Can you name any Yoko Ono work that did not involve John Lennon? Ever see a painting? Can you describe a sculpture? Performance? No? That was me. I changed that.
My story begins when I realized I could not identify any Yoko Ono art. I knew some songs she’d done with John. Nobody ever talks about her work. I had never seen a catalogue of one of her shows for sale at the museum bookstore. (Good grief, for the scores of museum shops I’ve browsed, big or small, mainstream or underground, never a Yoko catalogue?) Why is it so hard to see / hear / touch a Yoko piece?
(Walk with me through this tangent, I’ll come back around.)
I was planning to visit Easter Island. I studied, probed, and re-planned: how do I get there, where do I stay, how do I get around?
My travel plan went like this: depart Seattle Saturday morning, arrive Santiago early Sunday; depart for Easter on Wednesday and return a week later, Thursday; depart Santiago late on Saturday night to fly home, arriving in Seattle at lunchtime.
I would spend some time in Santiago, so I started reading about that. It’s a nice Spanish colonial place, second-world country, sturdy economy with a strong middle class. Art museums? I learned about Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende. Salvador Allende was the president when Chile suffered the coup d’état in the early 1970s. Artists from around the world sent works in support of Allende, and the museum was born.
This museum, proudly, is a time capsule. They have collected no works from any era previous to, or since, the events of 1973. Their entire collection consists solely of gifts. Their sole mission is to keep the doors open – a reminder of those events. They have a Calder, a Picasso, a Miro, I read … they have an Ono. “I’ve never seen an Ono before,” I gasped aloud, to myself, “I have to go there.”
My guide book and my map showed two different locations for el museo. The courtyard suggested by the map, just by the hostel I was staying at, did not have a museum. It did have an angry, barking dog; I left quickly. Beautiful courtyard, though. I walked for ages to the address in my guide book. Found it!
El Museo de la Solidaridad Salvader Allende se traslado Av. Rebublica 475
El museo had moved to a new address. I took a cab to the new address. Found it! The museum exists. Closed.
I flew home late that night.
Five years later, I returned to Chile to walk through some of Patagonia. Similar routine, I was in Santiago for a day or two before flying down to Punta Arenas. I went back to the museum – I had the correct address now. Closed.
When I returned to Santiago the following week, I returned again. Fifth times a charm.
The guy selling tickets spoke English. I told Brian my tale; he was delighted by my persistence, and gifted me a museum catalog. I told him I wanted to see the Ono. It was in storage, he explained. They don’t have enough space to display their entire collection, so they close up one week every month and rotate artworks. (That explains the previous closures that I suffered.) If I’d made it to the museum the week prior to the previous week, I would have seen the Ono. (The catalogue is abridged – no picture of the Ono.)
I’ve been obsessed with Yoko ever since, for years now, walking around with the question, ‘why is it so hard to see an Ono?’ Since my Chilean misadventures, I’ve had a chance to read some of her work, listen to some of her music, peruse catalogues of her work. I’ve read books by her and books written about her with similar sentiment as mine. She’s interesting. She’s fascinating. I want my readers to re-consider her in new light, or consider her as newly found.
Typically, she’s very conceptual. She does not produce work that you’d buy to hang on your wall, nor to place in the public square, but she has produced interesting ideas. Egad – you have to ponder to appreciate her work. And more frequently, the piece is not complete until an observer absorbs it, ponders it, and somehow interacts with it. The observer must complete the piece.
The idea for ”White Chess Set” is that two people can start playing chess, a game of war. Eventually they cannot tell who is who, and it becomes a cooperative effort, no longer at conflict, two players must help each other “is that mine?” “I think this knight is yours” “I think you just put yourself in check…” I think somebody could write a comedy skit.
From the mid-1950s to 1961, John Cage taught musical composition at the New School for Social Research. Yoko took a class on the Fluxus movement, as Cage interpreted, write instructions for musicians to complete a piece. Yoko extended those ideas to all art forms; she believed her work was incomplete, until somebody else — you, or I, or you and I — did something with it. She left instructions for someone else to complete an art work. I’ll share a couple, and invite my reader to offer more.
One December day, I shared this on FB:
It is white in Seattle today, reminding me of this Yoko Ono piece.
I imagine walking out into the woods, dark now, and snowing. The sound of total silence surrounds the cold air. There is no wind playing with the tree branches, the evening birds are done singing and squawking, now seek shelter from the storm. The squirrels and chipmunks, also sheltered, have finished their business, of squirrelling and chipmunking. I can hear the frosty air escape as I breath in and out.
That is the sound of falling snow. I do not wrap gifts. Superfluous.
Cued from Acorn, I completed a short piece for “City Piece X”
It is a quiet day. People walk the streets like zombies before their morning brains. You can hear the smallest of sounds, birds chirp and tweet.
It is a glorious day.
The sun is out. The noise stayed in the garage. My skin is notably pale. People blink their eyes, the sun was just invented and nobody’s read about it yet. A bicycle commuter rides by, then two more, you can hear them talking and hear the spokes spinning far down the road.
People could use her cues to write poems for ages.
This is supposed to be a music blog; let’s listen to some of Yoko’s music. I’ve selected a sampling to enjoyed without further comment.
Yoko is an amalgam of stuff, and a lot of her sounds are before a genre existed. Listening to Fly (released 1971) and Approximately Infinite Universe (released 1973), I hear pre-disco, protopunk, club beats, tape loops, drone, folk music, avant-garde, kids’ sing-alongs, fucking-warped opera arias, and straight-up-dirty-ass rock and roll. She has a distinctive voice; she grew up in Tokyo, descended from Samurai, and English is her second language – your voice would be distinctive, too. Give it a chance. It’s pretty cool, Baby. (I’m still waiting for “fucking-warped opera aria” to be invented by somebody and to become a genre recognized by many.)
I started down this path in a vacuum, but I discovered that I was not alone. MOMA had a retrospective in 2015. Reaching Out With No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono, the excellent book by Lisa Carver (2012), is loving and well researched in breadth and detail of Yoko’s life and work. (I almost quit working on this piece after reading that.) And I’ve discovered many established musicians reaching back and grabbing one of her songs to cover. Here’s Elvis Costello with Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice”.
Ono plays Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice”.
I cannot think of any woman in the entertainment world who has suffered the brazen misogyny that Yoko has been offered. She is best known for breaking up the Beatles. But that’s crap. John and George broke up the Beatles. George Harrison wanted to perform songs that he was writing. John Lennon thought it was time to move on. That’s no reason to hate anyone.
John tells a story about participating in one of Yoko’s works, when they first met; from The Beatles Bible
… But there was another piece that really decided me for-or-against the artist: a ladder which led to a painting which was hung on the ceiling. It looked like a black canvas with a chain with a spyglass hanging on the end of it. This was near the door when you went in. I climbed the ladder, you look through the spyglass and in tiny little letters it says ‘yes’. So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘fuck you’ or something, it said ‘yes’. – John Lennon (on meeting Yoko)
John was in love, and that’s all I need to know.
The Not-Final Word
I only know so much, and I can only write a little. If people are interested in more, a good place to continue is this short video,“The Case for Yoko Ono”. The anonymous narrator has a pleasant, informing voice. Less than 7 minutes long, it’ll take less time than it took you to read my article and is packed with much more information. She talks faster than I write.
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