Tribute to Yoko Ono’s Extraordinary Artistry

John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

With all the buzz about Get Back, filmmaker Peter Jackson’s resuscitation of the 1969 Beatles’  Let it Be sessions, Yoko Ono is — once again — in the national conversation. It’s overdue and is apparently what is needed for her to finally be absolved of previous sexist and racist accusations that, as Lennon’s partner, she was the reason for the break-up of  The Beatles. 

But true fans, feminists, and lovers of postmodern art know differently. Even before she met Lennon, Yoko was already an emerging avant-gardist on the international art scene. A performance artist, filmmaker, painter, and composer, and she mingled with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns, as well as Philip Glass and Andy Warhol. Ono met Lennon during her Unfinished Painting and Objects at the Indica Gallery in November 1966. Amid sculptures that invited viewers to color in or nail into paintings, climb a ladder to spy on a message, or purchase a decomposing apple (which Lennon bit into instead).

Yoko is a true iconoclast. Her artistry is enormous — she innovates and inspires: she has survived war, mental health crises, miscarriages and of course, misogyny. And yet, I’ve tired myself many times over trying to challenge the anti-Yoko biases of multiple Beatles’ fans.

So yes, in watching the eight hours of Get Back, it becomes clear that while Yoko is omnipresent, she certainly is not interfering. She was, perhaps, performing a kind of durational performance piece during those sessions, a seemingly silent witness to The Beatles’ demise.

And now, thanks to the film document that is Get Back, national news outlets have caught on. Yoko’s subtle presence is being touted as  fascinating, a “whole mood.” Amanda Hess in the New York Times writes, “I was seeing intimate, long-lost footage of the world’s most famous band preparing for its final performance… And I couldn’t stop watching Yoko Ono sitting around, doing nothing.”

Other, self-made critics, who act as music kings, can now see it for themselves. Yoko was not the instigator. So in honor of The Beatles zeitgeist — and our growing feminist awareness — let’s look at some of Ono’s artistic achievements:

1964: Grapefruit. Full disclosure here: Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit is one of my favorite books in that it is a conceptual masterpiece involving language. Grapefruit is at once performance art and a poetic text defying our notions of art. It is fun instruction, full of Dadaist flare that leads us to Fluxus (what Merriam Webster defines as “an avant-garde art movement of the 1950s and 1960s”). Grapefruit’s pages are alive with possibility and impossibility. It’s the best use of the imperative. Yoko’s Grapefruit language as action is pure poetry. It is an educational artifact that can turn us on to — and into— conceptual artists.

1964: Cut Piece is a performance where viewers were invited to cut her fragments of clothing with scissors. Performed in Buddhist stillness, Yoko sat for hours at Carnegie Hall while others snipped away, enacting a type of violence via removal of her “protection.”

1966: NO. 4. Along with her then-husband Anthony Cox, Yoko embarked on experimental film-making, making 16 shorts in the time span of 1964 and 1972. No.4 features the rear ends of the famous—in close-up! By delightfully demonstrating well-known people’s derrieres. Known as a pro-peace piece of celluloid, perhaps the work indicates we are all the same, naked. 

1980s-Present: Wish Tree. Wish Tree was an installation that Yoko created involving planting a tree purposefully so visitors can approach it and write a wish that they then tie to the branches, much like a wishing well. There is an accumulating effect of tags as strangers gather to share their wishes near each other. You may notice a Wish Tree even in your neighborhood!

1993: Family Album. This was an exhibit made up of everyday items showcased in clear boxes, including a pair of heels, a hairbrush, and a coat hanger. While we expect to be comforted seeing familiar objects, or know such aspects of the mundane are necessary and non-threatening, in this case, each object had bloodstains. Particularly striking and upsetting were  John Lennon’s distinctive round spectacles. Lennon was shot to death in public in 1980.

2015: To See the Sky is a piece set in MoMA (NYC’s famous Museum of Modern Art) a metal staircase that spiraled up to a skylight. This installation invited the viewer to take the staircase to the sky to consider the mystery versus the utilitarian nature of the sky. In the act of doing so, one can process and participate in an upward motion and thought.

Ongoing: WAR IS OVER! Campaign. This piece, already over 50 years old, is far from over. Yoko’s lifelong mantra of “Give Peace a Chance” included this use of media like posters, radio, ads, and flyers that implicates all of us as possible peacemakers by emphasizing: WAR IS OVER! IF YOU WANT IT.

Indeed, in addition to her artistic work, Yoko should also be appreciated for her political activism, including her anti-gun work. Recently, on December 8 — the anniversary of John’s death — Yoko tweeted gun violence facts along with a photo of his bloody glasses (the same ones used in Family Album.)  

If you are still not convinced about Yoko’s genius, remember this is a woman who endured John’s shooting, ostracization while losing the love of her life — and yet — she continued to make art and experiment, even when she was severely undervalued, alone, and likely frightened for her own life. At age 88, Yoko Ono is a living legend.

 

© Katherine Factor (12/16/21)—Special for FF2 Media®

Yoko Ono recording for XO.

LEARN MORE

To see her light tower in honor of John installed in Iceland, go here: www.imaginepeace.com.

To read more: grunge.com/483144/the-untold-truth-of-yoko-ono/

CREDITS AND PERMISSIONS

Iconic Featured Photo: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoko_Ono#/media/File:John_Lennon_en_zijn_echtgenote_Yoko_Ono_op_huwelijksreis_in_Amsterdam_hielden_pe,_Bestanddeelnr_922-2301.jpg

Middle Photo 1: Immagine_&_Poesia_on_Yoko_Ono’s_Wish_Tree,_MoMa. Adel Gorgy’s Archives. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Middle Photo2: Crop from Twitter, dated. 12/8/21.

Bottom Photo: Yoko, 2007. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoko_Ono#/media/File:Yoko_Ono_4_-_Echo_of_Moscow.jpg

Tags: conceptual art, experimental film, Film, Fluxus, Get Back, interdisciplinary art, John Lennon, katherine factor, Let It Be, Peter Jackson, postmodern art, The Beatles, War is Over, Yoko Ono

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Katherine Factor is an editor, book coach, and educator. Her debut poetry book, A Sybil Society won the Test Site Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from the University of Nevada Press. She has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The author of three Choose Your Own Adventure books, more about her work can be found at katherinefactor.com
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