Yoko Ono Lennon (オノ・ヨーコ, Ono Yōko?, kanji: 小野 洋子), born in Tokyo on February 18, 1933, is a Japanese artist and musician. She is known for her work as an avant-garde artist and musician, and her marriage and works with musician John Lennon.
Ono was a reluctant member of Fluxus, a loose association of Dada-inspired avant-garde artists that developed in the early 1960s. Fluxus founder George Maciunas, a friend of Ono’s during the 60s, admired her work and promoted it with enthusiasm. Maciunas invited Ono to help him promote the Fluxus movement, but she declined because she did not necessarily consider Fluxus a movement and she wanted to remain an independent artist. John Cage was one of the most important influences on Ono’s performance art. It was her relationship to Ichiyanagi Toshi, who was a pupil of John Cage’s legendary class of Experimental Composition at the New School, that would introduce her to the unconventional avant-garde, neo-Dadaism of John Cage and his protégés in New York City.
Almost immediately after John Cage finished teaching at the New School of Social Research in the Summer of 1960, Ono was determined to rent a place to present her works along with works of other New York avant-garde artists. She eventually found a cheap loft in downtown Manhattan at 112 Chambers Street that she used as studio and a living space. Composer La Monte Young urged Ono to let him organize concerts in the loft, and Ono acquiesced. Both artists began organizing a series of events in Ono’s loft at 112 Chambers Street, and both Young and Ono claimed to have been the primary curator of these events, but Ono claims to have been eventually pushed into a subsidiary role by Young. The Chambers Street series hosted some of Ono’s earliest conceptual artwork including Painting to Be Stepped On, which was a scrap of canvas on the floor that became a completed artwork upon the accrual of footprints. Participants faced a moral dilemma presented by Ono that a work of art no longer needed to be mounted on a wall, inaccessible, but an irregular piece of canvas as low and dirty as to have to be completed by being stepped on.
Ono was an explorer of conceptual art and performance art. An example of her performance art is “Cut Piece”, performed in 1964 at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo. Cut Piece had one destructive verb as its instruction: “Cut.” Ono executed the performance in Tokyo by walking on stage and casually kneeling on the floor in a draped garment. Audience members were requested to come on stage and begin cutting until she was naked. Cut Piece was one of Ono’s many opportunities to outwardly communicate her internal suffering through her art. Ono had originally been exposed to Jean-Paul Sartre’s theories of existentialism in college, and 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. Besides a commentary on identity, Cut Piece was a commentary on the need for social unity and love. It was also a piece that touched on issues of gender and sexism as well as the greater, universal affliction of human suffering and loneliness. Ono performed this piece again in London and other venues, garnering drastically different attention dependent on the audience. In Japan, the audience was shy and cautious. In London, the audience participators became zealous to get a piece of her clothing and became violent to the point where she had to be protected by security. She did it again in 2003. An example of her conceptual art includes her book of instructions called Grapefruit. This book, first produced in 1964, includes surreal, Zen-like instructions that are to be completed in the mind of the reader, for example: “Hide and seek Piece: Hide until everybody goes home. Hide until everybody forgets about you. Hide until everybody dies.” The book, an example of Heuristic art, was published several times, most widely distributed by Simon and Schuster in 1971, and reprinted by them again in 2000. Many of the scenarios in the book would be enacted as performance pieces throughout Ono’s career and have formed the basis for her art exhibitions, including one highly publicized show at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York that was nearly closed by a fan riot.
Ono was also an experimental filmmaker who made sixteen films between 1964 and 1972, and gained particular renown for a 1966 film called simply No. 4, but often referred to as “Bottoms”. The film consists of a series of close-ups of human buttocks as the subject walks on a treadmill. The screen is divided into four almost equal sections by the elements of the gluteal cleft and the horizontal gluteal crease. The soundtrack consists of interviews with those who are being filmed as well as those considering joining the project. In 1996, the watch manufacturing company Swatch produced a limited edition watch that commemorates this film. (Ono also acted in an obscure exploitation film of the sixties, Satan’s Bed.)
John Lennon once described her as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” Her friends and lovers in the New York art world have included Kate Millett, Nam June Paik, Dan Richter, Jonas Mekas, Merce Cunningham, Judith Malina, Erica Abeel, Fred DeAsis, Peggy Guggenheim, Betty Rollin, Shusaku Arakawa, Adrian Morris, Stefan Wolpe, Keith Haring, and Andy Warhol, as well as Maciunas and Young.
In a lecture at Wesleyan University, January 1966, Ono explained the inspiration behind her conceptual art: “All of my work in fields other than music have an Event bent … event, to me, is not an assimilation of all the other arts as Happening seems to be, but an extrication from various sensory perceptions. It is not a get togetherness as most happenings are, but a dealing with oneself. Also it has no script as Happenings do, though it has something that starts it moving- the closest word for it may be a wish or hope … After unblocking one’s mind, by dispensing with visual, auditory and kinetic perception, what will come out of us? Would there be anything? I wonder. And my events are mostly spent in wonderment … The painting method derives as far back as the time of the Second World War, when we had no food to eat, and my brother and I exchanged menus in the air.”
In the past few years, Ono’s work has received recognition and acclaim. For example, Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, stated that “Yoko Ono is one of the world’s most original and inspirational visual artists.” Michael Kimmelman, the chief Art critic of the New York Times, wrote: “Yoko Ono’s art is a mirror—like her work ‘a Box of Smile,’ we see ourselves in our reaction to it—a tiny prod toward personal enlightenment, very Zen.”
In 2001, YES YOKO ONO, a forty-year retrospective of Ono’s work, received the prestigious International Association of Art Critics USA Award for Best Museum Show Originating in New York City. (This award is considered one of the highest accolades in the museum profession.) In 2002 Ono was awarded the Skowhegan Medal for work in assorted media. And in 2005 she received a lifetime achievement award from the Japan Society of New York.
Ono received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Liverpool University in 2001; in 2002 she was presented with the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts from Bard College. Scott MacDonald, visiting professor of film at Bard, said: “She is to be congratulated for the body of work she has made, and celebrated for what she has come to represent, within media history and throughout the world: courage, resilience, persistence, independence, and above all, imagination, and a belief that peace and love remain the way toward a brighter, ever-more-diverse human future.”