Yoko Ono loves me. Or at least she said that she does in the e-mail interview we conducted as she crisscrossed the globe.
Peace and love have so long been central to Ono’s public persona that it is tempting to view it cynically. What is the angle? How could anyone otherwise keep up this barrage of positivity, this wholehearted agape, even to strangers, except perhaps in the employ of a greeting-card company?
But one of the striking points about Ono’s work is its utter lack of irony. In an age in which so much art is a meditation on the inability of art to communicate, Ono deeply believes in the exact opposite: in art’s ability to connect and convey meaning. She has used every means, including the access to the media that marriage to John Lennon gave her, to promote her message of peace.
It is easy to look at their “War Is Over” poster campaign or their “Bed-Ins” (media events in which the couple took over a hotel room and sat or lay in bed — for peace) as simplistic or even self-promoting stunts.
But Ono’s pacifism has never been a countercultural fashion. As with so many Japanese of her generation, her pacifism is born of experience. She lived through the fire-bombing of Tokyo. At the same time, her work has always focused on the mind and its ability to morph reality. Change the mind, and everything else can be changed. Think of peace, and you will get it.
It is not surprising, then, given the current global turmoil that Ono, at 70, is more active than ever. She has a new show in New York, an installation in the recent Venice Biennale and a reprise of her “Cut Piece,” in Paris. She also just experienced her first No. 1 record when a remix of “Walking on Thin Ice” reached the top of the Billboard dance charts.
Japan is getting a double dose of her work. Concurrent with the retrospective “Yes Yoko Ono” in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, she has several pieces at the inaugural exhibition at the Mori Museum in Tokyo. The show is called “Happiness,” and one could argue that happiness has been Ono’s project all along.
Yoko Ono loves me. And I sort of believe it.
In your early work, the objects you made were prompts for the artwork rather than the artwork itself. The artwork, ultimately, was realized in the viewer’s mind. Yet, in a museum, the “thing” becomes paramount. How does the work change in an environment in which the thing has become fetishized?
There are many ways to participate. You can participate conceptually. Especially with these historic originals, people participate not just in the work itself, but in the event that surrounded the work in the ’60s. The work and the history are both very powerful. Together, it creates an almost unimaginable power, inspiration and encouragement for you. [“Yes Yoko Ono”] is indeed a very special exhibition in that sense.
In terms of linguistics, Japanese is highly contextual in that spoken words don’t impart the full message. The receiver (the listener or reader) has to use the socio-cultural context to fill in the blanks and complete the message. This seems somewhat similar to the demands you place on your viewers. Do you find anything distinctly Japanese about your work?
In terms of spoken words and written lines, I think other languages, including English, can be just as suggestive and delicate in the way they express their message. Just read The New York Times and you’ll realize that there’s a lot between the lines that you have to figure out if you want to know the real truth!
Recent generations live in a world where — because of television, video and the Internet — more and more of the blanks have been filled in. There isn’t much left to the imagination. Have you noticed with “Yes Yoko Ono” any differences in the way people approach your early work now as opposed to when it was produced?
The younger generation understands my work better than the people in the ’60s did. I think the young are very quick to understand highly complex ideas. They were born in more complex and difficult times than us. They may pretend that they are all clowns, but that’s just their self-defense mechanism at work. They themselves think in symbolism more so than the generation before them.
In other words, they are very hip.
In your recent New York exhibition, you observe New York through the guise of a cockroach, an outsider. Yet, it could be argued that this position is not new for you. How do you think this marginal position (what is now called being a third-culture person) has influenced your work?
I consider myself an outsider — perhaps from another planet. My “connection” is the sky. “Third culture” is an ugly expression coined by the white folks who think of themselves as the central culture. This is the time to acknowledge that all cultures are equal. Decentralization of culture starts in your mind. The faster you acknowledge it, the better.
In the same vein, it could be argued that you were most ultimately a “third-culture” person by being a woman in milieus in which women were generally absent or passive. How has your gender influenced your work and your ability to realize and find an audience for it?
Being a woman automatically made me be an outsider in the male society, which gave me the power free from societal limitations laid out by men to keep control over the other sex, and other tribes.
How has politics or, better perhaps, liberation, figured into your work? Do you think of yourself as a political artist?
I never thought of myself in those words: a political artist. We are all participants of the social structure of the human race. I think of myself as a person who shares this time with you in our world and the universe. I, of course, believe in the power of imagining. Imagine all the people living life in peace. Imagine peace. We create our own destiny by exercising focused visualization through our desire and belief.
One of the most striking things about this exhibition, as the name implies, is the positivity that suffuses your work. How have you been able to sustain this even in the face of terrible difficulties and tragedy?
The human race is now confronted with one of the most precarious times in our history. Pessimism is a luxury we can’t afford.
In the ’80s you redid some of your earlier crystalline works in bronze as a coming to terms with the ’80s, an age of commodities. In the current era, is there a material or a mode of working that seems most appropriate?
Medium is not the message. Message is the medium. If you are a prisoner, write your message on the wall, if you are a filmmaker, express your message on celluloid, and if you are a singer, sing out your message. It’s the most important time for each one of us to stand up, reach out and communicate.
You and your husband seemed to constantly foreshadow different social models: a two-career couple; a businesswoman; a house husband. As an active and engaged 70-year-old, are you giving us a new model?
I don’t think in terms of growing old. I’m just in love with life, the human race, the planet and the universe. This feeling is increasing every day. Life is magical, life is beautiful, life is as fun as you make it. Let me say it again, though I say it so many times in a day. . . . I love you. I love you for sharing this moment together. I know your anger, I know your sorrow and I know your desire and hope. I love you.