Yoko Ono: my first encounter with this avant-garde artist came with John Lennon as I imagine most people associate her name with. Since then her name had been somewhere in my mind as one of the most famous Japanese in the world; yet I had not much idea who exactly she was.
It was one summer a couple of years ago, when I was staying in New York. I visited the Whitney one day, and there her films were playing. I only was able to catch the very last part (how ironic) and the experience left me a vague impression of her being a filmmaker then.
And her recently published book YES-Yoko Ono had been sleeping in my bookshelf for quite some time now, only to be opened just last night. Now I had some background knowledge on her as an artist, what I have found out in the book was simply amazing and made me cry: her art was and has been always so positive to her and to the viewers, and embraces her so tenderly as an artist, a woman, a person with several cultures inside, and as an individual in the post modern time. No doubt that she was a pioneer to all the art movement preceded, the idea she has explored is radical. Yet her YES has given us, at least to me, that art exist with us, inside and outside, which reminds me of the existence of mothers, and the mother earth in our history.
Ono was born in Tokyo in 1933 into a wealthy family who owned a banking business and part of Japans intellectual elite. Although growing up during the WW2 and its aftermath, both in the States and Japan, she received prestigious elite education in music, and went on to attend exclusive private Gakusyuin University majoring in Philosophy. Disillusioned, however, with the bourgeoisies atmosphere and the academia full of post-war avant-gardists and activists, she left for New York to join her family. After attending Sarah Lawrence for a short while, she went on to be a member of an art community in Lower Manhattan. Interactions with those artists who later established Fluxes was one influence on Ono, and she started doing solo of her Instruction to Painting.
The first exhibition was held in New York, but I very much like the show she reopened upon her brief return to Japan. In this Painting in Three Stanzas (score version), she got rid of the actual installation of the paintings (objects), which were present in New York. So what the viewers saw were only cards with directions to complete the paintings (verbal, language). Then the art only existed with participations of the viewers who created paintings in their mind. This art based on concept later became the big wave of Conceptualist art, which is still going on.
Not only she has been an installation artist, she is also a musician, and performer. Her probably the most famous performance of Cut Piece was done around 1964. She came to the stage with a scissor in her hand, instructed the audience to come and cut the piece of her clothes off. She sat in a traditional feminine style with her legs tacked under, and waited still with no emotions shown in her face, as if she was wearing a Noh-mask. In this performance, she transformed art into an event, and blurred the boundary between artists and viewers, distance between art and everyday life. As a woman, I would imagine the performance looks almost analogous to that of rape, where people are taking pieces of a woman away, and it also could be taken as everyones experienced being exposed to mass media culture.
She then went on to have shows in London, where she did a famous solo at Indica Gallery showing YES and Painting to Hammer a Nail. The visitors to the gallery were supposed to climb up the stairs situated beneath the clear ceiling, and there, with a magnifying glass, they could read the tiniest words YES on the ceiling. What is the yes for, I wonder. There was no question as far as I know. A simple, solid answer without a question --- YES. This is the most symbolic work of all her positive artwork, as I would like to call; Ono always believes in the power of minds to realize good through the act of visualization. Through her creative work, she looks for the truth, and its never-ending process itself seems like a positive act on life, the world, and art.
It was where she met John Lennon, and when she asked him to hammer nails into her work with five shillings, he is said to answer to imagine he gave shillings to her, and she gave him a hammer, which he put nails into her canvas (IMAGINE-all was in their mind).
After they became John and Yoko, her art and collaborations with her now husband began to take place in public. Then her concept took on social and political message for peace. In Bed-in for Peace(1969), their art became a social statement. They went on to build billboards with the message THE WAR IS OVER-IF YOU WANT IT along with the music, and those messages attacked the major entertainment cities in the world---Times Square, Sunset Blvd, Shaftsbury, etc. What this project did was to make people visualize how to end the war by participating, and it did so through the juxtaposition of signifiers this public art carried.
After the tragic murder of Lennon, she was trapped in an invisible trap of Pop culture by mass who grieves over his death. Despite the overwhelming public eyes over her, she worked enthusiastically on her next project---music from 1981 to 95. At the same time, she went back to her early conceptual unfinished project, and remade them using bronze material, which symbolizes anything but 60s. By remaking her own art, she denies the nostalgia sewed into her work, and expanded them by putting a new air of material power into them. Her attitude here was again positive, and shows her idea that the truth lies in the living mind as well as in art and life, which goes on.
In the 90s, Ono had a huge influence on neo-conceptualism which now carries some social issues within, and she produced a piece called Cleaning Piece. At the corner of the gallery, viewers can find the mound of stones and they are to interact to create their own piles of sorrows and joys just like people do high up in the mountain. Here again, she brings up the concept that her art is unfinished and it there to be constructed in peoples head.
She is the artist I truly look upon as an artist with openness, and a brave human, and a woman. Her work is, to me, loose, and especially the earlier work carries naiveté, and it flows so naturally with all her belief, interests, and cultures within. Her art is so strong, because she can let go. She said that art is ritualto rationalize the irrationality in us, humans. Isnt this a beautiful way to say art is life, and life exists within art?