Art

Celebrating the career of Yoko Ono – a resilient artist who's so much more than John Lennon's wife

A new retrospective puts the artist's work centre-stage, focusing on her interest in activism and humanitarian causes

Yoko Ono retrospctive

Planting a seed for a better future. Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Acorn Event, National Sculpture Exhibition, Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, 15 June 1968. Courtesy Yoko Ono. Photo: Keith McMillan

Yoko Ono is among the most famous living artists in the world today. A creative powerhouse, she has been at the forefront of contemporary art and activism for more than 60 years. But her life and her public image is indelibly marked by her marriage in 1969 to John Lennon. A double-edged sword, the creative partnership is both the reason why almost everyone knows who she is… and why far too many people underestimate her as an artist in her own right. 

Next week a major new retrospective opens at Tate Modern in London. It’s an opportunity to experience her work on its own terms, beyond the shadow of The Beatles. “It felt very timely to re-examine her work through the context of global current events, especially given her interest in activism and humanitarian causes,” says Andrew de Brún, assistant curator of the exhibition. “Her practice still has the same power to create discussion and debate. It’s as thought-provoking today as ever.”

In researching the show, de Brún was fascinated to find out how much of Ono’s activism stemmed from her time in London in the 1960s. “She became embedded in this countercultural movement of avant garde artists working in London,” he says. “And ultimately, that’s where she met John Lennon.”

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Her relationship with Lennon shot her into a “stratospheric world” of fame, “where she really has to contend with the idea of mass culture and mass recognition,” de Brún adds. “She took advantage of the power of the media and the focus on her to put out her message of global peace.”

With fame came a huge backlash – strongly influenced by racism and sexism. “It’s hard to imagine how someone in her position could keep going with her work,” says de Brún. “But one of the things that we have been really taken aback by time and time again in working with her is just her endless positivity and optimism. She is incredibly resilient.”

Ultimately Ono’s desire is for people to come together and imagine a more hopeful future, because, as she and Lennon put it: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

Planting a seed for a better future

In 1968, Yoko Ono and John Lennon had been together for just a few months when they created their first joint work (main image, above). Appearing for the first time as a couple at Britain’s first National Sculpture Exhibition, they planted two acorns in the grounds of Coventry Cathedral. One faced east, one west, to represent each of their heritages. A bench sat alongside, where they invited visitors to sit and watch the acorn trees growing, while thinking about world peace.

Right from the start, says de Brún, “they were really trying to use their public platform to create a sense of potential for world peace.”

Following their marriage, the couple decided to take the idea to the halls of power. They mailed acorns to 96 world leaders, asking them to plant the seeds in their own gardens and consider world peace. “As part of the exhibition, we’ve got a lot of the original material, examples of what they’d send out to the world leaders,” says de Brún. “And we’ve got these really fascinating responses from world leaders as well, thanking them for what John and Yoko would call the ‘living sculptures’.” Interestingly, many of the world leaders said they had planted the acorns. They have not yet achieved world peace.

‘This society is the very society that killed female freedom

Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono, Freedom 1970. Courtesy the artist

Freedom is a response to second wave feminism. In this very short video, we see Ono struggling to escape from her bra, from physical constraint on her body. In her 1972 manifesto, The Feminization of Society, she expanded on the idea, making her feminist analysis clear. “This society is the very society that killed female freedom: the society that was built on female slavery,” she wrote. “If we try to achieve our freedom within the framework of the existing social setup, men, who run the society, will continue to make a token gesture of giving us a place in their world.”

A collective response to the migrant crisis

Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono, Add Colour (Refugee Boat), 2016, at MAXXI Foundation. Photo © Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Created in 2016, in response to the migrant crisis in Greece, Add Colour (Refugee Boat) is another interactive installation. To begin with, the work is comprised simply of a boat placed within an empty space. The public is then be invited to paint their thoughts, ideas and hopes on the walls, floor and boat. 

Having her own experience of displacement due to conflict, Ono was profoundly moved by reports of the struggles facing refugees. “I wanted to share that feeling I had in my heart with the audience and invite them to participate,” she said.

“She wants to invite people to connect together to examine this issue, to reflect on it together. And to create some sense of collective response,” adds de Brún.

‘I can always keep going as long as the sky is above me’

Yoko Ono, Helmets (Pieces of Sky), 2001, in ‘Between the Sky and My Head’ at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 2008. Photo: Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Colin Davison)

The sky is a frequent motif in Ono’s work. It started when she was a small child during World War Two, says de Brún. She was evacuated from Tokyo to the Japanese countryside with her family. “She was staying in this farmhouse, living in extreme poverty. And she and her brother used to stare at the sky through a hole in the ceiling and imagine all the different types of foods they would like to eat. The sky has always stayed with her as this symbol of endless possibility for imagination, but also for hope.” 

Ono explained that feeling of faith in the future, saying, “‘I can always keep going as long as the sky is above me.”

In London, a large collection of World War Two army helmets will be hung, upturned, and filled with jigsaw pieces printed with an image of the sky. Visitors will be invited to take pieces of the sky away with them. This transgression of usual exhibition etiquette is typical of Ono’s desire to involve the audience in the work. It’s a symbol, de Brún explains, “that with a collective agency, we can recreate a sense of hope together”.

Harvesting wishes

Yoko Ono, Wish Tree, 1996 at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Photo: Asa Linden/Moderna Museet

From February until the start of September, everyone who visits the Tate Modern will be greeted by three of Yoko Ono’s famous Wish Trees. Inspired by a Japanese tradition in which people write their wishes on thin pieces of paper and hang them on bamboo branches, these trees are an invitation to collaborate. We are all invited to add our wishes to the living trees, creating a monument to our dreams. 

Every single one of the wishes, from every appearance of the Wish Trees, has been harvested and sent to Peace Tower in Iceland, which Ono established in the memory of John Lennon, who was murdered in 1980 aged just 40. There are now more than two million of them. “She talks beautifully about how the wishes combined have this extremely positive energy,” says de Brún. “It is an incredibly poignant and beautiful idea, that we’re all contributing towards something. And that our wishes can have a collective agency. We’re excited to contribute London’s wishes.”

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind is at the Tate Modern from 15 February-1 September

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