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time-consuming read: a ten-page paper on the art and life of Yoko Ono




For Yoko Ono

Haunting, surprisingly melodic, and sometimes brutal

She kisses the air I breathe with her hissing and her cries of war.

A true Kali… but then at once, an innocent (but always brazen) alice in wonderland muttering

“curiouser and Curiouser!”

Will she return

From this art of hers?

She always does. And she has returned

From racism, sexism, war, and murder

This is her battle cry

And also her quiet sigh

A true Lucy in the Sky—

I cannot

Begin to touch her

-Elizabeth Caudy


Yoko Ono has been a big influence on me, both as a woman and as an artist. I first heard about her the way most people do—through her affiliation with John Lennon. And it was so liberating! That a strong, striking, “crazy artist” could be the true love of this heart-throb rock star! Of course, I didn’t actually learn about her art until I was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and learned about her in art history survey, history of performance art, and—most influentially—at a Le Tigre rock concert, where a slide of her was shown during the song “Hot Topic,” in which the members, who include riot grrl icon Kathleen Hanna, sing, “Yoko Ono and Carolee Schneeman/ you’re getting old, that’s what they say/ But don’t give a damn, I’m listening anyway/ don’t stop.”

And Ono certainly won’t stop. She never has. As I tell you her story,

keep in mind that it is the story of a survivor who has never stopped living, loving, and, most importantly to this paper, making her art.


Yoko Ono was born in 1933 to an aristocratic family in Japan. She was classically trained in voice and piano—she never got away from this classical training, even in her more experimental music. However, during the Japanese Occupation during WWII, her family had little money and lived like paupers. In the intro to “Mulberries” on Blueprint for a Sunrise, Ono describes how sometimes she and her brother would hide under a mulberry bush until no one was looking, and then pick mulberries to feed their family.


By the fifties, Ono’s family again had enough money to send her from Japan to New York state to study at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, about forty-five minutes outside New York City. She made quite a spectacle of herself by doing things like wearing old t-shirts from the Salvation Army (no one did stuff like that back then, in the fifties) and arriving to the cafeteria wearing just one earring. This was at a posh women’s college. Perhaps realizing she didn’t fit in, she dropped out of college and moved to New York City to pursue her unique art.

By the early sixties Ono was involved in Fluxus, whose most famous member was John Cage. His minimalist sound pieces that played with people’s perceptions of time, of boredom, and ultimately, of humor, were very influential to Ono’s work.

Perhaps her most important piece from this period was called Cut Piece, in which she invited audience members to cut of a piece of her clothing until she was naked. She later reflected, “I did it out of a state of deep, deep anger at what was going on in the world.” She was referring to the Vietnam War—the piece was performed in 1964. ( I had always assumed the piece was about rape and violence against women… but war is violence against everyone, and surely is a form of rape.)

Grapefruit, a collection of instructions that are at once witty, macabre, impossible, and often smack of mental illness, is probably her most popular piece to date. As they are short, I have included four of my favorite instructions here:


Hide until everybody goes home.

Hide until everybody forgets about you.

Hide until everybody dies.

1964 spring


Think that snow is falling.

Think that snow is falling everywhere

all the time.

When you talk with a person, think

that snow is falling between you and

on the person.

Stop conversing when you think the

person is covered by snow.

1963 summer


Ride a coffin car all over the city.

1962 winter


Hand out small portions to people who

come to see.

Ask them to polish them at home.

Ask them to bring them back in fifty

years to put the Venus together again.

1964 spring


Another piece is famous in Beatle-lore because it caught the eye of John Lennon, with whom she later fell in love and married. It was simply a stepladder which led up to a spyglass hanging from the ceiling, and when you held the spyglass up to the ceiling you read the word “Yes.” Yoko enjoyed John’s quirky sense of humor but thought he took it a bit too far when he actually bit the apple on a pedestal that was for sale in the exhibition. Also, she didn’t like the way he invaded her personal space by pressing his face in close to hers when talking to her. But she did think he was handsome, and that “it would be nice to have an affair with him.” Not a rave review, but an okay start. According to Lennon, it was love at first sight.

By 1968, both John and Yoko were separated from their previous partners and Yoko was sitting in on the Beatles’ practicing and recording sessions. In fact, Yoko never left John’s side. How two such fiercely independent people could get into such a co-dependent relationship is beyond me, but they were in love, and on drugs—as Lennon recounted later in his best-selling Skywriting by Word of Mouth, they were both using heroin at the time.

The effects of Ono’s affiliation with Lennon on her career were devastating. Both the art world and the mainstream world of Beatles fans shunned her and she is even blamed for breaking up the Beatles, who actually grew apart because of artistic and personal differences within the band, and just a general sense of, “It’s time to move on.” However, this didn’t stop Ono from making art. She did several collaborative pieces with Lennon, including the famous Bed-In for Peace, during which they just sat in bed and talked about peace. Although Ono, as one of the collaborators of the piece, obviously had a lot to say on the matter, the press literally ignored her and only listened to Lennon. It was a sad example of how Ono, who as Lennon put it, “had been regarded as one of the most intelligent and beautiful women in Japan,” was now relegated to being not only “just” a Beatle wife, but an undesirable one at that.

Ono continued with her own projects too during the seventies and eighties including the acclaimed album “Approximate Universe” (which is dedicated “to John, my favorite member of the second sex”) and her hit single “Walking On Thin Ice,” on which John, as one reviewer put it, plays “ahead of its time grunge guitar.” The night after they returned from recording “Walking On thin Ice” in late 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed right in front of Yoko Ono. The cover of her next album Season of Glass depicts Lennon’s bloodied glasses.


Glass has always been a theme in Ono’s work; as she said in the latest issue of Kitty Magik, she is attracted to the way light can travel through it, but distorted, and to its ephemeral quality. In the late sixties, she had an exhibit in which all the pieces were glass objects. She said she wanted the feeling of the show to be very light and very intangible. I the late nineties, perhaps reflecting a toughening of her own skin, she chose to do the same show at the Whitney—except she poured bronze over all the glass pieces. “Bronze is very eighties, in a way,”Ono explained, although she did not explain why. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that society is no longer s innocent as it has been in the sixties, and, like her, has toughened its skin.


Calming Kali

Be quiet awful woman,

lonely as hell,

and i will comfort you

when i can

and give you my bones

and my blood to feed on.

gently gently now

awful woman

i know i am your sister.

-Lucille Clifton

“…my mind is dancing!

Can I take much more? Can I bear

An impossible beauty?”

-from “In Praise of Kali,” by Ramprasad Sen

“…Cellophane flowers of yellow and green

towering over your head

Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she’s gone.”

-from “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” by the Beatles

Yoko Ono is in her purest form in her music. Is she the fierce Hindu Goddess of Death Kali, with a lolling red tongue, jet-black skin, and a string of human skulls around her neck? Or is she the equally unattainable woman-child, in constant wonder at the world around her, described in Lennon’s lyrical homage to Alice in Wonderland? I say she is both. She has been compared to the whimsical Nico (of the Velvet Underground), to the experimental Laurie Anderson, to the eccentric Bjork, to the misunderstood widow Courtney Love, and to the eternally enraged Diamanda Galas. I say parts of all these descriptions live in Yoko Ono.

Her music is not popular in any conventional sense. On the album Blueprint for a Sunrise, she is at once a raving lunatic on “I Want You to Remember Me,” and then a slightly off-tune, thickly accented, mother? sister? lamenting over the state of womanhood on “Is This What We Do?”She is at her best when she combines both personas, as on “Rising II,” a song that was remixed by such artists as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Cibo Matto, of whom her son, Sean, is a member.

Jerry McCulley of writes of the album, “the Ono of Blueprint still seems consumed by agit-prop feminism and instinctive angst… [it’s] rhetoric leaves little doubt that woman is still the nigger of Ono’s world.”(This last part references Lennon’s song, “Woman is the Nigger of the World.”)


In 2003, Ono re-enacted her famous Cut Piece, this time in response to the war against Iraq. This time, she said, she wanted to do it out of a place of love for humanity, for peace, and of giving up of self—how better to give up yourself in a performance than to sit there passively as different people cut off pieces of your clothing, slowly stripping you naked? This notion of selflessness even has religious undertones—think of the teachings of the Buddha and those of Christ. Although a beautiful piece, it was a long performance, and even Sean, who was present, let out a discreet yawn. Perhaps, Ono, in the end, has become he wisened sage, the mystic, who treads the line between this world and the world of the enlightened. She expressed the ideas of Cut Piece 2003 beautifully in her letter in the New York times last December:

My Friends

“So this is Xmas, what have you done?”

As another tumultuous year is about to pass,

I propose that we come together in our thoughts

and end the year with a clear vision.

Let’s visualize

all the people living life in peace.

10 seconds. One hour. All day.

Anywhere and anytime of the day.

Let’s carry the clearest vision of a peaceful world.

And do it with a spirit of fun and joy.

Not with anger, not with fear.

For negative thinking is a luxury we can’t afford.

Let’s sing, dance and hug each other

To bring in the New Year, and with it, the new world.

Let’s report to the Universe how glad we are

That our planet is part of a beautiful constellation.

For the opposite of love is fear, not hate.

The opposite of wisdom is confusion, not stupidity.

The shortest distance between two points

is our desire and our unwavering belief.

So listen to your heartbeat and remember

“War is Over If you want it.”

With love, yoko ono dec. 03


Yes: Yoko Ono edited by Alexandra Munroe, et. al.

Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono

Goddess: A Celebration in Art and Literature edited by Jalaja Bonheim

“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by the Beatles

Blueprint for a Sunrise by Yoko Ono reviews for Blueprint for a sunrise and for “Walking on Thin Ice” the official Yoko Ono website

Kitty Magik Issue #9

Uncut Magazine

Skywriting by Word of Mouth by John Lennon

11:07 p.m. - 2004-01-16


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