On June 6, the Venice Biennale presented artist Yoko Ono with one of its most prestigious honors, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Ono was nominated for the distinction along with American John Baldessari by the director of this year’s biennale, Daniel Birnbaum.
Ono’s contributions to the formulation of conceptual and performance art have long been overshadowed by her marriage to Beatles’ member John Lennon and subsequent control of the musician’s estate after his murder in December 1980. However, a series of recent exhibitions and awards have brought renewed focus on Ono’s artistic career, notably, “YES Yoko Ono,” which was organized by the Japan Society Gallery in New York in 2000 and toured to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, in 2004.
The Golden Lion represents the culmination of the current contemporary art establishment’s embrace of Ono, who wrote in an e-mail interview with The Japan Times that she felt “honored” by the recognition.
Speaking with The Japan Times in Venice, Birnbaum said that works such as Ono’s performance “Cut Piece,” originally staged in Tokyo in 1964 — in which the artist asked audience members to use scissors to cut her clothing away piece by piece until she was almost naked — introduced “a new language for body-based and conceptual art.”
Birnbaum framed his decision to nominate Ono in the context of the recent decade-long art market boom.
“Yoko Ono reminds us that art can be something other than a commodity,” he said. “Of course, we all know that, but the market has been quite dominant lately, and it’s all been about precious objects that can be sold and bought. Her art has shown a lot of people that there are other possibilities.”
Born in Tokyo in 1933 to a banking family with ties to the Imperial lineage, Ono broke gender barriers in 1952 as the first woman to be accepted by the philosophy department of the exclusive Gakushuin University. However, she soon dropped out of the course and in 1953 enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, following her parents’ move to the United States.
Ono, who received extensive musical training as a child, gravitated toward the avant-garde scene in nearby New York City. In the ’60s, she became a key member of a loose, worldwide movement challenging conventions of art by creating anti-objects and working across disciplines. Her peers in New York and in Tokyo included the composers John Cage and La Monte Young, the Fluxus art group founder George Maciunas, pioneering video artist Nam June Paik, the Japanese art collective Hi Red Center and the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, her first husband.
On display in Birnbaum’s exhibition, titled “Making Worlds,” are examples of Ono’s scorelike “instruction pieces,” modest sheets of paper printed with ideas for art works and performances that are to be realized by the audience. Each instruction piece has a title, a text and a date of conceptualization. Illustrating the deceptive simplicity of these works, “Fly Piece,” from 1963, states only: “Fly.”
Organized by the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, a concurrent exhibition in Venice at the Palazzetto Tito presents a broader survey of Ono’s work, including video documentation of two performances of “Cut Piece” from 1965 and 2003, respectively. Titled “Anton’s Memory,” the show also features the interactive installation “touch me III (marble version)” (2009), in which fragments of a woman’s body, sculpted in marble, are arranged on a table in black boxes. Audience members are invited to touch the body parts after wetting their fingers in a water bowl.
An earlier version of “touch me III” exhibited at New York’s Galerie Lelong in 2008 was made of flesh-like, cast silicone. Over the course of the exhibition, the body parts were damaged by visitors’ constant prodding, and the work emerged as a powerful statement about everyday aggression toward women. Ono reflects that although many of her works are generated through instructions, they are not limited to a hierarchical relationship between artist and audience and, as in “touch me III,” can be inverted or freely interpreted. “I was always interested in that aspect of my work,” she wrote to The Japan Times. “I like the way the pieces keep growing because of the audience participation.”
To that end, Ono has consistently tried to reach as wide an audience as possible, whether by creating works in large editions or by using mass media, as in the international billboard campaign she staged with John Lennon in 1969, “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” Many of Ono’s instruction pieces are assembled together in the book “Grapefruit,” first published in 1964 and reissued by Simon & Schuster in 2000.
Miyuki Sugaya, director of Tokyo’s Gallery 360°, which has held yearly exhibitions for Ono since 1995, told The Japan Times that “Grapefruit” was her introduction to contemporary art.
“I was in my 20s and confused about what kind of life I wanted to lead when I first read ‘Grapefruit.’ It became like a bible for me,” Sugaya recalled. “I decided I wanted to live in the same world as the brilliant artist who made the book. So I slowly began learning about contemporary art and learning how to run a gallery. You could say that Ono raised me, or rather ‘Grapefruit’ raised me.”
Sugaya spent almost a decade corresponding with Ono before she finally agreed to show with the gallery, which was established in 1982. Sugaya said that she was thrilled that the Venice Biennale was honoring Ono with a Golden Lion and credited her for not only being a visionary artist, but also for setting an example that Japanese women could follow.
“Women in Japan were in a tough situation right up until the 1980s,” Sugaya said. “In particular, women of Ono’s generation were subject to a patriarchal, Confucian upbringing. It was difficult for them to pursue their own lives, but Ono was able to develop her own thoughts and form of expression.”
Asked about what it was like to be a woman in the predominantly male avant-garde scene in Tokyo when she lived there from 1962 to 1964, Ono replied, “I wasn’t surprised at all about the fact that not many women artists were seen in the art world, since it was the same in New York. I am sure that was a worldwide phenomenon. I am sure that there were many, many women artists. But they were not seen.”
Ono demurred on the subject of her influence on younger artists. She wrote, “I like the fact that many young artists are very active now. I don’t hope or feel that any of them are influenced by me.”
If anything, it appears that Ono is driven by a desire to creatively engage with succeeding generations of artists. She will be releasing a new album in September with her Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, reformed after a hiatus of 36 years with members including Ono’s son Sean Lennon and the genre-bending musician and producer Cornelius.
Gallery 360° director Sugaya provided perspective from her working relationship with Ono.
“Every time we ask about the next show, Ono comes up with a new idea. It really surprises us,” Sugaya said. “Ono is so aware of what is happening at the cutting edge. Instead of staying in the past, she adapts to the times and the concerns of young people. For someone who is now 76 years old, that is one of her biggest strengths.”