“I Just Let Things Happen”: A Conversation with Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono
Take Me to the Land of Hell
Chimera Music

Few people elicit as visceral a reaction as Yoko Ono. The mere sound of her name — four short, childlike syllables — sends people into facial contortions, either of awe and admiration or disgust and dismissal.

For some, she’s an icon, an avant-garde visionary who has challenged the boundaries of art and the very meaning of what it means to be an artist. For others, she’s simply the woman who broke up the Beatles by driving a wedge between John Lennon and his bandmates and then tried to ride his coattails to fame.

This latter view — that Ono is and should only be known by her connection to Lennon and, through him, the Beatles — completely and conveniently overlooks certain facts. For one, blaming Ono for the Beatles’ demise is almost certainly an oversimplification of the various frictions that existed within the band. Paul McCartney finally admitted as much in an interview with the late Sir David Frost last year, stating that, “[Ono] certainly didn’t break the group up; the group was breaking up.”

More importantly, though, this caricature of Ono as a manipulative opportunist tragically overlooks her artistic career, a career that predates her relationship with Lennon and that spans over half a century and countless art forms. Indeed, Ono was an artist of considerable renown prior to meeting Lennon; the two might never have met but for that fact.

In that same interview with Frost, McCartney also concedes that not only did Ono not break up the Beatles, but that her artistic influence on Lennon opened him up to a whole new realm of creativity, encouraging him to think in different ways; this allowed him to forge a new and successful path after the Fab Four disbanded.

“I don’t think he would have done that without Yoko, so I don’t think you can blame her for anything. When Yoko came along, part of her attraction was her avant-garde side, her view of things, so she showed him another way to be, which was very attractive to him. So it was time for John to leave; he was definitely going to leave [one way or another].”

Regardless of one’s view of her, though, that Ono would induce people to react so strongly is only fitting. Her artwork — from her music to her installations to her performance pieces to her books — is unified in that it is all intended to incite people to action. For Ono, art is not a passive process for the audience but a participatory one.

Her Wish Tree exhibition, for example, has been recreated in locations all over the world since it debuted in 1996. The idea is simple but profound: viewers — participants, rather — are invited to write their wishes on small pieces of paper and then hang them on a tree. In doing so, the participant returns the paper to its source to take on life with the other wishes.

Ono has noted that the idea stems from her childhood when she would “go to a temple and write out a wish on a piece of thin paper and tie it around the branch of a tree. Trees in temple courtyards were always filled with people’s wish knots, which looked like white flowers blossoming from afar.”

Ono collects all of the wishes from the various trees erected around the world, totaling over a million so far. The wishes then make their way to the Imagine Peace Tower, a memorial to Lennon located near Reykjavík, Iceland. The memorial consists of light beams climbing high into the sky, emanating from a white stone with the words “Imagine Peace” carved into it in 24 languages.

When asked what eventually becomes of the wishes — not the physical artifacts themselves, but the actual wishes — Ono, as usual, is cryptic. “The wishes will create their ultimate plan,” she says. While this may sound inscrutable, it’s in keeping with Ono’s belief that to participate in an act of art is to give the art a life of its own.

This November, Ono’s new book, Acorn, will be released. The book is a sequel of sorts to her first book, Grapefruit, which was published nearly a half century ago in 1964. Like Wish Tree, Acorn asks the audience to participate in creating meaning out of art by interacting with it.

Consisting of 100 black-and-white drawings accompanied by poems in the form of instructions, the book encourages the reader to be engaged — with the art, with the artist, with the world, with one’s own life and creative energy — by performing the instructions.

“It’s poetry in action,” Ono explains.

An example instruction reads:

Write down a sad memory.

Put it in a box.

Burn the box and sprinkle the ashes in the field.

You may give some ashes

to a friend who shared the sadness.

As with much of Ono’s art, the instructions in Acorn are as often playful as poignant, forcing the participants out of passivity by delighting or jarring them — or both. Referring to the book’s instructions and activities, Ono is adamant that she is “Asking people to not just read them but do [them]!”

In the book’s description, Ono notes that, “In these pages I’m picking up where I left off [with Grapefruit]. After each day of sharing the instructions you should feel free to question, discuss, and/or report what your mind tells you. I’m just planting the seeds. Have fun.”

Both Grapefruit and Acorn, then, are essentially collections of event scores — instructions created by an artist for both the artist and others to perform, recreate, and interpret. The instructions are the score, the performance the event. They can be performed alone or with others, privately or publicly. As a collection of event scores, Grapefruit is recognized as a seminal work of early conceptual art, noted for its poetic simplicity and beauty.

Cut Piece, an event score that Ono first performed in 1964 and would go on to perform numerous times in subsequent decades, instructs the performance artist to sit still while the audience is invited to come on stage, pick up a pair of scissors, and cut out swatches of the artist’s clothing. Much like the instructions in Ono’s books, the score for Cut Piece puts as much emphasis on the audience as the artist, blurring the distinction between the two:

Performer sits on stage with a pair of scissors in front of him. It is announced that members of the audience may come on stage — one at a time — to cut a small piece of the performer’s clothing to take with them. Performer remains motionless throughout the piece. Piece ends at the performer’s option.

The interpretations of Cut Piece, of course, have varied throughout the years. Some see it as a commentary on the meaning of art. Others see it as a feminist statement, an indictment of how women are treated and, ultimately, violated by men in a patriarchal society. And still others see religious overtones in it, such as learning how to get past oneself and accept whatever life might bring.

Ono’s own explanation, unsurprisingly, encapsulates all but commits to none of the above. “I was feeling about expressing how women are treated,” she said in a 2012 interview with the BBC, “as well as how we can survive it by allowing people to do the things they want to do — instead of just insisting what you want to do. So, there’s many messages in that.”

When asked if her work — not individually, but as a whole — is overtly feminist, Ono seems to answer in the affirmative, though her answer is characteristically enigmatic. “We are all feminist,” she says, “men and women in various degrees and in different shades.”

Ono is much less abstruse when questioned about whether art is more powerful and transformative when it requires the audience to actually be a part of the artwork, to be part of an exchange between “creator” and “viewer”, thus rendering both the creators of meaning in that particular moment.

“Yes. That’s the idea!” she exclaims.

This idea of encouraging others to be a part of her art also manifests itself in Ono’s music. Many of her songs have been covered and remixed by various bands and DJs throughout the decades. “Walking on Thin Ice”, for example, has been reworked by everyone from Elvis Costello to the Pet Shop Boys to a slew of acclaimed DJs. The song was Ono’s last collaboration with Lennon, who recorded the lead guitar the very night of his death.

Just this year, “Walking on Thin Ice” was once again re-envisioned by an impressive array of DJs and producers, including house legend Danny Tenaglia and EDM luminary R3hab. The result is Walking on Thin Ice: 2013, a collection of remixes that take Ono’s classic — which combined elements of dance and new wave — and place it in a variety of modern contexts.

Ono is humbled that so many notable DJs are still inspired by her work, particularly Tenaglia, whose output has been very limited over the past decade. “I’m very glad and so excited that he is doing it,” she says. “I think R3hab may have wanted to challenge Danny and top him. Whatever the reason is, I heard that R3hab also wanted to do the remix of this song.”

That Ono dabbles in dance music may seem odd to some, but she’s had a very successful career as a dance artist. As her alter-ego ONO, Ono has netted ten #1 Billboard Hot Dance Club Play hits. “I always loved dance,” she notes. “I never thought dance chart was artistically inferior to rock [and] when you go through my catalogue, you will see that there have been quite a number of dance tracks before I had other artists remix them.”

Though most of her chart-topping hits have been remixes of her previous songs, ONO topped the charts earlier this year with a new song, “Hold Me”. “I felt lucky that this happened,” she says. Luck, indeed: the song was released on Ono’s 80th birthday — an age when most people are definitely not releasing #1 hits on the dance charts.

If all of that isn’t enough to keep Ono busy, she still fronts the Plastic Ono Band, which released an album this past September. The result is Take Me to the Land of Hell, a musically sprawling album that combines her diverse musical tastes, from spoken-word passages to guttural howling to dance beats to funky basslines to experimental guitar. Somehow, it all holds together as a cohesive LP, one that creates a specific mood and makes more sense when played start to finish — an album in the truest sense.

Yes, Yoko Ono did become an octogenarian this year, but she shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, her career is as busy as ever — exhibitions, new albums, new singles, appearances on late-night TV with the Plastic Ono Band, a chart-topping reign as a dance music queen. Most people half her age lack such stamina.

This would all seem to suggest that Ono meticulously plots every aspect of her career, which branches out in so many directions that it’s truly bewildering. How else could she conceive of, bring to fruition, and maintain so many projects? When asked about how she approaches her career, however, Ono, as ever, is mysteriously wise.

“My strength is in not planning,” she says. “I just let things happen.”

Imagine that.