Japanese-American Conceptual and Performance Artist, and Musician
Summary of Yoko Ono
Well before her famous partnership with John Lennon, Yoko Ono was the "High Priestess of the Happening" and a pioneer in performance art. Drawing from an array of sources from Zen Buddhism to Dada, her pieces were some of the movement's earliest and most daring. With unprecedented radicalism, she rejected the idea that an artwork must be a material object. Many of her works consist merely of instructions. In Cloud Piece (1963) for example, she instructs us to imagine digging a hole in the garden, and putting clouds into it. Ono faced the considerable challenge of remaining visible as an artist, not just a rock star's wife. For brief periods, the media's intrusive presence stopped her from working altogether. Remarkably, however, she persisted in sustaining a career that was well-established before Lennon's arrival on the scene, and which deserves to be admired in its own right.
- Ono's fundamental contribution to the formation of Conceptual Art was involving the audience into the completion of the work. It is designed so that anyone can make it - a crucial dimension of its meaning.
- Ono was one of the strongest feminist voices to emerge from the art world in the 60s. Her Cut Piece (1964), a first for feminist art performance, invited audience members to take turns cutting off her clothes using a pair of scissors. It also brought the audience into close contact with the artist, which was a new concept and crossed traditional boundaries.
- A path-breaking force in eliminating boundaries among the arts, in the early 1960s, Ono opened her home to dancers, composers, and artists and encouraged them to work together. The building of interdisciplinary community is another great area of achievement in her career, and a fundamental aspect of her practice.
- A pioneer in music as well as art, Ono was trained as a classical pianist. She was also steeped in Japanese Imperial music (Gagaku). Her familiarity with both traditions captivated experimental Western musicians La Monte Young and John Cage (Cage's 4'33'' is essentially a translation of the famous Zen koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"). She in turn was influenced by them.
- Experiences, events, and performances form the backbone of her artistic practice. In this respect she is the quintessential conceptual artist. Her work is designed to redirect our attention to ideas, instead of appearances.
- Though her name has been unfairly associated with a woman who negatively affects a man's professional performance (Beatles fans often blame her for their breakup), Ono helped John become much more conceptual. She assisted him in moving away from the mainstream that the Beatles had previously inhabited, and encouraged him to develop an independent voice as a composer and musician.
Biography of Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono had a long career and was integral to many directions in art. She was always an active creator, known for saying "I thought art was a verb, rather than a noun."
Important Art by Yoko Ono
Ono's most well-known works of the early 1960s are her "instructional pieces," so-called because the viewer is given instructions to follow. Following these instructions is an active part of making the work. This work consists of a canvas on a wood panel. Connected to the canvas is a hammer hanging from a chain. Nearby is a chair, with a jar of nails on it. Directions for the work ask the viewer to hammer a nail into the panel, and wrap a strand of his or her hair around it. Exhibited in 1966 in a gallery in London, the work was considered finished when the surface was completely covered in nails. Relinquishing her status as the author and empowering the public to complete the work was an incredibly radical concept for the time.
The idea that the work of art would be completed by the audience did, however, have antecedents in music. This is essentially an equivalent to John Cage's experimental "Four minutes, thirty-three seconds" (1952), in which the ambient noises in the room (furnished by the audience) throughout that brief period of time are considered the work. An early instance of Ono's brilliance as an innovator, this demonstrates her capacity to fuse musical concepts with new ideas that pushed the boundaries of visual art.
More open-ended and audience focused than earlier "instructional pieces", Bag Piece instructed two individuals to enter a large black bag (an environment of complete darkness) and remove their clothes. After a few minutes, they were to put their clothes back on and exit. It was up to them to decide what to do while inside the bag. In this work, Ono's aim was to create a situation that diminished the power of race, gender, class, and other traditional distinctions. While for the two individuals inside the bag, these distinctions were diminished by blindness and vulnerability, observers on the outside were also unable to draw conclusions based on these traditional categories. The figures could be anyone. The work was inaugurated in Tokyo at the Sogetsu Art Center by Ono and Anthony Cox, her husband at the time.
A landmark work, and one of the artist's best-known, Cut Piece was presented at the Sogetsu Art Center, the same Tokyo venue that had hosted her Bag Piece. Ono wore one of her best suits and knelt on the stage holding a pair of scissors. She invited audience members to cut pieces of her clothing off using the scissors. The artist remained still and silent until she was down to only her underwear. The process of witnessing clothes cut from the body elicited a range of responses from the audience. Themes of materialism, gender, class, and cultural identity were central to the work.
According to Ono, her original intention was to harness the Buddhist mentality (Buddha, born a wealthy prince, achieved enlightenment by giving up everything and sitting under a tree for seven years), with a feminist subtext: women too often need to give up everything. This performance was a demonstration of that reality. Ono's Cut Piece was the first performance piece to address the potential for sexual violence in public spectacle. It is also among the first examples of Performance Art.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Yoko Ono
- Yoko Ono: Collector of SkiesBy Nell Beram
- Reaching Out with No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko OnoBy Lisa Carver
- Yoko Ono: Between the Sky and My HeadBy Thomas Kellein
- Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and DrawingsBy Yoko Ono
- AcornBy Yoko Ono
- An Invisible FlowerBy Yoko Ono