Yoko Ono: ‘To be an artist you need courage’

“A dream you dream together is reality.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Yoko Ono: ‘To be an artist you need courage’” was written by Alex Needham, for The Observer on Sunday 5th July 2015 09.30 UTC

Yoko Ono sits at the head of her kitchen table in the Dakota building, sipping a coffee. It’s 9.30am and she’s just woken up after a disturbed night’s sleep; she is upset about the recent death of Ornette Coleman, the avant-garde jazzman. He was a former Ono collaborator; she performed at London’s Albert Hall with him in 1968, and her 1970 debut album Plastic Ono Band includes the song “AOS”, on which Ono’s unmistakable ululating twists eerily around Coleman’s trumpet.

Back then Ono’s music and artwork were greeted with mockery, incomprehension and even rage, much like the rest of her artistic practice – which is unusually wide-ranging, including film, text, sculpture and performance art. At the age of 82, however, Ono has been all but vindicated. Three years ago London’s Serpentine Gallery hosted a major retrospective of her work; over the next 18 months she will have exhibitions in France, Japan, China, Brazil and Mexico.

Her exhibition Yoko Ono: One Woman Show 1960-1971, currently at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, has been lauded by art critics and is a hit with the public. On 21 June, the 50th anniversary of her work “Morning Peace”, and the day of the summer solstice, she appeared at 4am in MoMA to a sell-out crowd and encouraged them to touch one another and watch the sunrise with her. The opening-night party was so packed that the gallery had to be closed. Yet Ono doesn’t like the word “vindication”.

“It suggests that there’s an enemy there that I’m trying to destroy, but I never thought that way,” she says. “It’s something I might really feel when I’m older.”

Ono has lived in the Dakota since 1973, moving from a loft in the West Village to the Upper West Side citadel with her husband John Lennon. On 8 December 1980, Lennon was shot in the back at point-blank range in the entrance to the building, meaning that every time Ono enters or leaves her home, she has to pass over the spot where her spouse was killed. Removing my shoes at the front door, I’m asked not to describe the apartment. Suffice it to say that it’s very grand, but the kitchen is warm, light and homely, boasting both Beatles pictures and a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian cookbook Plenty. There are three assistants around; one comes to sit at the kitchen table to tape the interview in case I misquote her boss.

Despite the early hour, Ono is elegantly dressed in a lacy and cleavage-revealing black blouse. As usual, she’s wearing sunglasses, though the frames are small enough for her to peer over and make eye contact. The soft voice is immediately familiar, but as fans of her records know, a much louder and more penetrating one lies within. It proves, says Ono, that: “Women have a side that they can bring out, which is expressing power.”

Some might call it a bit scary, too. Ono laughs. “It’s scary for guys,” she says. “This is funny because I wrote this story in Japanese and all the Japanese guys who read it were: ‘It’s so scary!’ They’re scared.” She laughs again.

Yoko Ono walking past policemen while carrying daffodils in 1966, after her film ‘No. 4 (Bottoms)’  was banned
Flower power: outside the British Board of Censors in Soho in 1966, after her film ‘No. 4 (Bottoms)’ was banned. Photograph: Daily Sketch/Rex/Shutterstock

So why are we scared of her? “You guys had 2,000 years of control of society and that’s about to go now.” However, she says that we males are learning to adapt to the patriarchy’s imminent downfall. “Men are very intelligent, so they’re immediately picking up on how to survive in this society when women are getting so strong, and you’re doing a very good job. Whenever I pick up a magazine I see these very pretty men that we [women] would love.”

She believes that the Beatles pioneered this approach. “I think they were the first ones who used their feminine sides,” Ono muses. “Now most popular male figures have a very feminine side, and I think it’s important because that’s how they can communicate with a large, large population called women.”

Communication with the world at large has been Ono’s lifelong mission – even when the world responded with hostility. She’s won the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Observer Ethical Awards for her activism over half a century, most of which is indivisible from her art. Think of the “Bed-In” that she and Lennon staged in Amsterdam in 1969, or the billboard posters that announced: “War Is Over! If You Want It” the same year and her “Wish Trees”, an ongoing work started in 1981 where members of the public are encouraged to write their deepest wishes down on labels and hang them from a tree. (Ono never reads the wishes, as she says that they’re private, but Pharrell Williams’s wish, written in a New York installation of the artwork in 2013, was made public by a magazine editor; it read “Wishing 4 all who seek to experience the shift of widespread illuminations will have the inner stillness to share in the most momentous aspect of the ether.”)

“Art to me is a way of showing people how you can think,” Ono says. “Some people think of art as like beautiful wallpaper that you can sell, but I have always thought that it is to do with activism.”

The simplicity of her artwork may have been derided over the years, but it is exactly that which makes it hugely accessible. Her art and her activism has found a new audience with each successive generation. The apparent naivety of her peace activism is often couched in terms like: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality” – the most famous maxim from her 1962 book Grapefruit. Yet in 2015 its aphoristic style, influenced by haikus, now seems perfect for the internet age, and has easily transferred to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, where Ono has a large following of people who are interested in her rather than the Beatles.

The diversity of her work is, she says, a legacy of growing up in Japan. “I think I have to give credit to Asians. They’re into the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, military education – they’re not afraid of going into everything. They don’t say: ‘Well, I’m doing flower arranging so I’m not going to do the tea ceremony.’ I had an incredible desire and curiosity to delve into all sorts of worlds, and I’ve loved it all.”

Ono was born in Tokyo in 1933 to a wealthy family; her great-grandfather founded the Yasuda Bank. She suggests that her desire for peace was honed in Japan during the Second World War as bombs rained down. “World peace is very important, because the [alternative] is doomsday,” she says. “Most people think: ‘Well, doomsday’s OK because we’re all going to go together.’ I have been in Japan when the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima by you guys, and I know that it’s a very painful way of going. And I don’t want to see that happening again.”

In the early 1950s her family moved to New York, where Ono met her first husband, musician Toshi Ichiyanagi. Over the course of the decade she became involved in the city’s downtown art scene, and by 1961 she and friends like the composer LaMonte Young were staging art events and performances in her loft apartment. After her first marriage broke up, Ono returned to Tokyo suffering from depression; her parents responded by sending her to a mental asylum. An American friend, Anthony Cox, secured her release and became her second husband; they had a daughter, Kyoko, in 1963. In 1971 Cox absconded with Kyoko during a custody battle; Ono did not see her again until 1998.

Yoko lying in a bed with flowing hair next to John Lennon, surrounded by photographers, in 1969
Making history: the famous ‘Bed-In’ with John Lennon in 1969. Photograph: AP

By the end of 1966 Ono was in London, where she met Lennon at the Indica Gallery when she was preparing an exhibition. They became a couple in 1968 while Lennon was still married to Cynthia, and Ono rapidly became one of the world’s most vilified women, with the couple roundly mocked for actions like the Bed-In – though Ono says that such reactions were anticipated. “‘Bed-In’ – that’s like a laugh, you know,” she says, recalling the response at the time. “‘Hohohoho, what are they doing in bed?’ And through laughter we’re trying to get people to understand what we can do. In a way ‘Bed-In’ was totally destroyed in people’s minds. But now it’s coming back – have you noticed?.”

Ono believes that activism can – and should – take many forms, and her range of causes is similarly broad: world peace, of course, but also the environment (in 2012 she embarked on a high-profile anti-fracking crusade), gun control and social issues including feminism and same-sex marriage. She donated money after the Japanese tsunami, inaugurated the Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts in 2009 and was designated the first global autism ambassador in 2010.

The annually lit Imagine Peace Tower, a memorial in Reykjavik, Iceland to John Lennon by Yoko Ono made of searchlights with prisms and containing the words ‘Imagine Peace’ carved in 24 languages as well as 1 million written wishes from her Wish Trees project
Enlightened: the annually lit Imagine Peace Tower, a memorial in Reykjavik, Iceland to John Lennon by Yoko Ono made of searchlights with prisms and containing the words ‘Imagine Peace’ carved in 24 languages as well as 1 million written wishes from her Wish Trees project. Photograph: Arctic Images/Corbis

While early works like “Cut Piece” – in which Ono knelt passively on the floor and allowed an audience to shear off her clothing – are now revered by art critics, Ono says that the two works she is proudest of are 2008’s “Imagine Peace Tower” in Iceland, a column of light which can be seen from miles around, and which symbolises her and Lennon’s hopes for an end to global conflict; and the Courage Award, whose last recipient was Julian Assange.

“To be an artist you need courage, and most people don’t think that,” says Ono. “It’s an age where people are only interested in entertainment. People are just entertained every day, like crazy, and that’s all they’re doing. And they say: ‘This is boring – let’s see something else.’ We are all kings and queens now, asking others to entertain us. It’s a very sad situation, because there are many things that we have to do if we want to survive.”

Ono says that even before they met, she and Lennon were activists as well as artists. She cites the Beatles’s banned “butcher cover”, the 1966 album sleeve for the compilation Yesterday and Today, which depicted the group in white coats covered with raw meat and doll parts, as an example of Lennon’s artistic and political vision. “He always had the intention to better the world, not just be a pop star, and I was like that, too.”

As an instance, she remembers a 1968 action in an opulent hotel lobby in Knokke, Belgium, where she was showing her film No. 4 (Bottoms). “It would not be called something that most activists do, but I had a black bag and I crawled in.” She laughs. “Hotel lobbies are usually not that large but the ceiling was three times more than this – huge. And in the centre of that lobby I was in that bag with a notice that we should all try to make a peaceful world, and it wasn’t taken too well, actually. Some French girls came along and said: ‘Let’s find out if Yoko Ono is still in there’ and with their high-heel shoes – boom!” She mimes them whacking the bag. “I thought: ‘How could you?’ I said ‘Argh!’ but I didn’t make a noise, really.”

This outward lack of response is typical of her. As the critic Lindsay Zoladz recently pointed out, Ono was making interactive artwork back in the early 60s, often daring the viewer to respond with mockery or even violence and in turn prompting them to explore their own reactions. Even Ono’s Twitter feed, in which she tweets instructions like: “Count the numbers of lights in the city every day. Make a number list and hang it on the wall” was trolled by, of all people, Judy Murray, mother of Andy. Yet Ono never flinches. “I’m a very stubborn person. There’s always something that I have in mind that we have to do, and if I’m going to tell other people that that’s what they should do, then if I’m not doing it [myself] I’m a hypocrite.”

Of course Ono has been accused of hypocrisy, too, by those who believe that it’s all very well pontificating about peace and love when you’re rich; American TV personality Glenn Beck’s website challenged her for supporting Occupy Wall Street in 2011 when she is supposedly worth $500m. Such accusations glide over her. These critics, she says, “don’t even indulge in hypocrisy – they don’t say: ‘Let’s do something’ and then not do it. They’re not doing anything.”

She was, however, shaken by the response to her anti-fracking campaign, which in 2013 saw Ono and her son Sean, Susan Sarandon and a group of activists visit towns affected by hydraulic fracturing. In December fracking was temporarily banned in New York state, where Ono owns a farm.

“That was very difficult for me,” says Ono of the campaign. “To be against an oil company is something that most people would not want to do. It’s not something that you can do lightly. Last year there were many signs that showed me that maybe they’re really against me. A lot of things that happened to me last year were very scary.”

Can she give an example? “No,” says Ono, chuckling at her own obstinacy. “I’m just saying those things did happen and I was very lucky – I came out of it.”

Yoko Ono behind a fence wearing a hat with a sign reading 'War Is Over!' at her exhibition Odyssey of a Cockroach at the ICA, London, in 2004
‘It’s scary for men. You guys had 2,000 years of control of society and that’s about to go now’: Ono at her exhibition Odyssey of a Cockroach at the ICA, London, in 2004. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex/Shutterstock

Ono engages with identity politics, too. Recently she wrote an essay on her website titled “Don’t Stop Me!”, calling out her critics’ ageism (they had said her voice was out of tune and the shorts she wore in her “Bad Dancer” video were unbecoming for a woman in her 80s). “I was amazed,” she says. “I thought I had conquered racism, I conquered sexism, and there was ageism – I couldn’t believe it.” Her solution, as ever, was to carry on regardless. “I ignore that,” she says, “stepping on all those prejudices and still working as if there’s no problem.”

Rather than becoming hardened over the years, Ono says that she has always been resolutely singleminded. “I’m afraid in that sense I’m very conservative,” she says, laughing. “I just stick to what I am. Any artist or writer who’s doing creative work wants to try to reach beyond themselves, and I was that way, too. But then when I look at myself, in the past 80 years or something, there’s not that much difference.”

The same attitude has inoculated her against the ire of Beatles fans, some of whom still blame her for breaking up the band, even though Paul McCartney denied that in 2012. Did she ever feel that she had to win the fans round? Hardly. “They should win me round,” Ono replies.

Her relationship with the surviving Beatles themselves, she says, is warm. “From my side there’s an incredible love towards them because they have done something important for the world and especially for the young.”

She suggests that any tension in their relationship has been due to British reticence. “I know that it was very difficult for them, too, but they’re not talking about it. For instance, that classic style of ‘Let’s keep our chins up’ was typical of John. John and I went through so much difficulty and when that was happening we said: ‘OK, let’s just ignore it.’ I don’t think the other Beatles had to go through that much, really – John was the one who was taking it all. But I know that they’re doing their best. I really love them like my brothers.”

She and McCartney have had disputes over the years, often about the Lennon/McCartney credit on the songs they wrote, which McCartney would like to reverse on his compositions. “I feel that in some ways we are almost forced to be in a boxing ring, and that’s how people are looking at us, but we’re not doing that,” says Ono.

Nonetheless she defends Lennon’s legacy with ferocity. Unsurprisingly, she was upset when the nickname “Jihadi John” was given to Isis extremist Mohammed Emwazi by the media; he was part of a four-person British-born terrorist cell nicknamed the Beatles by the prisoners they terrorised and later killed.

“I thought that was very distasteful,” says Ono. “That’s why it’s important to me to not be a couch potato. I have to keep on doing something because the other side will take over – people who are really not understanding what beautiful things we have in this world and want to destroy it. And I’m not going to let them destroy John or the Beatles.”

Against such formidable enemies as Isis, is it really effective to “imagine peace”? Ono says that it is. “I think you can be cynical about those things.” But she points out that in 1971, when the prospect of her having a show at MoMA seemed ridiculous, she imagined her own show taking place there, releasing an imaginary jar of flies in the gallery’s garden (she called the work “Museum of Modern [F]art”). Forty-four years later she’s here for real. “So if you decide to do something,” she concludes, “it’s going to work, although it might take some time. I don’t like to use the word ‘optimistic’, because that sounds like it’s not really true, but I think we’re actually on the road to world peace.”

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