Yakking with Yoko

 
Yoko Ono

In 1964 Yoko Ono made her first masterpiece - that was nearly half a century ago.

She was a 31-year-old Japanese artist living in New York running with the city's super-hip avant-garde crowd. People like Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg and John Cage. Sometimes Marcel Duchamp - the wise and whimsical father of conceptual art - would come by to see what his progeny were up to.

I don't know if he saw Ono's Cut Piece, but I think he would have liked it if he had. This is a video of Ono performing the work, in which she sits on the floor of a stage wearing a black dress with a pair of scissors in front of her. She then invites the audience to come up onto the stage and cut her dress with the scissors until she is naked. She remains inscrutable and still throughout.

She says the work is "expressing the path women go through in life".

You don't really need me to explain why she performed it less after marrying John Lennon.

Amaze by Yoko Ono Amaze by Yoko Ono

I had hoped she would reprise the work for her show at The Serpentine Gallery which opens today, but she is not. Fair enough. After all she is 79-years-old - although she looks younger.

I was pleased to meet her. I know she annoys - and has annoyed - plenty of people, but not me. I've long been a fan of her early work and intrigued by her story. She was in the eye of the artistic storm throughout the 60s and 70s - there where it counted, and still does.

Not everything she has said and done since has been great - but then who gets everything right for 30 or so years without making a single mistake?

I asked her what she thought her current reputation might be.

Ceiling Painting by Yoko Ono Ceiling Painting by Yoko Ono

She said, "I don't know," but had noticed that she was being offered "more and more shows in art galleries".

Time has healed. Yoko Ono is hip once more (and popular with over 2.4 million Twitter followers).

She was nervous when talking about her work until the conversation moved onto Cut Piece. Then she relaxed. "It influenced all my [future] work," she said.

Was it inspired by Marcel Duchamp and her Manhattan-based avant-garde mates?

Not so much she said. It came more from her Japanese roots and an exploration of Eastern spirituality.

Did audiences react in the same way wherever she performed it? "In Japan and America yes," she said. "They were very respectful and caring."

And then she laughs. "It was different in England."

Yoko Ono, 1971

Oh?

"Twenty guys came up and I was naked immediately!"

And that was before she married John Lennon. About whom she talks a lot.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1971

About the time they first met in the mid-60s at her London show when he had walked up a white ladder she had installed to take hold of a magnifying glass on the ceiling with which to read a tiny piece of text - also on the ceiling - that read "yes".

He liked it because it was life-affirming and positive and didn't involve smashing up pianos, which was the tendency among her Fluxus group.

John Lennon called it right.

She said the work was a response to a bad time she was having in her life - "personal matters". It was designed to cheer her up. To help her survive.

And the next time they met…?

"…was in New York." At another of her shows, where he arrived with a hat pushed down over his head and scarf up to his eyes, through which he would only grunt.

"I could tell you the whole story but that would be a book and I'm not giving you that." So spoke a veteran interviewee. Good stories make good books - make good money.

Yoko Ono: Now the door is suddenly open, I don't know what to do with it

I wondered if she was annoyed by what happened to her. That one day she was a respected artist and the next she was the wife of a Beatle and being accused of splitting the band up.

I expected to hear about 40 years of frustration, of being misunderstood and artistically overlooked. But she couldn't care less. Actually, she preferred it that way.

"I was becoming an [art world] grande dame," she said as if it was code for a heinous crime. When she married Lennon all that reverence disappeared.

That's not to say the vitriol wasn't a surprise. They had assumed that because she was popular in her professional world and Lennon popular in his, that all would bless their marriage.

Was there a racial aspect in the negativity to their nuptials?

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1969

She thinks so. Explaining that they had not given any thought to the recent past when their respective countries had been at war. But when the trickle of bad press became a flood they spent some time reflecting on the cause and concluded that war was the reason some took a negative view of their relationship.

So, they used their fame to promote peace and love and their artworks (some of which she has kept going and can be seen in the Serpentine show). As we wrap up I ask who her favourite artists are. Without hesitation she says "me!"

I inwardly wince, but record it again for good measure. She is happy to comply.

And why not? She is only being honest.

But it jars.

That's why some people like Yoko Ono and some people do not.

 
Will Gompertz Article written by Will Gompertz Will Gompertz Arts editor

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  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 117.

    Perhaps I didn't make that clear enough: I never thought much of John Lennon! So there we go. I didn't think much of his consort either.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 116.

    and by the way, as with most couples, they probably deserved each other! Which goes to show.... if you don't think much of John Lennon, there goes too poor Ono Yoko! And vice versa... Just ponder that.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 115.

    a couple of hippies from a bygone age,saw them plant thier acorns @ Cov Cathedral many years ago,more recently Yoko's work with electronic music is,however,worth a listen,she is ok,John realley was'nt all that good,just a few memories from a long time gone,fairly irrevelant now though.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 114.

    I wasn't a fan of Ono's at all - I believed the rumours for years that it was her fault the Beatles split up

    Then I read a book about her life and my opinion changed

    It turns out that Lennon left nothing to son Julian in his will yet Ono was good willed enough to ensure he received £20 million pounds

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 113.

    Actually, I find Will Gompertz even more irritating!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 112.

    110. Lord Ralphonzo of the Dinner-Jacket
    The Cosmopolitan,
    Isn't someone allowed to question the idolisation of pretentious artists work now?
    //////
    If you have to intersperse your comments with gratuitous and derogatory adjectives that have a dig not only at the artist but also those who happen to enjoy their work, you're judging, not questioning.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 111.

    Saw a Yoko retrospective in NYC about 12 years ago - and I'd just like to say an emphatic: YES

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 110.

    The Cosmopolitan,

    Isn't someone allowed to question the idolisation of pretentious artists work now?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 109.

    100.Mikeycohen
    I also agree that it is a little tedious to be talking to her about her relationship with JL, and if she is an artist in her own right how famous would she have been without him?
    ////
    Judging by her career prior to meeting Lennon, it is likely she would have reached a fair level of fame. Question is, did she want fame to start with or just be an artist?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 108.

    Ironically I find Lennon songs like "Woman", "Imagine", etc quite boring. I liked the New York City album. although panned by critics and audiences, I always felt it had an edge and rawness that Lennon's comforting hippie stuff lacked. It's an acquired taste I guess, but "We're all Water" is the only post-Beatles song on my mp3 player.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 107.

    "Is that the only choice? Egotist or conman?"

    No, but it's a fine line. People want so badly to believe that creativity is special and requires talent, but it's mostly about bravado and just putting the hours in. Tell them that and they'll hate you for it, so you have to tell them something else instead.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 106.

    PatBenatar (101)
    "I don't really care what an artist has to say about their own work.... it's hard not to sound like an egotist/conman/both."

    Maybe you haven't listened to any REAL artists.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 105.

    cazzala (23) "I remember listening to Double Fantasy"

    So do I, and while it would be very subjective to say that she was as tuneful as fingernails being scraped down a blackboard, it is also a matter of historical fact that when I play Double Fantasy, I play only John Lennon's tracks.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 104.

    101 - Is that the only choice? Egotist or conman? and were you ther PB?

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 103.

    99.dontgiveaflying
    If she hadn't have married John Lennon we would all be saying "Who".
    ///////
    The hugely influential Marcel Duchamp knew who she was before she married Lennon, so I very much doubt that. Just like John Byng, I really don’t think you know what you’re trolling about.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 102.

    A has-been who, unfortunately, hasn't gone yet!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 101.

    "The gist of the REAL quote was about The Beatles' growing fame, and how people at churches were less obviously enthusiastic, so the churches ought to get their act together, otherwise the Beatles WOULD BE bigger than Jesus."

    Well, whatever. Point being, I don't really care what an artist has to say about their own work. I've done it, and it's hard not to sound like an egotist/conman/both.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 100.

    Will Compertz is irritating beyond belief. "As we wrap up I ask who her favourite artists are? "me!" Surely a half decent interviewer would have demanded a half decent answer?

    I also agree that it is a little tedious to be talking to her about her relationship with JL, and if she is an artist in her own right how famous would she have been without him?

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 99.

    If she hadn't have married John Lennon we would all be saying "Who"

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 98.

    PatBenatar (95) "Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus"

    No, media misquote!!!

    The gist of the REAL quote was about The Beatles' growing fame, and how people at churches were less obviously enthusiastic, so the churches ought to get their act together, otherwise the Beatles WOULD BE bigger than Jesus.


    PatBenatar (82) "Her and Jon seemed to get on okay..."

    It's spelled "John"

 

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