The following article, called "Multimedia Pioneer: An Interview with Yoko Ono" by Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky, appeared in the Ruminator Review, summer 2002 (#10). The Ruminator Review, an independent quarterly magazine on books, arts and culture, is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.
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Years ago, John Lennon said that everyone knew Yoko Ono's name but no one knew what she did. Now we do. In an article in The Nation (Dec.18, 2000), eminent philosopher Arthur Danto called Ono "one of the most original artists of the last half-century." A boundary-crossing, multimedia, avant-garde artist for the past four decades, Ono has created films, paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, photography, poetry, music, and performances. Having had rigorous musical training, including classical piano, German lieder and Italian opera, Ono broke out of tradition and into unchartered artistic territory. Her adventurous vocals and experimental approach to sound-mixing have contributed generously to progressive music like punk, art rock and free jazz. Still at the cutting edge, her 1971 song, Open Your Box was recently re-mixed, creating a sensation in today's hip dance clubs.
Ono has also maintained a high profile in the visual art world where she is currently being recognized as a pioneer of conceptual art, developed in the mid-1960s. Combining Asian thought, minimalism, chance and the investigation of everyday life, Ono's work developed as an unfinished, fluid process to be completed by the viewer. During the early 1960s , she was involved with the international, post-Dada group Fluxus, a loose configuration of multimedia artists breaking boundaries in the arts and bourgeois culture. Ono was living in lower Manhattan among artists such as John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Merce Cunningham, when, along with LaMonte Young, she presented a series of now legendary collaborative events in her downtown loft.
It was there that George Maciunas met Ono and became intrigued with her ideas of conceptual painting, audience participation and interpretive license. Maciunas later took the helm of Fluxus as it struggled to rethink the whole idea of art. Ono eventually distanced herself from the movement, but stayed close to some of the artists, including Maciunas.
Among Ono's most well-known early works are Instruction Paintings, which established the important concept that ideas are art and art is in the mind. Meant to be performed or just imagined, the poem-like verbal instructions encourage what Ono calls "an exploration of the invisible." For example, Cloud Piece, 1963: "Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in ." In 1964, the instructions were published in her book Grapefruit (since reprinted), now revered as a pivotal work in Conceptual Art.
Ono blazed the trail in performance art in the mid-1960s, using the medium as a vehicle for social change. In her landmark pre-feminist work, Cut Piece, performed and filmed at New York's Carnegie Hall, Ono sat passively on stage while, one at a time, audience members cut off her clothes with a pair of scissors. Showing no emotion, she was left practically naked forty minutes later.
From 1966-1982, Ono made experimental films, some of them produced with John Lennon. Among her most famous are Bottoms (1966) and Fly (1970), which explore the body, ephemerality and collective consciousness. Bottoms shows the naked buttocks of male and female Fluxus artists and friends, as they walk. Fly follows the movement of a common housefly as it travels across the motionless, nude body of a woman. Ono accompanies the fly's journey with an otherworldly soundtrack featuring primordial buzzing, whimpers and groans that could represent the fly or the psychic pain of the woman.
Half-A-Room, created in 1967, consists of objects such as a chair, bureau, rug, table, tea pot and hat, all cut in half, continuing Ono's investigation of metaphysical themes such as absence, presence, spirit, mind and matter.
Ono's retrospective, Yes Yoko Ono, which opened in New York in October, 2000 and will travel until 2003, recently won the International Association of Art Critics/USA Award for Best Show Originating in New York City. This year Ono was also named Woman of the Year and given a Lifetime Achievement Award by Ms. magazine, honoring her feminism and commitment to world peace.
The following conversation took place in Boston, shortly after Ono's show opened at MIT's List Visual Art Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky: Your 40-year retrospective is giving audiences a chance to reconnect with you and rediscover your art. New generations are exploring your work now, too. What do you hope that people get out of it?
Yoko Ono: I hope they would get some inspiration, some encouragement from it. What they are doing , probably they are doing with a lonely feeling. Maybe they are thinking, "I'm the only one in the world who is doing this." But now you know you're not alone. There are a lot of us.
C.B-K: How did you become adept at working in such a broad range of media? I wondered if the idea came first and then the media or if one thing builds on another, like the way Fly started as a performance and then became a film, soundtrack, event and CD. You seem to think of a lot of things at once.
Y.O: I know, it's really weird. It just comes to me. And then, when it comes to me in a visual form, I take it from there and make something visual. If it comes in sounds, I just make sounds.
C.B-K: You must have explored a lot of media with Fluxus artists in the 1960s and I know you had very serious musical training.
Y.O: Yes, well, with music, I had serious training and with visual work, my mother was a painter. She was always kind of intimidating because she was such a good painter. I think there was a feeling on her part that if I did anything in visual art, she wanted to do it for me.
C.B-K: She would take the paintbrush and do it for you?
Y.O: Literally. When I was a little girl, and I had to do homework for a painting class, she'd say, "No, No. Just wait, wait. Do it this way." And one day, I had to take this piece of work to school that was almost done by her. I was feeling so embarrassed, but there was no choice but to take that painting to school. Everyone was saying, "It's so good. I can't believe it's so-o good."
C.B-K: So, with the way your mother taught you, things had to be just "right?"
Y.O: Yes, but, she taught me a lot through that. It was like some very overbearing fathers who teach piano to their daughters and say, "You have to practice now." Well, my father was one of those. He would always tell me that once I start to play a piece, I have to make sure to always complete it -- that I should not leave it in the middle.
C.B-K: That's ironic, because as you got older, so much of your work was unfinished! [Laughter]
Y.O: I know, I know! [Laughter] Actually, with the painting, my mother didn't tell me that I should finish a painting, my mother would say to let her finish it, because it was so bad or something. She taught me things like how to make something three dimensional, and also to make something in a distance. She knew it all. So, painting was not a world that was alien to me. And besides my mother being a painter, one of my uncle's was also a painter and another uncle was a sculptor.
CB-K: You had the music and the art background, but what about filmmaking?
Y.O: Filmmaking, that's a totally different story. When I was connected with George Maciunas, [of Fluxus] he just called me one day and said, "I've got this machine that's extremely interesting. It's a high-speed camera and I can only use it for today and tomorrow. Just think of an idea and we'll quickly do it." So I thought of this incredible idea of the bottoms. I said I wanted to film it, and he said," Okay, I'll come over and set it up for you." So he set it up in my apartment. He was like that. He was always setting something up for me, or making something for me. He was fantastic about that. A very creative guy.
C.B-K: During the beginning of the Conceptual Art movement in the 1960s , when you were using language instead of paint and getting out important ideas, like art is in the mind, were you aware of the work of Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner?
Y.O: I didn't know anything about that. I met them probably in the 1980s or something. But I was with people who were involved in the Fluxus movement and that was my world. I'm sure that Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner were doing something too. There were many of us who were actually drawn to come to New York at the time. They were very interesting people. It was an incredible scene. It was really a very important time.
C.B-K: Did you work closely with John Cage?
Y.O: No. I didn't work closely with him at all. Cage was a very established person in his own right. He was amongst us, you know, the younger generation in New York. He was called "J.C" -Jesus Christ.
C.B-K: Was your performance piece, Sky Piece for Jesus Christ, named for him?
Y.O: Oh, that was a little pun -- kind of a double entendre. The younger ones (we) were thinking that we were doing something that was a little bit of a step forward from it. But we were all influenced by him, encouraged by him, inspired by him. He was a big figure then. The funny thing about him -- he was a very good cook. Sometimes, John and I were invited to his place when he was cooking for many other people too, like Louise Nevelson and Merce Cunningham -- his friends. Also, once he cooked a very nice meal for Toshi and me. He was very proud of that, I think. And then he cooked a very good dinner just for John and me. There was a funny history about that. And then, I think it was the year he died, he suddenly said, "Why don't I cook for you again? I'm going to prepare a beautiful dinner for you." I said, "Could I bring my son?" He said, "yes." So, I took my son and myself to it and it was very nice. It was almost like, I felt there was an end coming. I think he was feeling that too.
C.B-K: Some of your very adventurous, early performance pieces such as Fog Piece, Wall Piece for Orchestra, and Cut Piece were kind of risky. Did you ever feel apprehensive performing them?
Y.O: I wouldn't have made it now because I would worry about some people doing it, not conceptually, and getting hurt or something. There was no concern about that in those days, for me. I was just focusing on my artwork, following the idea -- and running with it.
C.B-K: You started performing Cut Piece in 1964. Since that time, there have been so many interpretations of that work, especially related to pre-feminist themes. Were you thinking about issues such as violation, voyeurism or gender subjugation when you created it?
Y.O: No, it was more of a total understanding of where we stood as women. It wasn't a feminist issue, per se. It has to do with the positive and negative side of giving, but we can make it positive. It's like saying, "We're giving. And, when we give, we give in a total form." Not by saying, "Well, I'm going to give you this." But you can take what you want to take. That was the total giving. But also, that's what our society is doing, in the sense of cutting ourselves, piece by piece, in a way. So, there's a double entendre. And the funny thing was, most people thought of the other side , which is the body being violated [side]. But when this piece was performed by Charlotte Moorman in a nunnery, the nuns were saying, "Well, this is what we're doing." They bypassed the sexual connotation totally and just understood the philosophical connotation and the positive side, which was to be giving. I also feel like I'm dedicating my work and giving my total self to the audience when I'm on stage.
C.B-K: Some people are more familiar with your music than your visual art, poetry, performances or films. Your new CD, Blueprint for a Sunrise, predates September 11th, yet it seems to connect to a kind of emotional aftermath. Did you have a premonition?
Y.O: No, I had no idea. It always works out that way. In other words, it's not a clear premonition. It's just that, I do the work, but the timing of the album was given to me from the outside. I was not privy to why. But at the same time, I was having some sleepless nights before I made this album and wondering what was going on. Why do I feel so strongly that I have to finish this album right away? There was a point when I was hearing many women screaming in the middle of the night and I put that on the record. All these women, saying, "it's time for action, there is no option," in different languages. It gave me the shivers afterwards. And, I'm speaking from my experience as a woman. Like the song, "I Want You to Remember Me" - it has to do with victimized, abused people and countries, and I was saying this before September 11th. So I'm talking about all the vulnerable people, which includes all of us. We are all vulnerable.
C.B-K: I saw a video that you're in called, The Misfits: 30 years of Fluxus. Part of it was filmed in 1990 when some Fluxus artists from the 1960s met, after 30 years, to exhibit work in connection with the Venice Biennale. What was it like to see those people again, after all that time? I wondered about your notoriety and how it affected your re-connection with them.
Y.O: Well, you have to understand that I was a female artist and an Asian at that, so most men in those days probably thought of me as a good person to date or something, shall we put it that way? [Laughter] If I were to be speaking out at all, -- "Oh, shut up" -- that's the way they felt, probably. That's what my film, Fly indicates . Being interested in parts of us -- like beautiful breasts -- and then suddenly in the morning, you understand, "Ah, she's a woman and she's talking! What are we going to do? Shut her up." [Laughter] It's a bit like that. But, you know, I was part of it [Fluxus] and I would sometimes be given a token position. But also, with George [Maciunas], he was was not threatened by women at all. Without George, I don't think I would have survived in that circle. And Charlotte Moorman, of course, she was a very close friend of mine. She was doing avant-garde festivals and she always made sure to include me. Even when I was very down, in the sense that I was married and I had a child and I was becoming like, a lonely housewife, she'd still call me and say, "You have to put a piece in here." George was like that too. Both George and Charlotte were very encouraging people, encouraging to me, and so was Nam June Paik. But then I left Fluxus, in a way, and went to London and I did Bottoms there. The Bottoms film got kind of an unexpected big spread, probably because of the sex angle, but anyway, it got notoriety. It was coming to a point where even the generous avant-garde artists of London started saying "We can't invite her to dinner because she's getting too famous." They thought I was selling out. So when I came back after all that, in 30 years, to meet those people, that's a totally different thing. I don't know what they were thinking, really. But I miss them all. I love the fact that they stood by the ideas. The stuff that they're doing is incredibly noncommercial and interesting. And you know, I still share that spirit, of course. And also, maybe the fact that I'm not commercial now, at all, has a lot to do with that same kind of thinking that we share -- that we feel that the value of art is not commercial, but the value of art is in its ideas. Ideas of giving new wisdom, more wisdom, to the world.
C.B-K: Several of your pieces have had to do with wrapping. Wrapping Piece for London was an especially intriguing piece of participatory art. At the Indica Gallery in London, in 1966, you put a ball of gauze on a chair and the audience did something unexpected with it . What was your original intention with that piece?
Y.O: Well, I put out enough gauze for people to use, and what I wanted was for people to keep on making the ball larger and larger, to the point that it would fill the room , so nobody could even go into the room or come out of it. The idea was to fill up the whole room with the gauze ball. But then, instead of doing that, they wrapped the chair.
C.B-K: Didn't that chair piece lead you into Wrapping Event in London , where you wrapped the lions in Trafalgar Square?
Y.O: It was twice that I tried to wrap the lions in Trafalgar Square. The first time was in 1966, when I was doing the Indica Gallery show in London. We tried to do the lions but we were wrapping with newspapers, and it was starting to rain and the cops were saying, "You can't do that." It just didn't work. So then, we had to plan it well. The next summer, we said, "Okay, let's do it right." And, I think we did it right.
C.B-K: When Wrapping Piece for London metamorphosized in 1971, with a Plexiglas box around it and the new title, Hide Me, it raised some interesting questions about the nature of concealment. The Plexiglas was supposedly there to protect or conceal the chair but, of course, you could see right through it -- making the point that the more you tried to hide, the more you were revealed.
C.B-K: A piece of yours that brings up a lot of metaphysical issues is Half-a-Room (1967), touching on mind and matter, and also, dealing with loss and loneliness. I wondered if maybe you found half-an-object on the street somewhere and that set off the idea.
Y.O: No, no. Well, this is what it is. My then husband, Tony, and I were not getting along anymore. It was just before John came into to my life. I had already met John, but we were not yet connected in that way. Every night Tony wasn't coming back and one morning I woke up and there was a big space on the other side of the bed. So, I thought, "Half-a-bed, that's interesting." And then I started thinking about half-an-object. That was the inspiration. It's very deeply connected with my life at the time. And, the very strange thing is that I wanted to do this show at the Lisson Gallery [in London] about half-an-object. John wanted to know what show I was doing, and he was thinking about helping me out, financially. So, I was first explaining, describing, what I'd be doing and I was asking him if he wanted to participate in it. Because by then, I thought he was a very young, attractive guy and also an artistic, intelligent guy and I'm hitting him like, you know, going to some rich, supportive art [patron] and saying, "So this is my piece, are you going to put up the money for it?" And I just didn't want to do that to him. I felt like it would be much nicer if I asked him if he wanted to participate. So, I said, " Why don't you put something in there?" And he immediately came up with this idea. He said,"Okay. Why don't you put the other half in glass bottles?" It was so incredible. John was so intelligent. And the thing is, I wasn't even saying, "Why don't you put something in there connected with Half-a-Room?" It was a big show. I was thinking maybe he would put an independent piece in there. But he chose to coordinate with the half-a-room concept. Then I realized it was more difficult than I thought to put his piece in there, because , well, he has a big-name and people might think I was using his name or something or people might just be interested in his work--- -- it was getting so complicated. But I didn't want to just cut the idea, so I ended up putting the glass bottles in the back of the gallery on a high shelf, like, Half-a-Wind, Half-a-Bed, -- -- these bottles, empty bottles, just saying "J. L". I thought it was a great idea. Because it was so innately connected with my private life, what happened was very interesting. I realized that there was a half empty space in my life. I'm presenting that to John. John's filling the other half. That happened not only in the art dialogue, but it happened in my life. Isn't that amazing?
Copyright 2002 by Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky
Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky is a visual artist, arts writer and author of The Creativity Handbook.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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