Yoko Ono - Biography and Legacy
Japanese-American Conceptual and Performance Artist, and Musician
Biography of Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono was the eldest of three children, born to Isoko and Eisuke Ono, conservative Japanese aristocrats. Yoko's mother was a painter. Her father wanted to be a concert pianist, but had given up his dream career to be a banker, and sought to live vicariously through his talented daughter Yoko, sending her to music school at the age of four. She later moved on to one of Japan's most exclusive schools, Gakushuin. Ono had a strained relationship with her mother, who resented her own children, feeling that they were a drain on her enjoyment of upper class life in Tokyo. She later told Ono never to marry and never to have children. Ono's childhood was isolated. Despite being wealthy, she was neglected by her parents, who were too busy to show affection. As a child, she rang for the maid simply in order to see someone. Her creativity and musicality provided the comfort she very much needed.
In 1945 American planes bombed Tokyo, forcing Ono and her family to flee into the countryside. They had to forage for food traveling from farm to farm with their few belongings. Ono and her family were reduced to skin and bone; farmers who resented the population fleeing from cities threw stones at them. Ono remembers being drawn to the beauty of the sky during those times. The next year her school reopened and she continued her studies, graduating in 1951. She was the first woman to be accepted into the philosophy program at Gakushuin University. After two semesters, however, she left to join her family, who had moved to Scarsdale, New York. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and was drawn to the radical politics of the small liberal arts college, where she met artists and poets. She had planned to be a writer, but her writings didn't fit the Western academic mold embraced by her professors at Sarah Lawrence, although she continued utilizing her musical talents.
She discovered the work of New York avant-garde composer John Cage and befriended him and others such as La Monte Young. Here Ono found her niche. Cage, Young, and other early members of this avant-garde movement were heavily inspired by the elite cultural traditions of Japan, and Ono's background was a distinct advantage as opposed to a drawback, as it had been in literary circles. Ono began dating Toschi Ichiyanagi, a Juilliard student who shared her passion for avant-garde intercultural music, and wrote her first composition, Secret Piece, in 1955. Against her parents' wishes Ono left college and married Ichiyanagi. The two moved to Manhattan, where she began to pursue her life as an artist.
During the sixties, Ono gravitated toward the circles of artists participating in "happenings," and held events at her own loft at 112 Chambers Street in New York City. Fluxus artists, avant-garde musicians, and other performers gathered there on a regular basis. Ono became the informal curator of the downtown arts scene in this space, and was known as a one-woman powerhouse. Named the "High Priestess of the Happening" Ono was considered a lightning rod for culture, always at the cutting edge of emerging trends in visual art and performance. La Monte Young, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were among the artists she hosted in her loft at 112 Chambers Street. Evening events typically drew as many as 200 people.
During this time Ono supported herself as a secretary and a teacher of traditional Japanese arts. In 1961 she had her first solo show. She divorced her first husband and wed American jazz musician, film producer, and art promoter Tony Cox, and a year later the two had a daughter named Kyoko. Ono had established herself in the underground art scene by the mid-sixties. She performed musical pieces and was a reluctant part of the Fluxus art group, she was a seminal figure at its inception but didn't want to remain associated with it as she valued her independence as an artist. She published her legendary book of performance poetry called Grapefruit (1964) and began making films. After performing her now-famous Cut Piece, she was invited to hold an exhibition at the Indica Gallery in London. As she was preparing the exhibit, John Lennon came in to view the exhibit. He admired her artworks and was especially taken with YES (1966), a small affirmative painting at the top of a ladder, which he appreciated for its positivity. He also enjoyed Hammer A Nail (1966) and although the exhibition hadn't yet opened asked if he could hammer in a nail, when Ono said no the gallery owner took her aside and explained that Lennon was a millionaire and might buy the piece. Ono hadn't heard of the Beatles. She agreed that John could hammer in a nail for five shillings. Lennon replied that in exchange for an imaginary five shillings he'd hammer in an imaginary nail.
Drawn together by their love of words and music, they began to collaborate on performance and film. By 1969 Ono had divorced Cox and married Lennon. Cox won custody of Kyoko and bitterly resisted Ono's visitation rights. In 1971 he fled with Kyoko to Los Angeles and joined a cult. Despite an official investigation, Ono and Lennon were unable to trace the whereabouts of him or the child. They finally resurfaced in 1986. By then Kyoko was 22, and she and Ono have since remained somewhat estranged. An open letter from Ono to her daughter, the year that she was found, gives us some insight into this tumultuous period in her life, as well as the strength of her character: "Dear Kyoko, All these years there has not been one day I have not missed you. You are always in my heart. However, I will not make any attempt to find you now as I wish to respect your privacy. I wish you all the best in the world. If you ever wish to get in touch with me, know that I love you deeply and would be very happy to hear from you. But you should not feel guilty if you choose not to reach me. You have my respect, love and support forever. Love, Mommy"
This ongoing personal drama and her relationship with one of the most famous people in the world put a strain on Ono's career in the 1970s and 80s. Her avant-garde friends thought she was getting too mainstream. Ono's personal practice waned as her work ethic needed focus and with John at her side her attention became split. The high-profile relationship was hard for Ono as she and John were not liked very much by the public, and many thought Ono was taking Lennon away from his famous band. Girls were also jealous of her. Ono felt she needed space from it and she and Lennon took some time apart physically, but remained close talking every day. A year later she and Lennon got back together and she became pregnant. At the age of 42, Ono was afraid of miscarrying again, since she had lost several pregnancies already. Therefore, she spent most of that time in bed. John would push her around the house in a wheelchair so they could share meals. In 1975 their son Sean was born. Lennon took care of the baby while Ono ran the business side of their shared record label, Lenono (a contraction of their two names). In 1980, an unthinkable tragedy occurred: her husband was shot and killed outside of their home in New York.
A rush of media attention followed Lennon's death, but Ono went into seclusion. Over the course of the 1980s she gradually reemerged as an artist and public figure, returning to musical, written, and visual pieces from previous years. Ono never remarried, but kept her late husband's legacy alive, creating the LennonOno Grant for Peace in 2002 and inaugurating a structure in 2007 called the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. She has continued to pursue her career as an experimental composer and has released three solo albums, touring, and composing two off-broadway musicals. Now in her eighties, Ono continues to work for peace, and sees things with ardent optimism, claiming we will see peace on earth in the year 2050. She spreads the message through her work and life that the future is now. Her album, titled "Yes, I'm a Witch" (an arch nod to her public image), released in 2007 in collaboration with music giants such as DJ Spooky, Cat Power, and the Flaming Lips, topped the charts with numerous dance hits and collaborations, and reflects Ono's indomitable spirit.
The Legacy of Yoko Ono
Ono's performances and instructional paintings of the early 1960s changed forever the relationship between artist and audience. Bed-In and Bagism, pieces staged in 1969 with Lennon, are direct antecedents for subsequent works that turned private life into public spectacle, most famously Tracy Emin's My Bed (1998) and her involvement in the peace movement encouraged future generations of artists to use visual art as a political platform. Her mutually influential partnership with John Lennon is well-traversed territory, but it is worth remembering that in leading us through the process of imagining a different, better world, Lennon's famous solo song "Imagine" is essentially a reprise of Yoko's instructional pieces. Ono's innovative, iconoclastic presence in the art world extended far beyond this partnership, furthering the dialogue on materialism and cultural consumerism in a way that has inspired Rirkrit Tiravanija, Suzanne Lacy, and other artists involved in social practice. Finally, in calling attention to the vulnerability and resilience of the female body, Ono gave future female performance artists, among them Valie Export, Hannah Wilke and Marina Abramovic, permission to take even greater risks.