The most famous thing anyone ever said about Yoko Ono was, inevitably, said by John Lennon, and for years it held true. He called her “the world’s most famous unknown artist, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does.”
As the artist, musician, filmmaker and peace activist nears 80, that could be changing. After decades demonized as the witch who destroyed the Beatles she is emerging from the shadow of that complicated personal history.
Since a groundbreaking exhibition in New York in 2001 re-established her reputation, she has come back into focus as a significant artist, winning the accolade of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale. New generations of artists have discovered her as an inspirational figure.
Basement Jaxx, Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her in recent years. Younger visual artists as different as Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster cite her as an influence; the photographer and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood even jokingly calls herself an “obsessed fan.”
This summer the artist — a tiny figure, usually to be seen wearing trademark sunglasses and hat — will be the focus of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
According to Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the gallery, it is her prescience as an artist that makes her an intriguing figure for today. “As her relationship with the Beatles fades into the past her own reputation is crystallizing. What is so extraordinary is that her work chimes with the times we live in now. Her activism is immensely relevant for today, in the age of Occupy.”
Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, organized the 2001 exhibition at New York’s Japan Society. She says Ono’s importance is only just being fully appreciated “after 40 years of her being dismissed — either as a Japanese artist, or a woman artist.” She adds: “What makes her so slippery is that she is so wide-ranging. She is a musician and a poet, a peace activist and a performance artist, a maker of objects and a conceptual artist — and married to John Lennon.”
The sheer breadth of her output, says Munroe, has taxed curatorial and critical skills. But, she says, Ono’s originality cannot be underestimated, even though it has often been unrecognized.
“She was the first artist, in 1964, to put language on the wall of the gallery and invite the viewer to complete the work. She was the first artist to cede authorial authority to the viewer in this way, making her work interactive and experimental. That was the radical move of art in the 1960s.”
Ono’s energy remains undimmed and she continues to make new work and harness new technology. Her Twitter followers number 2.3 million. Recent works include her Imagine Peace Tower (2007), a column of laser-light on an island near Reykjavik, and My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004), an image of breasts and vagina that was exhibited on posters around the city of Liverpool, causing controversy in some quarters.
She was born in 1933 into a wealthy Japanese family firmly ensconced in the ruling classes; her father was a banker. She began piano tuition at two and was educated at a specialist music school as her family shuttled between New York and Tokyo. War brought unfamiliar deprivations to the aristocratic family. In 1945 she took charge of her siblings, at the age of 12, when they were evacuated to the countryside after the capital’s fire bombing. They struggled to eat. Her father was imprisoned in a Saigon concentration camp.