by Shahbeila Bateman
misunderstood, derisively known as the most famous widow
in the world and vilified as the catalyst for the breakup
of the most famous music group of all time, Yoko Ono in
actuality is an uncompromising artistic visionary who
was already an avant-garde superstar before she met John
Lennon. Today, Yoko is finally recognized as an influential
artist who pushes the boundaries of the art, film, music
and theatre media. The present time marks a renewed resurgence
of interest and celebration of her work. She has recently
received high media profile due to the simultaneous reissue
of her music catalog (including a boxed set) on the Rykodisc
specialty label as well as for the premiere of her off-Broadway
theatre piece Hiroshima. However these achievements obscure
her body of 16 films made between 1964 and 1972, some
in collaborative effort with her late husband.
Ono (whose first name translates to "ocean child")
was born on February 18, 1933 in Tokyo, the eldest of
three children born to Eisuke and Isoko, a wealthy aristocratic
family. Her father was a frustrated pianist who held degrees
from Tokyo universities in mathematics and economics.
In 1935 he became head of a Japanese bank in San Francisco,
as a result he did not meet Yoko until she was two years
old, since she stayed behind in Tokyo with her mother.
Yoko was 18, her father was appointed president of a bank
in New York as the family settled in the affluent suburb
of Scarsdale, N.Y. Attending the prestigious Sarah Lawrence
College in New York, Yoko dropped out to elope with her
first husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi. It was while living in
New York's artsy Greenwich Village that Yoko discovered
the world of avant-garde artists. Once absorbed in the
scene,she began her life long association with art beginning
with informal events then segueing into poetry while developing
her fascination for conceptual pieces. Alienated as an
"artistic radical" for years her work was ridiculed
or ignored. That began to change once she began her working
relationship with American jazz musician/film producer
Anthony Cox, the man who would eventually become her second
financed and helped coordinate her "interactive conceptual
events" in the early 60's. According to the artist
these events; "Demanded a response and some input
from the observer rather than answering all the questions".
Her most famous piece was the "cut piece" staged
in 1964,where the audience was invited to cut off pieces
of her clothing until she was naked, an abstract commentary
on discarding materialism (i.e. disguises) for the natural
(i.e. the real)underneath. Yoko's work often demands the
viewers' participation and forces them to get involved.
A famous example is from her "This Is Not Here"
exhibit from the early 70's. One section of the exhibit
included a living room completely painted white with the
objects; armchair, grandfather clock, desk, television
set, even an apple, cut completely in half. The viewer
must "complete" the scenario with a reference
memory of the "whole" object. In other words
art is a two part process--what is presented by the artist
and how it is interpreted by its audience.
marriage between Ono and Cox was a tempestuous liaison
that produced one child--a daughter named Kyoko who was
born on August 8, 1963. By this time, Yoko was heavily
influenced by the extended and repeated image work of
Andy Warhol, Dali inspired surrealism and Dadaesque absurdity.
The latter is clearly evident in events such as having
her audience pay a shilling to hammer a nail in a board--a
satirical jab at consumerism.
notoriety of Yoko's events, as well as her involvement
with the radical 60's avant garde art collective Fluxus
created an interest of her works in the United Kingdom.
This interest precipitated her visit to England in 1967.
life forever changed when she met Beatle John
Lennon at an exhibit of her work at the Indica gallery
in London. Lennon, in addition to being a pop culture
icon, was also one of the most brilliant creative minds
of all time, with an art school background. The mental
stimulation between the two developed into a strong friendship
which eventually blossomed into romance as well as a creative
marriage. By 1968, their affair was public as both of
their marriages disintegrated. A bad side effect of Yoko's
collapse of her marriage to Cox was that he "kidnapped"
their daughter during a weekend custody visit. To this
day, Yoko has not seen her long lost daughter Kyoko nor
is she aware of her whereabouts.
"Ballad of John
& Yoko" has been well chronicled. Until his
untimely assassination in 1980, Lennon and Yoko enjoyed
the ideal symbiotic relationship. Through each other,
they enjoyed newer creative avenues to explore. Through
Yoko, John collaborated on many art and film works. While
Yoko's association with Lennon allowed her to find a unique
voice with her avant-garde music which blended traditional
Japanese music with "primal scream" inspired
wailing that created a most abstract soundscape. Although
misunderstood at the time, Yoko's music proved to be highly
influential particularly to post punk "new wave"
bands such as Talking Heads, Blondie and The B-52's. In
addition the two staged a series of conceptual events
to promote world peace during the volatile Vietnam era.
The most famous of these was the "bed -in "
held in an Amsterdam hotel room during the couple's honeymoon
in 1969. Quite politically active at the time, the couple's
mantra was John's composition "Give
Peace A Chance."
John's death, Yoko has remained active, releasing three
music albums, engaging in two concert tours(one which
featured her and John's only son Sean leading the backup
band)and composing two off-Broadway musicals--the most
recent being Hiroshima .
was during the mid-sixties that Yoko began to explore
motion picture as another extension of her art. Her first
film , 1964's Film No. 1 a.k.a. A Walk To Taj Mahal ,
breaks down the barrier between camera and audience as
the camera takes on the viewers point of view walking
through a snow storm.
films can be subdivided by themes. The first of which
can be grouped together by her fascination with the aspect
and form of the (usually nude) human body. She almost
seems to enjoy demystify the sexual aura by featuring
repetitive shots of isolated body parts. This is best
exemplified by the minimalistic approach of her film Bottoms
which consists of a series of frames made up of nothing
but hundreds of naked backsides. This theme continues
in 1968's Up Your Legs Forever, which follows camera movement
across the form of one aspect of a woman's body, as well
as in her 1970 collaboration with Lennon entitled Fly.
The latter depicts the movement of a fly along the landscape
of a nude female body, augmented on the soundtrack by
a voice piece by Ono that is used as the "voice"
of the fly which correlates with the movement of the insect.
The most infamous of the nude pieces is Smile --a 1969
collaboration with Lennon that consists of slow motion
photography of a close-up of Lennon's penis achieving
an erection, complete with a soundtrack of industrial
and mechanical noises. 1968's Freedom can also be included
in the body series and is also the first to incorporate
a blatant feminist theme which she would expand on the
following year with Rape . Freedom focuses on a woman
pulling on the clasp of her bra, with the film ending
just before it's removed. According to the essay "Yoko
Ono: Objects; Films": "Ono plays with our sense
of anticipation by constructing a metaphor for the liberation
of the female body and self."
next subcategory of Ono films are conceptual. Erection
and Apothesis both share themes of movement and change.
Erection is a pixilated film using stop motion photography
at different speeds to document the construction and erection
of a building at the same angle to present--in the words
of the "...Objects; Films" essay: "..An
almost organic form growing before our eyes". Apothesis
follows the Lennon's ascending to the sky in a hot air
balloon through cloud banks to symbolize a transcendental
last subcategory of Ono films can be described as documentations.
Bed -In documents the Lennons honeymoon peace event in
an Amsterdam hotel. While Two Virgins and 1971's Imagine
gives outsiders a view of the relationship and their recording
process respectively. Sisters O Sisters is a straight
forward concert film of Yoko (backed up by John and The
Plastic Ono Band) performing at a benefit concert in Ann
Arbor, Michigan for jailed political activist John Sinclair.
once asked what kind of artist she was, Yoko answered
"I deal with music of the mind." Her imaginative
concepts presented in her films may not be hummable in
everyone's hit parade. However the thoughtfulness in examining
new ways to explore issues strike a unique and resonant
chord in the minds of many.
Fawcett, Anthony. (1981) John Lennon: One Day At A Time
. New York: Penguin Yoko Ono: Objects, Films . (1988)
catalogue to Yoko Ono's show at the Whitney, New York,
by Ted Pirro
Ono is one of the most famous widows in the world. Her
name is synonymous with the Beatles and John Lennon.
began making films in the 1960's and made substantial
contributions to the avant garde genre of film. When Yoko
Ono began this part of her life, she was already an established
artist playing an active role in the world of music, most
well known by her "primal scream" or high pitched
the early 1960's, Ono became part of a group known as
Fluxus, whose artists were "dedicated to challenging
conventional definitions in the fine arts, and conventional
relationships between artwork and viewer."
artwork that Yoko made in the early 1960's required the
viewer to complete the process. "Painting to See
a Room Through," made in 1961, was a canvas with
an almost invisible hole through which the viewer could
see the room. "Painting to Hammer a Nail In,"
also made in 1961, was a white wood panel that the audience
hammered a nail into with an attached hammer.
the mid 1960's Yoko began to write mini film scripts.
She contributed three films to the Fluxfilm Program in
1966. Two of these films, Eyeblink and Match, are one
shot films shot at 2000 frames per second. She also included
No. 4, or Bottoms, in her contribution.
continued to make films through the early 1970's, many
of which she collaborated with her husband, John Lennon.
Her films can be divided into themes. The first of which,
like bottoms, consists of close examination of the naked
human body. The second category are theoretical films.
They have a theme of movement and change. The last category
are documentaries. Bed-In made in 1969, is the filming
of the peace event Ono and Lennon staged on their honeymoon.
Ono can be viewed as a radical artist, someone who requires
an open mind in order to have her work appreciated. She
stretches the limits of what society views as acceptable
and never ceases to create an opportunity for the viewer
to step back and reflect.