It’s hard to describe Yono Ono using words. The 80-year-old peace activist, musician, artistic visionary, performer and avant-garde superstar, described by her third husband John Lennon as “the world’s most famous unknown artist”, is best defined via the many mediums she employs to spread her ideas, ideas which she shrewdly makes accessible to all ages despite their at-times confronting roots.
Such is the inspiration for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney’s latest retrospective of her five-decade career: War is Over! (If You Want It). It features a collection of Ono’s sculptures, films, audio compositions, installations and instructive texts that double as invitations for audience participation.
“So then it becomes your work in a way,” explains Ono. “All mediums are effective if we use [them] well.”
Participatory activities include Mend Peace, where visitors arrange broken crockery, and My Mommy is Beautiful, born from the artist’s gratitude towards her mother, which encourages people to pen personal messages of love to their mothers.
“This was kind of inspired by the fact that my mother passed away and I could not say anything to her now. I would have wanted to say, ‘look, I’m sorry I didn’t understand what you were going through’. Just being pregnant and then delivering me was hard enough I’m sure. But I didn’t think this way because the whole world was saying women like to create babies … The other side of that is many women – not many, but some women – really risk their lives and also it’s not a very comfortable thing to do. We don’t talk about that. That part of it is being swept under the rug because the world does not want women to feel too bad about having children.”
Almost four years in the works, War is Over!, named after Ono and Lennon’s transnational peace campaign of 1969, is reflective of Ono’s genre-bending foray into the arts. This ranges from film, to her off-Broadway piece Hiroshima, to her ongoing work with the Plastic Ono Band, which she started with Lennon in 1969 and which saw her release an album in September 2013, Take Me to the Land of Hell, co-produced by her son Sean Lennon.
“I’m glad we decided to do it. I find my son worthy of my respect as a fellow artist,” she says. The record features a generous sprinkling of big name collaborators, from Wilco’s Nels Cline to Lenny Kravitz. It’s not suprising; this is the woman who counts Boy George and Lady Gaga as her fans, and who was recently asked to curate the famous Meltdown festival in London – an honour once bestowed on David Bowie.
This is the same woman who inspired some of her late husband’s most legendary songs. In fact, Lennon’s most well-known solo track Imagine was inspired by a line from Ono’s Grapefruit book, which she published before they met: “Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” While he took the songwriting credit at the time, the former Beatle later acknowledged Ono’s conceptualism and his own chauvinism.
Ono is also the same woman who made Bed Peace with Lennon on their highly publicised honeymoon at the presidential suite of the Amsterdam Hilton – her long, dishevelled hair flowing freely as she smiled wryly for reporters. She followed this up with the famous Cut Piece, calling on participants to hack at her clothes using scissors. It’s just one example of Ono’s paradoxical use of violence to convey her overarching message of peace.
“It’s not a dichotomy,” she explains. “We should not hide the fact that we are living in a very violent world. Admit it, and try to make it well. I see that when John and I stood up to bed-ins, very few people were activists. Now I think maybe 90 per cent of the world are activists.”
Working for Change
Born in Tokyo in 1933 to an affluent, aristocratic family, believed to be descendants of a Japanese emperor, Ono enjoyed a privileged upbringing in both New York and Tokyo. She remained in Japan during the 1945 fire bombings and was later sent north to the countryside with her siblings to seek protection. It’s impossible not to acknowledge the artist’s childhood when contemplating her work and its recurring motifs such as the sky, which she refers to as a “constant” during a turbulent backdrop of political unrest.
Never one to shy away from public displays of artist activism, Ono also counts fracking and feminism as subjects close to her heart, challenging the present-day notion of “feminist” as a “dirty word”. After all, it took some years for her to shed the tag of simply being “John Lennon’s wife” and receive recognition as the artistic pioneer that she is.
“All positive words to describe us women are great,” she says. “We don’t get too many of it, so why not ‘feminist’? Of course, many people think that’s a curse word. Well, those are people who don’t realise that there are many terrible words used to describe us women. As a woman who fought for women’s rights, most of us are just kind of down on men; ‘oh men are terrible.’ Lately I realised through reading and finding out how terrible men were treated by rulers, rulers of our countries and planet … they suffered too … we have to understand their plight as well .”
On the subject of the environment, Ono says, “The biggest threat to our planet is our pessimism, and giving up the work to bring peace to our society. If we don’t allow change, that is death,” she cautions. For an artist who is still ploughing on after so many of her peers have hung up their hats (“My brain and body are asking me to keep moving,” she quips), Ono continues to dedicate a substantial chunk of her time to honouring her late husband’s legacy, witnessed most recently in the construction of the illuminated Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland.
“As much as I can, I want to keep his legacy alive,” she says, more than a hint of pensiveness in her curt reply. Love, it appears, remains one of the driving forces in this artist’s untiring creative engine.
“’I’m thankful of everything, every day. So let’s all work together to create a beautiful world.”
War Is Over! (If You Want It) is on at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art from November 15 to February 23, 2014.