Friday, September 12, 2008

YOKO ONO, michele Robecchi

MICHELE ROBECCHI: You’ve been based in New York since the late 1950s, and have had a unique opportunity to witness very different times and swings – from the Fluxus days through the East Village boom of the 80s and the consequent crisis of the 90s. Do you think that your work has somehow been influenced by these changes through the years? Obviously the audience in the 60s was very different to the audience of the 90s. Do you feel people have perceived your art differently?

YOKO ONO: Well, in a very strange way, I saw Pop Art happening and then Op Art and all that, but I wasn’t affected by it so much, you know. Before that was Abstract Expressionism… When Pop Art was very fashionable – I use the word fashionable which is maybe not fair to them, but it was – people expected Pop Art to be the only thing that you should be doing. If you were not doing that then you weren’t a good artist. But there were still some cult followers of my work; there were always some people who liked this kind of art side of work.

MR: I was especially thinking about the 80s because it is normally assumed that it was a very joyful, if not slightly hedonistic time. I’m talking about the pre-AIDS days, when all of a sudden there was a lot of money involved and many social concerns seemed to be brushed aside.

YO: Well, I was never on that boat. [laughs] I always missed the boat, and that’s fine. It was probably better that I missed it.

MR: Absolutely. I think it’s good to miss the boat sometimes. Were you annoyed by the reaction to My Mummy was Beautiful (2004) at the Liverpool Biennial? (1)

YO: Yeah, I didn’t understand that at all. I was very shocked, because when I thought of the idea, I thought of covering the city of Liverpool with all those beautiful elements of my mother, or motherhood, and I thought it was my way of saying thank you to Liverpool. I wanted to say thank you by giving something. And I thought they would love it, I thought they would love the experience of it. I never thought it was going to create controversy.

MR: Especially for such an image. I mean, Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde is over a century old and one would expect society to have covered some ground after that.

YO: You see, that’s another very interesting thing. You were all born from a woman’s body but you don’t want to think about it, you want to always sweep that under the rug. You don’t want to face a woman’s body on that level. But why? That’s where you came from. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that that’s where the perversion of society starts. In other words, you are debasing women. You have received a lot from women but would like to ignore that. You would like to ignore the power of women in a way, and of course the female sex feels that and their position is one of resentment and anger. It’s not healthy. It’s almost like you’re ignoring or abusing half the world and their energy. If you allow that energy to blossom then it’s better for the world, the world that you live in.

MR: You have a piece here in the exhibition, We are all Water. Is it the same piece you showed in London in 1966?

YO: I think that I first showed it in 1971. It’s basically the same one but here it’s in a different form.

MR: You also did a song called We are all Water at about the same time, which I gather was another evolution of the same concept.

YO: Yes. It was very interesting. I was just inspired to do that. The idea was the fact that we are all the same, just water. So it should be easy for us to communicate. But then Dr Moto discovered not an idea, but the fact that water can understand words and it changes quality when we put certain energies through it. It’s just fantastic – I really like the fact that it was almost like what I was doing was proven by science [laughter], and that gave more legitimacy to it.

MR: Don’t you think it’s crazy that people buy water?

YO: Yeah. Isn’t it amazing? Water is such a basic element. You and I are the same element. Only the container is different. So that’s why I understand you and you understand me. Of course sometimes we are fearful of understanding each other, so we pretend that we don’t. It’s just pretending, you know.

MR: The association of a visual artist like Matthew Barney with a pop star like Björk doesn’t seem to create a stir like it did in your days. Quite the contrary, the art world now seems more receptive to these ‘stardom intrusions’ than in the past.

YO: Yeah, I think it’s great, because we have more freedom that way. Why were we limiting ourselves to one field? I think it had a lot to do with practicality, in the sense that you have to limit yourself to one job and have a name card saying ‘I am an artist’, no, ‘I am a musician’, ‘please hire me’. Especially in the art world, somebody was saying – I don’t think I should actually quote the person’s name, but a pretty important artist was saying that once you establish yourself as an artist in a certain form, then you are known for that, and if you change your ways of expressing yourself you may become less popular and you lose your job in effect. It doesn’t sell anymore. You know how to do this type of painting and you suddenly say, ‘No, I’m going to just do photography’ or something like that, nobody’s going to buy it. So, in a way, it’s establishing yourself as a monetary value.

MR: Where do you think this need to categorise people in this way comes from?

YO: It’s because you want to make sure that you can support yourself and you can make money by your art, and for that you have to say, well, ‘I’m like this, and if you buy my work in five years it might become more expensive.’ It’s like a name card. And, of course, I don’t have a name card.

MR: One of my favourite pieces of yours is the all-white chess set Play It By Trust (1966). I assumed it was about showing that we are all equals, right?

YO: Yes. It’s very much like the We are all Water piece.

MR: But there are different dynamics involved in chess. There is a battle; there is competition.

YO: It immediately dispenses with the idea of war and a battle, because if you are the same, you don’t have a war. Who are we fighting? And why?

MR: Your work for peace in the late 60s left a deep mark. Today war is still a big issue but the majority of artists seem to be dealing with the subject in a different way from the artists of your generation, and you especially.

YO: In what sense?

MR: Well, I get the impression that you were sending a global message in a more propositional and positive way, whereas today artists’ works tend to be more documentary oriented. And I was wondering if this change is more the result of our society growing more cynical, or becoming part of an ‘it didn’t work out that way, so let’s try it this other way’ attitude.

YO: I think both. I really think that many people in the young generation feel that what we did didn’t work. But I say that it did work. I say that if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t have the world now. It helped to keep the world going and also it probably made the world into a more complex and interesting society. Some, in their minds, only focus on the destruction of society. But let’s focus on what we have achieved. We have achieved an incredible, sophisticated civilisation and the ideas in our heads are very, very interesting and wise. I think that when you watch the TV you will see that some of the things talked about by ordinary people could be the words of somebody very special like a philosopher, a guru or a priest in the 16th or 17th centuries. And nowadays it’s just normal for all of us to be just talking like that. Even on TV they are expressing ideas that are very interesting, considering what it was like three or four centuries ago.

MR: So do you think that the media and the evolution of the media have played a role in this?

YO: Well, the evolution of the media has to do with meeting the demand of the people. There is an incredibly strong desire to communicate, and of course communication is everything that we have. I think that exchange and communication, and especially the exchange of information, gives us more and more power.

MR: But at the same time don’t you think it’s overwhelming?

YO: Well, I don’t know, of course we need pause, some time to rest and some time for entertainment. And that’s what I think artists are doing. Artists are doing something that’s two-fold: one is to wake people up, the other is to entertain them. And when I say entertain people it sounds like it’s less of a thing than the effort to wake people up, but it’s not really. Entertainment can be extremely wise and intelligent.

MR: And educational too.

YO: Right – game playing on the level of an exercise for your brain. So I really think in that sense the only hope we have is to try to change society through science and art.



(1) My Mummy was Beautiful consisted of a series of banners, posters and stickers, posted all over the city of Liverpool, depicting a woman’s naked breast and vagina. A BBC poll and a Times inflammatory editorial described the work as offensive, and the fracas eventually resulted in the work being removed from the St Luke War Memorial. Paul Domela, deputy chief executive of Liverpool Biennial, declared that ‘We were aware that some would object to it. But, at the same time, we realised that a great many would love it as well […] In the campaign for the election in the European Union, there was an image of a woman breast-feeding. The campaign was aired across Europe, including some very Catholic countries. Over here, the difference was that the nipple was removed. This baby had its mouth open into nothingness. What does that say about the relationship we have in this country to motherhood? To begin to think about that and talk about it is very important.’

above copied from:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


MICHELE ROBECCHI: You came up with a very challenging statement during your talk at Tate Modern last December. You said you make art because you feel guilty.


MR: What did you mean?

PR: I think that I should have probably moved a step further by now and I haven’t done it. I cannot analyse the feeling completely but you’re right, that’s the best question. I haven’t sorted it out yet. I think it comes from my Protestant education and the whole idea that when you’re born you inherit the sin or the guilt of your ancestors. I’m also afraid that if I find out why, I would stop making art.

MR: Do you think that this sense of guilt affects your work?

PR: It certainly does. I feel responsible for what I deliver. I don’t want to steal time from the viewer. I want to be as precise as I can. I never shared the underground notion that not being understandable is a quality. Being misunderstood is a fundamental problem that we have. My Japanese teacher said that problems or misunderstandings come from a lack of information – but on the other hand you cannot blow things up. When you write a one-page-text and are afraid that people will misunderstand you, it means that you would need 20 pages to make sure that your point is clear. But you don’t have that space or the concentration, so the question is how to be simple without being simplistic?

MR: I guess at the end of the day it is about making a selection of the few things that you think will best come across.

PR: And leave out the most problematic stuff. Do you think it’s the same for you?

MR: Absolutely. But writing exists within different formats. You can afford to be a different person to different people. And having a context probably helps you to narrow down what you want to say, although… well…

PR: Keep going. I like interviews where the interviewer paragraphs are longer than mine.

MR: (Laughs) It shouldn’t work like that. I think it’s boring when the interviewer tries to outdo the interviewed.

PR: No, it isn’t. All the writers and journalists try to restrain what they say and it’s a bad thing. I think they should be as subjective and as personal as possible. That’s why I like Hunter S. Thompson’s style. There is no such thing as objective journalism but all the newspapers try to make us believe that there is. Journalists always claim that their bosses don’t want them to be too present because people don’t want that. If this is true, then I think chief editors are completely wrong. I think people are interested in who’s writing. Restraint is often a form of self-protection.

MR: In the same way people might be interested in who’s behind the artwork. Do you have any curiosity to meet the artist when you see an artwork that you like?

PR: I’m interested in hearing stories about the work and the person behind it but I am also afraid that I might not like the artist. I found out that there are some good works from artists I don’t like personally because they are bluffers or gamers or Machiavellis. Though I prefer good works by lovely people.

MR: How about horrible works made by great people?

PR: That’s even more painful. And when you have personal contact, you try not to talk about art. It’s a psychological thing. But I don’t think that the artwork and the artist have to be so congruent.

MR: You turned down the opportunity to meet Yoko Ono once.

PR: Yes. She was with a gallerist I know and he called me and asked if I wanted to meet her. I was afraid so I declined but I don’t regret it. I was actually in direct contact with her once, when she was collecting vessels for one of her projects, We’re all Water (2006). I did send her something but never met her personally. I don’t want to have a negative impression of her, and the risk is there. You don’t want to meet your heroes and be disappointed. Being afraid of being disappointed is already a little critical in itself, isn’t it?

MR: When did you get into Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s work?

PR: I was 13/14. I was a fan and then I heard there was another guy one class above me in my village who was also a fan, I think he was 15/16, and so I made contact. It was a few years too late for our generation to be Lennon fans, but we copied a lot of things from them although we didn’t read them as art, we just thought they were super romantic and cool things to do. We did some writings and we ‘drowned’ them into the Rhine. We were like true fans.

MR: So, since you like questions longer than answers, I’ve got something long to say. What you said about being interested in John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s work but not being aware that it was contemporary art at the time is interesting for me because all the Beatles literature I read when I was a kid always depicted Lennon as the great artist and Yoko Ono as the train-wreck, and how after they met he started doing odd things like sleeping in bags or recording silence. And I started questioning what I was reading because I thought this stuff was actually great. It sort of pushed me towards art school but when I got there I failed to see the connection because they were teaching something completely different.

PR: What were they teaching?

MR: Things like straight painting or clay-modelling. Anything remotely conceptual was out of the window. This long preamble is just to ask if you experienced something similar when you started studying art in Vienna.

PR: Yes, although I started in 1981, when that kind of conceptual art was more established in a way. It used to be a more underground style but by that time it became accepted. It was already a part of history. But of course, even now there is still a very small group of people interested in conceptual art. We think it’s a huge group but the art world is so small. In the 60s all these expanding definitions of art arose – the dream was that one day it would really reach the masses and totally dissolve in society. Then later it became a kind of academic, researched field and was accepted as something for a very elitist, small group of people. But on the other hand it was influencing everything, like commercial art, films, graphic design. It had an influence on society through other areas but it never became a lived part of it. The groove was different then. Just think of all these openings etc. It seems to me that the society is completely segregated and that’s an accepted fact. So many styles and interests and rituals changed brutally since the 60s.

MR: Do you think that the 60s were actually like that or have we developed a romantic notion of them?

PR: I think it was actually like that. I read an interview with the editor of Purple about fashion and art where he says that being anti-fashion was possible in the 60s before the very same attitude itself became fashionable. You had the possibility to distance yourself from norms and to find an identity but when that became the hippest thing, there were no possibilities to be anti something anymore. Also we lost innocence with the knowledge of environmental destruction, you can feel it in many artworks in the 60s. They were free to protest without a lot of self-doubts.

MR: There was more freedom of expression.

PR: Technically, there was less freedom but it was easier to distance yourself from the rules. Today it looks like freedom, but the rules have become subtler. If you behave wrong, if you talk wrong, it’s not so obvious anymore like it used to be in the 60s. Every statement you make automatically pushes you out of a group and into another.

MR: But then it’s possible that the temporal distance between that period and the present are contributing factors as to how we look at the 60s now. For example, there was an immense feeling of 50s nostalgia in the 70s. Pretty much as you just said, it was revisited as an age of innocence – Grease (1978), American Graffiti (1973) or a TV series like Happy Days. But if you look at these films now, you can tell that what we are actually looking at are the 50s from a 70s perspective.

PR: And you would like to take a step back and see how we now watch things that are clearly filtered through the spectacles of the 2000s. But we don’t have the distance to see that. We are completely immersed. It’s true, it is a matter of perspective and where you stand. That’s half of the thing you’re looking at because our brain can only take in very little information and then 90 per cent of what we experience is what the brain fills in or what the brain makes of this 10 per cent. But I think that things today are extremely complex and to be subversive in our time is almost impossible. When subversion is in fashion, you can hardly call these subversive days.

MR: Well, they used to say that your work was subversive. There was this big thing about MTV and how you were commenting on the media culture, when, as a matter of fact, I think you were actually more influenced by experimental cinema.

PR: When I started I didn’t know about MTV. Music films were already there. They weren’t invented by MTV. MTV just created a market by putting them on TV 24/7. But that was in the 80s. Now there are so many shows you’re lucky if you see a music video at all. I don’t know why they do it. Did they really find out that people prefer that to music clips? Maybe I should write them a letter. I read that the chief of MTV Europe likes my work. I didn’t expect that she would know me.

MR: I think you should. It’s also way too compartmentalised now.

PR: It is. It was completely mixed before. It shows you again the paradox of keeping completely separated those trends that are supposed to group people together. Each has its own codes, its own development, its own history, in a way. This is also because they are so brutally everywhere, that they are accessible all the time. Not to mention that people are very well educated in symbols, styles, and movements now. You wanted to know something else, though…

MR: Experimental cinema. If it was one of your early influences.

PR: I liked animation films a lot. I used to go to these crazy experimental film festivals. But there aren’t that many anymore. Where are all these people who did experimental film now? They became old, they died and then the so-called younger experimental filmmakers just found other areas to work.

MR: I understand you are a John Waters fan. What do you like about him?

PR: He can talk as well as he can make films – unlike me! (Laughs) Do you know his books? They’re short stories, they’re very good. Pink Flamingo (1972), is actually close to the subject I’m also dealing with: conventions and rules, the image of a woman and a man and how he turns them upside down to take a different viewpoint. What they do in his film could probably be true but not with that intensity. It often looks like things have been this way forever but that’s not true. They always make us believe that the way men are today is down to natural development, but it could have been slightly different and that’s what I like about Waters, that he gives these perspectives.

MR: Tell me about your feature film.

PR: My subject is a girl or a woman or a human being if you like, who inherits a dream from her grandmother to free herself and the world from unnecessary fears. Not only to overcome unnecessary fears but to propose new rituals. Today we also have the luck that so many conventions have gone away, but we don’t fill them with new ones so on the one hand we feel too restricted and on the other hand we are lost. And she tries to bring about new rituals and also to overcome the fears of being laughed at or excluded from a group. Sometimes she succeeds, sometimes she doesn’t. She then goes looking for friends to spread ‘health’ in the world. She’s completely fearless.

MR: What’s her name in the film?

PR: Pepperminta. Like the character in Homo Sapiens Sapiens (2005). It’s also the same main actor and performer – Ewelina Guzik from Krakau in Poland.

MR: You said you see this as a step forward. Is it because you are bringing your view to a different audience?

PR: It’s both a different audience and a different ritual to watch. Prior to every installation I have to know everything about the space where it will be shown – the size of the room, the history of that institution… the whole package. I see a movie theatre exactly in the same way. You go to the pictures, you sit, you pay, quite a lot, and you and all the other people in the room focus in one direction and you are not supposed to leave until the end. In an installation I cannot decide when people come in and when they leave. This gives it a completely different choreography. I’m also very interested in TV. But if you want to get film funding you cannot stress this point because film people take this ritual for granted. The challenging thing is to make a story that holds up for more than an hour. You follow the actor and you identify with him or her and say ‘I would do it differently’… You go on a longer journey.

MR: While you were talking about TV I was thinking of Achterbahn/das Tram ist noch nicht voll (1998), the work you made in collaboration with Thomas Rhyner and Ian Krohn. Have you ever had the opportunity of doing something with TV?

PR: To do a show or something? No. I had a small connection with TV twice. My single channel videos were shown on national TV once and then I worked on a show for teenagers about menstruation. The footage I later used for Blutclip (1993) was made for that show. I feel myself more on the side of the viewer and TV is more like a magazine or a newspaper – they think to know what people want. It’s a powerful institution. I work with similar materials but I am completely free. I have no chiefs, no rules, nobody to tell me what goes or doesn’t go on and as long as I have such good freedom, I never fight with them. Of course there is the possibility to subvert the system from inside. But it is funny as in Zurich many people working in TV come from the 80s, from this youth demonstration culture. The loudest ones, the most political people from that time are now working with TV. They said they were giving too much money for opera and not getting anything for themselves. Over the last 20 years this has changed a lot because of the battles in the 80s. They were fighting for more concert places, fringe theatres, and spaces for expression. And the people who fought for this, the most radical ones, now are in TV. I thought they would become politicians and instead they’re mainly on TV. When I watch them, it looks like they are little cogs of a big gear.

MR: Cable TV is a bit more experimental in this sense. You can decide what to watch and there seems to be a bit more independence.

PR: On demand, yes. It will be seen as a huge change in the next 20 years or so as to how we consumed TV. We once had plans to do alternative shows. We thought about it but the whole thing would take so many people. It’s a little bit similar to the difference between experimental video and 35 mm films. Everything is dependent on the moment and it has to work. And the more are working, the more you’re under pressure to make it work. And the more people you have, the more money you need, and all TV institutions are like heavy, slow machines. There’s a lot of administration. It’s a power game – who sits the longest until everybody else falls down. I just don’t feel like being part of it. From 1986 to 1994 I worked in different video studios. I know the structures and how it works.

MR: What were you doing then, were you an editor?

PR: I was doing computer graphics. We made educational films. One I can remember was about explaining to bank employees how their clients would soon have to use plastic cards to get money. We made films where we proved that Ciba Geigy invented environmental protection. (laughs) I wasn’t the director, I was just doing 2D animations, things like the flashing arrows, backgrounds for touch-screens, dissolving sequences, obstructions, labels…

MR: Are you a hard-boiled TV consumer?

PR: No, not at all. I have the feeling that I have wasted my time afterwards. You spend four hours in front of the screen and what’s left? But I have a sister who watches a lot of TV and she gives me tips. I have seen Desperate Housewives and Monk now. I have seen CSI. It’s really good. The special effects are amazing. There was a dead lady, she was murdered and the camera went through the wound inside her with the bullet. I thought it was quite experimental.

MR: The exhibition in Stockholm is partially a retrospective. What was it like for you to select your work and put it together and take this trip down memory lane?

PR: There’s too little distance on one side and too much distance on the other side. It’s a bit like when you do a concert and you play your hits. You already know that they work and how they work together. It’s a little bit professional, maybe too professional. We showed my blockbusters in a way. The show wasn’t a big risk. I’m now interested in hearing what the professionals have to say but the audience reaction is the most important to me and it was very positive. Anders [Guggisberg] always says: ‘Pipi you should caress your stomach more…’ I don’t bask in good reactions. When I was there we did it as well as we could, but my heart and brain were somewhere else…

MR: Your new work?

PR: Yes.

MR: Homo Sapiens Sapiens in Venice, the show at Hauser & Wirth in London (2005), and now the new piece in Stockholm. Is this like some sort of trilogy?

PR: Yes. At least from the viewer’s position. But that’s partly because gravity is a central issue in these works. The difference in Stockholm is that the screen is dissolved. The shape of the screen wasn’t dictated by historical rooms like the church in Venice or the bank in London. What is similar to the first two is that you can look at it both this way and that. Each viewer will have a different idea of where the bottom of the image is.

MR: You must have been very disappointed in Venice when that bishop protested that your installation be shut down on the ground that it was blasphemous.

PR: Yes. I wanted to react but then the Kunstkommission told me to wait because they wanted to solve the problem diplomatically. It was fine with me, as I certainly didn’t want to go out, start babbling and take advantage of censorship. Censorship is often used like an advertisement tool. I didn’t do anything but then almost two months elapsed and I felt I should have at least given my statement and then they said, yes, okay, we’ll give out your statement and we’ll put ours with it. And then there was a power game, I just don’t know what happened, but they went out with their statement without putting in mine. I went to the press the very next day, but they couldn’t put it in anymore because every newspaper had already published the statement of the commission. But they collected signatures in the Portuguese Pavilion. Very kind people, some Italian students who were working there, made a petition. They collected more than 2,000 signatures to re-show the work and about 40, I think, against it. They took the petition to the bishop emphasising that 2,000 people wanted it and he closed it for 40 signatures! I liked it a lot.

MR: Is there anything we won’t see in your film?

PR: Cigarettes. Although they’re often used in films. They were a very prominent thing in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), when they smoke while talking about their parents that died from lung cancer. It’s where Chris Isaak’s song Wicked Game comes from.

MR: You covered Wicked Game in Sip My Ocean (1996). A lot of people talk about feminism when they discuss that work. Rochelle Steiner wrote that I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986) and Sip My Ocean were a response to these very macho songs with a female perspective. Do you agree with that?

PR: Both try to show hysteria in a positive light. Maybe they overlap a bit. Hysteria is associated with the idea of falling apart – it’s got a very negative connotation. Trying to put it in another light, not with words but with actions, songs or pictures, helps more than if you say, ‘we should not read hysteria so negatively’. That doesn’t help so much but if you exorcise it, I think it does. As for feminism, I think the most feminist piece I did recently is the monument to Emily Kempin-Spyri at the Zurich University. Do you know her? She was the first jurist woman in Switzerland. She decided to study law because her husband wasn’t able to support the family anymore but her male colleagues wouldn’t let her work. She spent most of her life fighting for the accreditation as a lawyer, and eventually they locked her up in a psychiatric hospital where she died. My piece was originally intended to be a room-installation but then we decided to make it look more like a classic monument.

MR: Is dreaming important in your work?

PR: Yes, very much.


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