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Art as survival: Yoko Ono before The Beatles


Such is the way of things; it is almost impossible to mention Yoko Ono without mentioning The Beatles. But long before they got fancy with Sgt. Peppers, Ono was an avant-garde force standing outside of the mainstream and screaming like an aural lighthouse in some wild new world where others would climb ashore.

It is far from surprising that when you get in bed with someone bigger than Jesus, your legacy is met with a dramatic moment of diegesis. Still, her life after her fateful entwinement with John Lennon is only half of the picture, just as it was for Lennon, although when it comes to Ono, this truth is often forgotten. Nevertheless, she was a pioneering force bringing twelve-tone philosophy into music after surviving the harrows of the war long before she apparently ‘broke up The Beatles’. This is the tale of her trailblazing beginnings.

She was born in Tokyo in 1933 to a relatively wealthy family. Her father was a former classical pianist, but when Ono arrived, his job as a banker meant that she was often hot-footing between America and her homeland as a child. This itinerant upbringing meant that she often found herself thrown into a wild world of cultures, but often on the fringes of them rather than at the centre.

This outsider status soon came to the fore when the Second World War thrust her life into turmoil. Towards the end of the war, her father was working in Hanoi and soon became a prisoner of war. This meant that Ono and her family had to trade goods for food in Tokyo where starvation was rampant. During this dystopian urban existence, Ono claimed her “aggressive” attitude and understanding of an “outsider” status began to take shape.

By 1946, Ono was able to continue her creative studies and soon enough in she became the first woman ever to enter the philosophy program at Gakushuin University. However, few things lasted long in Ono’s early life, and soon enough, she had left university and was heading towards the bohemian downtown of New York City.

Therein, her life took its own bohemian form when she was introduced to the works of her heroes Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, and the realisation that you bring your pariah status into your art landed like a nonconformist bomb. “I was just fascinated with what they could do,” she once said. “I wrote some twelve-tone songs, then my music went into [an] area that my teacher felt was really a bit off track, and….. he said, ‘Well, look, there are people who are doing things like what you do, and they’re called avant-garde.'”

This dawning reality came with the surprising notion that she had pretty much self-discovered her own avant-garde status. It’s not like she was wandering into the woods of art and came across a settlement. It was, in fact, the other way around. She was merely exploring her own self-expression and her peers said, ‘You live in the woods of this world, Ono’. It was this moment that imbued in her the ideology that “you change the world by being yourself”.

(Credit: Eric Koch / Anefo)

Nevertheless, she found that she was not alone and thereafter, in the early 1960s, she became the High Priestess of the Happening—the lead curator of an arts scene focussed on experimental live expression. As Gary Botting wrote of the movement: “Happenings abandoned the matrix of story and plot for the equally complex matrix of incident and event.”

However, there isn’t much money in a ‘Happening’, so Ono supported herself by working as a secretary and teacher of traditional Japanese arts. This forgoing of the commercial mainstream in favour of progressive self-expression has stayed throughout her life and proved an influential force on many of the fellow artists she has swayed towards the wild side.

This approach meant that she even kept the movement she helped to spawn at arm’s length. Her independence was more important to her than heralding some sort of scene, or as she put it poetically herself: “Use your blood to paint. Keep painting until you faint. Keep painting until you die.” Naturally, this is an allegory for creativity keeping you young and warding off the great figurative faint or else waltzing beyond it as it’s “better to dance than march through life”, but some of her early art performances were so daring that the allegorical line was blurred.

Take, for instance, her revolutionary Cut Piece exhibition during which she sat on stage alone dressed in her best suit, with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience then approached her to use the scissors to cut off a small piece of her clothing, which was remained theirs to keep. “When I do the Cut Piece, I get into a trance, and so I don’t feel too frightened.…We usually give something with a purpose…but I wanted to see what they would take….There was a long silence between one person coming up and the next person coming up. And I said it’s fantastic, beautiful music, you know? Ba-ba-ba-ba, cut! Ba-ba-ba-ba, cut! Beautiful poetry, actually,” she said.

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At the same time, her radical paintings also sought to reflect poetry. In 1966, she unveiled a work titled Yes whereby at the top of a ladder hung a magnifying glass. When you held the magnifying glass to the roof above, in small print, the word Yes was etched onto the ceiling. “There was another piece that really decided me for-or-against the artist: a ladder which led to a painting which was hung on the ceiling,” Jon Lennon recalled when he first saw the work.

“It looked like a black canvas with a chain with a spyglass hanging on the end of it. This was near the door when you went in. I climbed the ladder, you look through the spyglass and in tiny little letters it says ‘yes’. So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘fuck you’ or something, it said ‘yes’.”

For many people, the art work was about light at the end of the tunnel and overcoming struggle. Ono had just endured a divorce and the notion of scaling the heights of suffering to find some light, no matter how small, amid the darkness was profound. When considered in this light, what once might have seemed somewhat pretentious on the surface, in the age where cameras can capture realist beauty in all of its guises, this abstract expression was alleviating humour without a joke being told. “I thought it was fantastic – I got the humour in her work immediately. I didn’t have to have much knowledge about avant-garde or underground art, the humour got me straightaway,” Lennon remarked.

And that notion of salvation proved fitting for both of them. They soon met and Ono and Lennon would later comment: “That old gang of mine. That’s all over. When I met Yoko is when you meet your first woman and you leave the guys at the bar and you don’t go play football anymore and you don’t go play snooker and billiards.” The kindred spirits then entwined their own self-expression and their love almost became an art piece in itself. As Ono would happily conclude when the first searching chapter of her life found what it was looking for, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”