“We are all dreamers, creating the next world, the next beautiful world for ourselves and for our children.”
This week I’d like to highlight Yoko Ono for our Radical Radiance section. John Lennon once said Yoko was the world’s “most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” In fact, most only know her as the woman who “broke up the Beatles” (although an interesting blog series I’ve started to read lately indicates that this is not true.) I’d like to make it so that at least a few more people know what she actually does, so in this post we’ll look at Yoko Ono as a person and an artist, rather than as simply the wife of John Lennon.
In the early 1960s Yoko was an avant garde artist who created many beautiful pieces of performance and conceptual art. All of her performance art involved audience participation in some way, be it physical or mental, in order to complete the piece; this draws back to Marcel Duchamps belief that art is only partly created by the artist, it must be completed by the viewer. Although some of her pieces may make little sense to many of us (like “Cough Piece” which was approximately thirty minutes of Yoko coughing) other pieces, like her “Wish Tree” are quite simply amazing. For this piece Yoko simply asked the patrons of her art show to write their wishes on a piece of paper and tie it to the tree. Her inspiration came from her childhood, as she explained herself in an interview:
“As a child in Japan, I used to go to a 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.”
An example of her performance art includes a staging entitled “Cut Piece” where, in 1965, she sat silently on a stage while audience members would come up and cut off pieces of her clothes. Ono herself claimed that this piece was performed in the name of “peace, and against ageism, racism and sexism.” Besides being a commentary on identity and it’s construction Cut Piece was also a commentary on the need for social unity and love. According to many art professors and writers it touched on issues of gender and sexism as well as the greater, universal affliction of human suffering and loneliness.
I think that everybody, if they want to be an artist, they can be. And also we’re using this creative energy of being an artist to just fulfill what we have to do, in a sense that all of us live in this society, and we’re all responsible for what happens in society, not just the artists. And so, I’m just doing what I can do, so that’s all, you know.
[From a recent interview.]
Ono is said to have been inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s theories of existentialism in college; in order to appease her own humanly suffering Ono enlisted her viewers to complete her works of art in order to complete her identity as well. Even someone as unfamiliar with art, especially experimental art, as I am can take something from this. For instance, from this piece I took away a message of self confidence, of feeling comfortable enough to bare it all (metaphorically) in front of a world full of people who all want a piece of you. “Cut Piece” and many other inventions of Ono are still performed regularly by artists to this day, yet I doubt many of us knew that… I didn’t until I started writing this article!
Beyond being an artist Yoko has also proven to be quite an activist. Perhaps her most famous campaign began in the ’60s when, along with Lennon, she launched a campaign called “Imagine Peace.” The pair used major media outlets like hey billboards and TV to spread their message of pacifism to a wide audience.
Most of you probably either remember or have heard of a part of this campaign: Yoko and John’s famous “bed in.” During the week following their wedding Yoko and John spent their honeymoon in a bed in Amsterdam where they invited the press (between 9am and 9pm) in to observe. While the press was there the pair sat in the bed and talked about peace with signs over their bed reading “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace.” They performed this protest once again in the same month in Montreal.
Even after John’s tragic death Yoko has continued the “Imagine Peace” campaign, even creating a website to keep the movement current. In 2007 she unveiled the “Imagine Piece Tower” which is a huge tower of light in Iceland that is inscribed with the words imagine peace in twenty-four languages and shoots a radiant beam of light into the dark nights each year between October 9th (the day of Lennon’s birth) and December 8th (the day of his death.)
I think, because it’s a peace tower, and it’s kind of blinking, which is very, very, I think, real and true to what’s going on now. It’s blinking in a sense that it comes out only from John’s birthday to John’s—the day that he passed away. And so, it’s a small—but, you know, it just shows how life is short, but light and the concept of light is eternal.
Yoko is also a very vocal supporter of women’s rights. As the blog series that lead me to spotlight Yoko Ono explains, Yoko was pretty much the only woman to ever stand up to the Beatles misogynistic treatment of women. She had a major hand in changing the way that John Lennon viewed women in the world as she taught him to respect her as an individual and a partner; she refused to be a subservient wife. For example, Yoko didn’t idly accept John cheating on her or allow any Beatles to shut her out of important business decisions that effected them both (she was the business-minded one out of the pair anyways.) When they married John even changed his middle name to Ono so they could be Mr. and Ms. Ono-Lennon! In 1971 she wrote an essay entitled “The Feminization of Society”, she’s also made a great deal of overtly feminist artwork over the course of her career.
In addition to all of this, she also frequently goes on speaking engagements to spread the message of peace around the world. If you ever get the chance – please, go see Yoko speak, she is a person we all could learn from without a doubt. To conclude, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Ono’s artist’s book Spare Room (made available to accompany Women’s Room, an exhibit in London.)
“Next time you meet a ‘foreigner’, remember it’s only like a window with a little different shape to it and the person who’s sitting inside is you.”
Much more than just the wife of a Beatle, Yoko is an amazing artist and activist who seems to see life and love in every person and experience, she is truly an inspiration.
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Remember to write in (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you know someone who should be featured next Tuesday!