Piece and Cut Piece:
Light a match and watch till it goes out.
The idea of Lighting piece evolved while Ono was living in New York with her parents. Her early musical training in Japan had made her so sensitive to surrounding sounds that she was often compelled to stay in a dark room with her ears covered by sanitary pads, tied in place with a strip of gauze. To cope with such isolation, she invented the ritual of lighting a match and watching it burn, repeating it until she became calm. Although this action was primarily visual, it also had something of an auditory effect on her: the sounds in her mind disappeared as the flame went out. This experience mad her keenly aware of the need for what she called the “additional act,” that was “something more than painting, poetry, and music.” For Ono, the match flame symbolizes the transience of human life…Ono felt that watching burning matches made her life longer. Through the various manifestations of Lighting Piece, Ono offers audience members an opportunity to step back and ponder their lives. (Yes Yoko Ono 72)
Ono entered the stage carrying scissors. Moving to the center, she invited the audience to cut off her clothing. Then she sat down, legs tucked under her, placed the scissors on the floor, and remained motionless, silent, waiting. She always assumed a similar position, followed the score strictly, and wore her best clothes. But the audience, the context, and the environment varied in each performance of Cut Piece. Instead of offering objects to be contemplated by respectful observers, Ono delivers art as an immediate social event, eliminating the reserve of aesthetic distance. Cut Piece exposed the voluntary and incisive potential of the gaze to puncture and wound, to cut away at that which is observed. Cut Piece anticipates the gendered themes of invasion, especially of women…It also reveals an aspect of Ono’s psychological state which she expressed in The Stone: “People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me. Finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone.” (Yes Yoko Ono 158)
The Instructions, created by Yoko, reflect elements of what became known as Conceptualism, which gained notoriety in the mid-1960’s. Conceptualism encompassed “a range of ‘art as idea’ and ‘art as action’ practices. Their common impulse was…a ‘withdrawal of visuality.’ Rejecting expressionism and the hallowed aura of objecthood, it favored a philosophical, cognitive process aimed at redefining the role of the object as a carrier of meaning” (Yes Yoko Ono 24-25). Rather than creating art through an object, the object is reduced/removed so that the aesthetic experience is embodied in linguistics and imagination. Yoko’s best known collection of Instructions are presented in a little yellow book called Grapefruit, first published in 1964.
Although many of her poems have a whimsical quality, part of Yoko’s inspiration stems from her painful childhood experiences during WWII. Although Yoko’s family lived in privilege, following the devastating U.S. bombing of Tokyo in 1945, when tens of thousands were killed, Yoko’s mother fled to the countryside with Yoko and her siblings. During this period, Yoko and her family members were at the mercy of villagers, in the midst of a country facing dire economic circumstances and starvation. An anecdote from this time explains Yoko’s affinity with sky: “Yoko, taunted by the local children for ‘smelling like butter’—a reference to her being Americanized and a city girl—remembers spending the afternoons hiding with her brother Keisuke from the irate and unbalanced world outside. ‘Lying on our backs, looking at the sky through an opening in the roof, we exchanged menus in the air and used our powers of visualization to survive.’ The imaginary realm and the sky as a calling to vast, pale freedom would later become hallmarks of Ono’s mind-centered art” (Yes Yoko Ono 13). Anecdotes from Yoko’s early life have given me some insight into the depth and complexity of her artistic expression. Her work incorporates the whimsical and the somber: Yoko seems to be a person who embodies exceptional spirit and ebullient hope while having experienced deep personal pain in her life. This personal complexity is reflected in her art.
Here are a few of my favorite Instructions from Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit:
Imagine the clouds dripping.
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in.
Think that snow is falling.
Think that snow is falling everywhere
all the time.
When you talk with a person, think
that snow is falling between you and
on the person.
Stop conversing when you think the
person is covered by snow.
PIECE FOR THE WIND
Cut a painting up and let them be lost
in the wind.
Find a stone that is your size and weight.
Crack it until it becomes a fine powder.
Dispose of it in the river. (a)
Send small amounts to your friends. (b)
Do not tell anybody what you did.
Do not explain about the powder to the
friends to whom you send.
Stones . . .
Make a numbered list of sadness in your life. Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers. Add a stone each time there is a sadness. Burn the list and appreciate the mount of stones for its beauty. Make a numbered list of happiness in your life. Pile up the stones corresponding to those numbers. Add a stone each time there is a happiness. Compare the mount of stones to the one of sadness. (Yoko Ono’s introduction for Cleaning Piece/River Bed (www.a-i-u.net/share25.html)
I am drawn into Yoko’s work with stones. I grew up near a wild mountain river and today I collect crystals and rocks—stones. The concept of stones is a recurring theme in the imagery that Yoko evokes. She talks about herself as stone: Finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone. She uses a riverbed of stones in installation pieces En Trance Ex It and Morning Beams and uses the imagination of stones in her Instructions.
Wishes . . .
As a young child I used to go to temple and write out a wish on a piece of thin paper and tie it around the branch of a tree. Trees in temple courtyards were always filled with people’s wish knots, which looked like white flowers blossoming from afar. (www.a-i-u.net/wishtree2.html)
Wish Piece (Yoko Ono 1996)
Make a wish
Write it down on a piece of paper
Fold it and tie it around a branch of a Wish Tree
Ask your friends to do the same
Until the branches are covered with wishes
The Wish Tree, inspired in Yoko’s Japanese childhood, has appeared frequently in Yoko’s exhibitions in the past fifteen years—Yoko has dedicated Wish Trees all over the world: “People are invited to write their wish on a piece of paper and hang it on a tree branch. It’s like a collective prayer in a way. Some wishes are deeply personal, some global wishes for peace and a better future for humankind.” Yoko says, “All my works are a form of wishing…I’m keeping all the wishes from all the countries, although I never read any of them. I feel it’s not right to read people’s private wishes.” (www.a-i-u.net/wishtree2.html)
I have reached this final section without speaking about Yoko’s relationship with John Lennon. In part, the reason is because I have merely touched the surface Yoko’s history and artistic contributions and find it impossible to do more within the scope of a short piece. Although to conclude my work here, I need to talk about Yoko and John. It seems that in popular culture and memory, John Lennon has iconic status while knowledge about Yoko is peripheral—we know about Yoko because she was married to John Lennon. As with other parts of her life, Yoko tells the John and Yoko story with a different slant. They met at an exhibit of her art in London and both possessed significant personal histories as artists when they came together. John credits Yoko with inspiring his song writing, specifically the lyrics of Imagine, as a song which seems to have timeless resonance and keeps Lennon’s legacy alive—it was Yoko who used the concept of Imagine in her Instructions. Lennon is remembered as a peace advocate—perhaps it was Yoko’s childhood memories of war which may have inspired their advocacy for peace; after all, Yoko was seven years older than John (who was just a young child during WWII) and personally felt the fear and witnessed the devastations of war. I presume that Yoko and John could not have imagined the troubled and violent world that we experience today as they staged their famous Bed-In for Peace in 1969. Nor could they have imagined in those moments that Yoko—a woman, an Asian, an artist—would be the partner to carry the torch for peace into the future, after John’s violent murder in 1980. I think that John would be deeply proud of Yoko for her choice and courage to speak out for world peace.
Imagine Peace Tower
On October 9, 2006 (John Lennon’s birthday) Yoko Ono blessed the location in Iceland that became the site for the Imagine Peace Tower. In this location, Yoko erected a tower, 20 to 30 meters high, a pillar of light filled with people’s hopes and wishes. The obelisk has become an eternal light of peace. The inspiration for the tower goes back 40 years and was Yoko Ono’s idea. A small part of her dedication speech in Iceland follows:
This column of light in Iceland will not be extinguished. It is the eternal flame we send out to the world and the universe to give light and warmth, and the hope and conviction that our dreams can come true. I have saved all the wishes people have made and hung on my work, called Wish Tree in many different countries. The number of those wishes I collected and kept now reached over 900 thousand and they will all be placed directly under this light tower…In the map of the earth planet, Iceland is a country situated in the northern most of our world. It is an ideal location from which to cover the earth with enlightenment and love… (www.a-i-u.net/iceland_lets.html)
There is no adequate way to summarize and conclude my post about Yoko Ono. My admiration and deep respect for her artistic work and social contributions grow as I follow her contributions today. I walk away feeling a sense of hope and with a dancing heart. In affinity with Yoko Ono, the only way to close is to consider my writing unfinished.
It is extremely important that we all make things, which make our hearts dance.