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Yoko Ono was an established artist before most of the world heard of her in 1968, and she continues to make groundbreaking work to this day. Who is Yoko Ono? What is her work? And why should you take her seriously? This is the case for Yoko Ono.

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Sarah: Most people learned about the existence of Yoko Ono in 1968, when she became romantically involved with a guy everyone had heard of. But at the time, Yoko had already established herself as an artist in her own right, and she continued to put forward fascinating and challenging creative output throughout the years she collaborated with the aforementioned guy and long after she became his widow.

Slowly, the world has opened its ears and minds to her work, but still too slowly. Who is Yoko Ono? What is her work? And why should you take her seriously? This is the case for Yoko Ono.

Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1933 to a banker father and socialite mother. Little Yoko went to private schools and learned music as the family moved back and forth from the US to Japan. When World War II came along, even her family's wealth couldn't protect them from hardship. But they survived and rebuilt a life after the war.

In 1953, after moving to Scarsdale, New York, with her parents, Yoko tried to translate to music the sound of birds outside her window and discovered a format that would become fertile terrain. It was part composition, part poem, and it read, "decide on one note you want to play. Play it with the following accompaniment-- the woods from 5 AM to 8 AM in summer." She enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College and published a story in the campus newspaper titled "A Grapefruit in the World of Park," which centers around a group of characters trying to figure out what to do with an unwanted grapefruit. It later became a performance piece, and her first artist book of instructions would bear the title Grapefruit when published in 1964. A hybrid of an orange and a pomelo, grapefruit for Yoko became a metaphor for her own hybridity as Japanese and American and as an artist bridging disciplines.

By 1960, Ono was deeply involved in New York's experimental art scene. She rented a loft on Chambers Street and opened it as a performance and happening space to the likes of La Monte Young, Simone Forti, and John Cage. She began presenting her own works, like "Kitchen Piece" and "Pea Piece"-- "Carry a bag of peas. Leave a pea wherever you go." And she befriended Fluxus founder George Maciunas, who hosted her first gallery show in 1961, where she presented her instruction pieces alongside canvases and invited viewers to interact.

The remarkable thing about Yoko's instructions is that they could be completed anywhere by anyone and exist outside of galleries and museums. "Voice Piece for Soprano" asks you to scream against the wind, the wall, and the sky. You can do the action or just imagine it. For Yoko, either way, you become an artist, too. Her performance works from the '60s include "Bag Piece," which usually involved two performers who would enter a large black bag that they could see out of but you couldn't see in. What happened inside was up to them.

And there was "Cut Piece," for which the performer, usually Yoko, knelt on stage and invited audience members to cut away pieces of her clothing to take with them. The physical body is central for Yoko. In "Cut Piece," you are stripped of your outward signifiers, giving yourself to the audience, to the work. And in the bag, you become detached from your sex, race, and age. You are only a body, an idea also underlined in her 1966 film, "Number Four," for which she spliced together footage of bottoms in motion. Shot from close range, you usually can't tell the bottom's gender. The work sought to dismantle taboos surrounding nudity, indict the objectification of actors and models, and celebrate something we all share.

In 1966, she also had a show at London's Indica gallery, where she displayed works like "Ceiling Painting," where you're invited to climb a ladder and look through a magnifying glass to see the word "yes" on a canvas, and "White Chess Set," which invites you to play with an all-white board and all-white pieces, rendering your side indistinguishable from your opponent's. It also included an apple resting on a Plexiglas pedestal, which a VIP guest to the gallery brazenly took a bite of.

That guest was John Lennon, and not too long after, the two were inseparable in work and in life. Yoko and Lennon began collaborating widely, through music as well as their anti-Vietnam War campaigning. It lieu of a honeymoon, they conducted a bed-in for peace at the Amsterdam Hilton in 1969, using their celebrity as a medium and inviting journalists into their room to put something nice in the newspapers and promote a message of world peace.

Their campaign, "War is over if you want it" sent this message around the world. As with her past works, she is issuing an instruction-like prompt, suggesting that peace can be had by simply imagining it. Lennon would later confess that his bestselling 1971 single, "Imagine," should have been credited to Ono, as well, the word coming directly out of many of her instruction pieces.

Yoko published a manifesto in 1972 titled "The Feminization of Society," which argued for the equal participation of men in child care and also stated, "We are forever apologetic for being real. Excuse me for farting. Excuse me for making love and smelling like a human being instead of that odorless celluloid prince and princess image up there on the screen." That image was something Yoko actively fought against in her work and in her life with Lennon.

They form the Plastic Ono Band, which brought together their disparate origins, physical appearance, and musical styles. Yoko's goes contributions surprised and often repelled audiences, making sounds that were referred to as screams, shrieks, yelps, and lamentations. Her sounds contain traces of the opera, German lieder, and other music she learned in her youth. And she said of her technique, if you were drowning, you wouldn't say, I'd like to be helped because I have just a moment to live. You'd say, help! But if you were more desperate, you'd say-- [Screeching]

They continued to produce music, together and separately, to the displeasure of many of Lennon's fans but to the often begrudging respect of critics. She merged her avant-garde sensibility with that of popular music and, up to today, has produced fearless and boundary-pushing music with the consistent support of outside collaborators. It's at the same time confounding, playful, progressive, and serious. Yoko continued to make other works, like "Box of Smile," a small plastic box you open to confront a mirror and your own image inside.

In 1971, she wrote, "Artists must not create more objects. The world is full of everything it needs." And Yoko's work has always been light-- barely there, even-- harnessing that which is already present in the world. Her series of wish trees, begun in the '90s, invites you to write wishes on cards and tie them to the branches of a potted tree, like the wish knots she saw in her own youth in temple courtyards in Japan. She thinks that together, the wishes have more power.

After Lennon's tragic death in 1980, Yoko has continued their joint mission to advocate for world peace. Their invocation, "Imagine," is included in the central mosaic of Strawberry Fields, the memorial to Lennon in New York's Central Park that Yoko helped to make happen. She also conceived the Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavik, Iceland, that is illuminated every year from October 9, Lennon's birthday, until December 8, the anniversary of his death. It houses all the wishes from her wish tree projects.

Throughout the decades, Yoko Ono's work has been, above all, generous, more invitation than instruction. It's a gift, and one that needs you to become complete. She needs you to imagine, which is easy if you try.


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