According to some theorists, the twentieth century can be divided into two distinct periods.; The modernism movement and Postmodernism. By its loose definition, Modernism is a collection of movements (cultural and social) that came to popularity between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It consisted of a crescendo of ever-changing movements in music, literature, applied arts, architecture and art. Postmodernism on the other hand relates to what is ‘the latter modern’. It was a reaction to modernism and was influenced by the frustration brought about by the Second World War. Postmodernism refers to the state that lacks a central hierarchy and one that is complex, ambiguous and diverse. As a result, Modernism was based on using rational, logical means to gain knowledge while postmodernism denied the application of logical thinking. Because of modernism and postmodernism, the rise in advocates rose and movements began- Mainly Dadaism (the first cultural movement that started in Zurich during the 1st World War, partisans to Modernism) and the formation of the avant-garde (However it is often debated by theorists whether avant-garde existed before the advent of modernism).
This report will focus on the influence of Modernism & Postmodernism and what derived from the ideology in relation to the selected artist. In particular, the voyage into Yoko Ono’s world will be meticulously analysed through the trials and tribulations, as well as how her work is connected to either modernity, postmodernism or the avant-garde, whether closely related or loosely inspired.
Yoko Ono, born February 18, 1933 in Tokyo, Japan was at best, an artist of many aptitudes and wife to renowned musician, John Lennon. She was once a member of the Fluxus movement during her time situated in New York, (Fluxus; a network of artists, composers and designers that brought different walks of media and disciplines into society. They were loosely inspired by the Dadaist movements of the nineteenth century and were most active in the 1960s) an artist turned rock chick, a poet, a writer and a performer. After John Lennon’s passing, Yoko Ono would go on to be one of the most unconventional and contentious artists of the twentieth century. Comprising more than 150 works, Yoko Ono’s finesse in art would coin her an avant-garde(avant-garde; introduces and explores new forms and in some cases new subject matter, both experimental and often innovative) artist, most notably for her conceptualism and unique approach in showcasing her art. With that in mind, the focal point of this writing will embark on a journey into Yoko Ono’s world, discussing Yoko Ono’s performance art, poems and events that somehow relate to her way of thinking; moreover, by delving into whether or not her work expresses rudiments of postmodernism.
Chapter 2 – The revolution that was Yoko
“Artistically misunderstood, derisively known as the most famous widow in the world and vilified as the catalyst for the breakup of the most famous music group of all time, Yoko Ono in actuality is an uncompromising artistic visionary who was already an avant-garde superstar before she met John Lennon.”
Touchstone Magazine – Published by Simon and Sohuster, New York
Photograph by Reanne Rubenstein
Yoko Ono entered the mainstream in the late ’60s, however extremes of opinion have shaped the public’s idea of Yoko Ono since she first emerged in the New York art world in the early 1960s. When travelling abroad, Yoko arrived in New York’s Greenwich village where she first discovered the world of avant-garde artists.
She began her life by segueing into poetry while developing her fascination for conceptual pieces. Alienated as an “artistic radical” for years her work was ridiculed or ignored. The basis of her derision was possibly due to the fact that she was a Japanese female artist “emerging at a time when neither Asians nor women had much place in modernism’s history”, Ono had little framework for sustained critical support. Her dire fortune would soon take a turn for the better when she began her working relationship with musician and film producer Anthony Cox. It was Cox who helped jump start her career by coordinating Yoko’s “interactive conceptual events”. This allowed Yoko Ono to generate one of her many renowned pieces, titled ‘Cut Piece’.
‘Cut Piece’ Carnegie Recital Hall, New York 1965
“Perhaps the most important inclusion is a film documenting Ono’s best-known action work, Cut Piece, 1964, which was performed in Japan, London, and New York.” ‘Cut Piece’ was first performed in New York, 1965 in the Carnegie Hall. The performance itself consisted of Ono sitting on stage, staring with a blank expression and positioned in a traditional Japanese stance; legs placed to one side.
People were then asked to approach Yoko Ono with a pair of scissors and cut a piece of clothing off. The performance usually ended with an individual snipping at the last pieces of her garment until she was almost fully unclothed, in which she would usually cover herself up as a culmination.
Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, performance, Japan/England, 1964-1966
The ‘Cut Piece’ events were later held in Japan and England with her performance in New York recorded and later distributed. After viewing the ‘Cut Piece’ for myself, the first thing I noticed was the style of other peoples dresses, which set the moment in time (60s ambience). Yoko Ono’s expression throughout the film is intriguing, at times she looks empty, whereas other times her facial dialect tells a narrative. Often looking aggravated, other times timid- Ono really knew how to break artistic boundaries. One really fascinating segment to point out when I watched ‘Cut Piece’ for myself, was that the women who came up to strip Yoko cut small pieces in the most discreet places, while the men were more destructive and would cut bigger pieces, most likely to assign natural leadership and male dominance.
Remembering Yoko Ono’s place of Origin, it was inevitable that Yoko wanted to depict numerous elements of her personal thoughts within her ‘Cut Piece’; Referencing the Atom bomb in Hiroshima (the tattered clothing from the blast), conviction and involving the audience in her piece are just a few of the basics to consider. In addition, I felt that ‘Cut Piece’ took a close look at sexuality (both men and women), expectation (whether or not Yoko would allow the removal of all her clothes), vulnerability, submission, pacing, timing and patience. This was one of Yoko Ono’s most definitive works that preceded the decades of performance art to follow. Not to mention that back in the mid 1960s, having a female Japanese artist pushing the envelope with eccentric material was something not commonly seen during that period, especially in a westernized culture, where she went on to perform numerous shows.
In her biographical statement of 1966, Yoko wrote, “People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone”. Yoko perhaps felt that the participants wanted to probe into her ‘stone’ in which she denotes as being part of her soul. Ultimately ‘Cut Piece’ expresses an, anguished interiority while offering a “social commentary on the quiet violence that binds individuals and society, the self and gender, alienation and connectedness.”
Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, England 1966
Ono’s events, collected from her own private experiences, always draw the spectator into an act of self-reflection and demands viewer participation. A famous example is from pieces such as; ‘Bag Piece’ – An event that called for one or two people to get into a large black muslin bag, remove all items of clothing, and carry out various activities, from remaining static to possibly taking a nap. ‘Sky Piece for Jesus Christ’ was another notable presentation which had Ono and assistants wrap each member of the Orchestra Sky Piece for Jesus Christ in white cloth until they were wound into a continuous web. Just as the orchestra played in unison, their bodies gradually become attached into a single form. Yoko then progressively enveloped the musicians until they struggled to continue playing their instruments. And finally the ‘This Is Not Here’ exhibit which included a living room painted in white, containing furniture such as a desk, television set clock and an out of the ordinary apple cut in half. A viewer was then told to change the setting by altering the object in reference to the viewers personal interpretation of the scenario. “In other words art is a two part process-what is presented by the artist and how it is interpreted by its audience.” Yoko’s premise reflect the discourse on art and life that has dominated much of twentieth-century avant-garde culture. She has broken down the boundaries between art and everyday life that has been the object of radical art and thought, much like Marcel Duchamps exhibit of the porcelain urinal entitled ‘Fountain’ (1917).
(Fig 5.) (Fig 6.)
Bag Piece with Tony Cox in Tokyo 1964, Yoko Ono in 1964
‘Fly’ 1964, Kyoto Japan
One of Yoko Ono’s more famous events is from her ‘Fly’ event at Nairua Gallery, Tokyo 1964. A key concept in Ono’s creative output ‘Fly’ originated as an instruction, later published in her acclaimed book, ‘Grapefruit’. In spite of the minimalism behind ‘Fly’, the event itself evokes an infinite range of meaning from the start. The process involves members of the audience jumping off ladders of varied heights. Stools were often provided in order to have audience members jump from different heights based on their level of confidence. During the event, people were said to, “seriously discuss whether flying was the same as falling or dying.” After a thorough analysis of the event, the connotation behind the event may have been that by conquering such qualms, Ono wishes, people can separate themselves from various obstacles in their lives. She explains in her 1971 essay “How to Fly”, that in order to fly, we have to be light both psychologically and physically, not clogged by “resentment, anger, secrets, and the past”. This suggests that Ono was trying to convey ‘Fly’ as a political motive, to free not only individuals but also the entire world.
Throughout Yoko Ono’s painting, conceptualism and performing arts career, Yoko Ono wrote poetry. They were often rudimentary inscriptions for each piece of work. It was during her controversial relationship with John Lennon when she decided to publish the book titled, ‘Grapefruit’.
Chapter 3 – The fruit is ripe
‘Grapefruit’ is primarily characterized by instructions to the reader. The instructions require the reader to use his/her imagination to perform the commands given. Her use of techniques create a distinctive kind of imagery that sets the mind in new ways. For example, Ono uses active verbs to get the reader to think about something unexpected. These unexpected images are not characterized by fancy or lyrical language; they are strong, direct and simple.
Additionally, Ono forces the reader to try to hear something that is traditionally seen. In other words, she gives the reader enough structure to guide ones thinking while also allowing her words to be open for interpretation. For example, ‘Stone Piece’ reads, “Take the sound of stone ageing.” No one could possibly know exactly what “stone ageing” sounds like, however that particular image portrays history as a whole and its never ending eternity (a stone has also seen it all; weather conditions, human life, growth, wisdom and death). Some of the more appealing poems were the shorter ones, such as ‘Wind Piece’, ‘City Piece’ and ‘Heart Piece’. Although the lines are short and ask the reader to carry out a simple task such as ‘walking all over the city with an empty baby carriage’ and ‘blow hats all over the city’, the unconventional undertaking of carrying out such tasks gives a bizarre intrigue on the way Yoko Ono depicts reality and may very well brand her as avant-garde. (With the addition to her performance art, paintings and future collaborations). Some examples of her poetry obtained from the book will now be shown to grasp an idea of structure, layout and general undertones of what the manuscript conveys.
‘Grapefruit’ book cover
Walk all over the city
with an empty baby carriage.
Step in all the puddles in the city.
Grapefruit, ‘Snow Piece’
Yoko Ono’s ‘FLY PIECE’ is loosely based on her piece of the same name. This particular verse, amongst others in ‘Grapefruit’ have been showcased before as part of a series on performances (as mentioned on chapter 1), presumably to give readers a chance to carry out Yoko’s ingenious concepts for themselves or take a new spin on it, almost as a way of deploying the same imagination as Ono but with the freedom of the reader to construe the scene however they wish too. With the assortment of poems available to readers, Ono manages to uniquely display the atypical characteristics of what she wishes her readers to carry out, from stepping on water puddles across an entire city to imagining snow and conversing with an imaginary individual in front of you who is being overwhelmed by the snow, and then stopping once it has completely covered the entity. Albeit the bizarre requests, a number of the poems were individually quite jovial and had one considering a number of Ono’s instructions as a form of personal achievement or an out of ordinary ‘party trick. ‘
When evaluating ‘Grapefruit’, readers can easily impose their understanding of what something sounds like, or what a particular action feels like. That is why I feel ‘Grapefruit’ would shine amongst other forms of literature as it stands out from the norms of traditional ‘flowery’ poetry. Yoko Ono’s use of metaphors create the same types of imagery without subtle language. Readers are able to interpret it due to its lyrical content.
Furthermore many of Yoko Ono’s initial planning thoughts of her paintings, films, performances and music are almost all some way or another entrenched within the book. Examples include ‘Cut Piece’, ‘Fly’ as mentioned, her prominent ‘painting to hammer a nail’ which reads, “Hammer a nail in the centre of a piece of glass. Send each fragment to an arbitrary address.” And most noticeably her paintings pre-John Lennon. ‘Grapefruit’ not only stimulated me as a reader with poems that narrate her real life art, but it also embarks on a journey of thoughts, thoughts that were shaped by Ono herself.
Chapter 4 – Ono & Dada
Hammer a nail in a board piece
Yoko Ono’s involvement with Fluxus (a neo-dada movement) was an unusual one. It all started after Ono and Cox parted ways. Yoko was influenced by the frequent image work of, “Andy Warhol, Dali enthused surrealism and Dadaesque absurdity.”
Her inspiration to Dadaism is manifested through her art, such as having her audience pay a small fee to hammer a nail on an empty board-a stab at consumerism during the 60s era. Even her showcase arts and poetry have a striking resemblance to 20th century Dadaism society, much like the raucous events of ‘Cabaret Voltaire’ in Zurich. (A nightclub in the capital of Switzerland which featured dance, role-playing, literature, poetry, theatre art and music amid a cultural movement of likeminded individuals who were anti-war and detested modernism).
Fluxus Folks in 1965
It was during one of Ono’s many exhibitions in New York where she had met George Maciunas, founder of neo-dada Fluxus. After a brief meeting, Maciunas was actively trying to formulate his ideas for an international art movement (similar to Dadaism back in the early twentieth century). One day he approached Yoko Ono and discussed his vision with Ono, asking her if she could think of a name for the movement he had sought to create.
After a failed attempt at coming up with a name, Maciunas left only to come back days later. He had come up with the name for his movement: “Fluxus,” which by definition, represents change and fluidity.
Maciunas, inspired by Ono’s art would later promote her work in his galleries. Although Ono remained closely associated with the Fluxus community and its revolutionary aesthetics as it expanded, she felt that she was better off as an independent artist. The conditions of Fluxus were, “everyday existence is the site of art; and dynamic intermedia, rather than static form, is art’s truest medium.” Arising from Duchampian Dadaism, Fluxus opposed the institutionalization of art, advocating an alternative state of improvisation that is “non-art, anti-art, nature, reality.”
Through Maciunas, Yoko Ono’s Eastern susceptibility helped shaped such flux-ideas as minimalism, poetics, and the investigation of the simple and habitual acts of everyday life and their innate relation to art. Yoko had consistently appeared at the cutting edge of historic avant-garde movements. But she eventually occupied an independent, often aristocratic status that resisted group identification, thus her departure from Fluxus. In the end, Ono was more concerned with her personal endeavours such as poetry and rituals than with Maciunas’s passion for satirical gags and Vaudeville(Stage entertainment offering a variety of short acts such as slapstick turns, song-and-dance routines, and juggling performances). It was pretty clear that Maciunas wanted to follow in Dadaist footsteps, considering the first cultural movement that began in Zurich would indulge in vaudeville esque outings. Nevertheless Maciunas continued to exhibit Yoko Ono’s work and the two remained good friends until his demise in 1978.
Chapter 5 – Yoko & the beetle
Yoko Ono & John Lennon
Yoko Ono’s relationship with John Lennon was deemed as a turning point for the careers of both entities. They were known to enjoy the ideal symbiotic aspect of what a relationship is and through each other, they equally enjoyed the shared creative avenues of one another. John delved in many art and theatrical works with Yoko, whilst Yoko explored into the world of avant-garde music with the inspiration of the former Beatles member. Their most acknowledged collaboration was a “series of conceptual events to promote world peace during the unsteady measures of the Vietnam war era.” The most renowned of these was the “bed-in” event, which was held in an Amsterdam hotel room during their honeymoon in 1969, where they sat in bed for a week to support world peace. John would later write song lyrics titled, “Give Peace a Chance.” And team up with Yoko Ono in anti-war advertising campaigns. However not all was optimistic as the couple were ridiculed by the mass media and general public, so far as to blame Ono for the disbanding of the Beatles. Soon into the 80s, John Lennon was assassinated in December of 1980. It was a traumatizing moment for Yoko Ono and even till today Ono still remembers John. In a 2003 interview Ono stated, “I think there was a kind of relief that I wasn’t with John anymore. Those that couldn’t accept the fact that John was with me. It was a very tragic way that John and I were separated. But we were separated.”
Chapter 6 – artistic marvel or incredulous?
Yoko Ono’s artistic aptitude has remained in the midst of controversy even following John Lennon’s passing. Research suggests that her art has not always been the centre of praise, but has frequently been slandered and ridiculed by critics who have condemned her art as meaningless, her films as weird and her songs as tuneless. In the public eye, she was the one considered responsible for breaking up the Beatles. Hence, as a result tried to detach herself from the reputation by persistently wanting to trudge her artistic stance to western and European societies.
It is argued that to some, Yoko Ono was nothing more than a woman who broke apart an iconic group embarking in an unsuccessful attempted career as a musician, and an unconventional artist she was, but more so for the wrong reasons. In an October 2010 ‘Anderson Cooper 360’ CNN interview, she told interviewee Cooper why she thinks so many music fans blame her for the breakup of the Beatles, stating that she was used as an easy “Scapegoat” for being a Japanese woman. She also went on to say that it was not only “Sexism” and “Racism” that escalated the accusations, but her remembrance of England and America’s hostility towards Japan during World War II which had an uncanny similarity of animosity towards a female woman of oriental origins.
Critics in time went on to condemn her infatuation with John Lennon’s musical success throughout their relationship, and building a collaborative production of songs together with him was seen as ‘bizarre’ by the media as her singing was noted as sounding like ‘screaming’.
“I was doing very musically intricate things, in terms of rhythm and notation and how it moves. I thought it was comparable to someone like Schoenberg in terms of the structure of the music and they didn’t hear that at all. They just said ‘Yoko’s screaming!'”
One could argue that her paintings and contributions to the avant-garde spectrum were deemed sub-par by many critics, some even going as far to say non-existent. Brian Sewell, a television personality and art critic for the Evening Standard stated that Yoko Ono “shaped nothing”, “contributed nothing” and that she was simply seen as a reflection of the times. “I think she’s an amateur, a very rich woman who was married to someone who did have some talent and was the driving force behind the Beatles. If she had not been the widow of John Lennon, she would be totally forgotten by now.” A former programme producer for Yoko Ono’s documentary ‘A Life in Flux’, Lance Dann mentioned, “I don’t know whether she’s a great artist but whether she is or not, she’s an important figure.” In addition, Sewell’s remarks continued as he went on to explain that it was easy to gain popularity in New York during the 1960s depending on whether you mixed with the right crowds or not, and that Yoko Ono’s works, particularly her sculpture paintings were rather “awful” and “tasteless”. Art critics would continue to debate whether Yoko Ono’s existence as a post-modern artist was legitimate or just a wannabe who wanted to get noticed, such as her use of “shock tactics” to express her feminism within different mediums of art as expressed by a BBC news article, ‘Great artist or con artist?’.
On the contrary, Ono has clearly shown resilience against the negativity surrounding her. In an interview with the guardian observer, Alice Fisher asked her thoughts on the media outburst based around her personal life and relationship with John Lennon, Ono responding with, “What’s written about me in newspapers is usually fiction. With the press you have to learn to read between the lines.” She went on to ask Ono’s opinion on whether or not she would be remembered in the future, in which she answered “I don’t mind if no one remembers me. If I’m going to be remembered by the fictional notes the press wrote about me, why would I want to be remembered at all?”
Yoko Ono is in no doubt an artist who has broken boundaries in a crescendo that is conceptual art. Whether intentional or not, she has also developed notorious resentment towards a community of hard to please critics, Beatles fans, and the media. Could it be that Yoko Ono is fully representative of what postmodernism is? or could this play biased to the other types of art Yoko clearly employs including the teachings of Fluxus, conceptual art based on inspired avant-garde artists of the past or her relationship with other like minded artists.
Whatever the case, the study into Yoko Ono’s medulla oblongata has given one insight to a world alienated by a modernist mentality of art and design. The sheer scale of avant-garde and the process of carrying out a conceptual idea through different mediums has paved a brand new understanding of a subject matter that was difficult to grasp. Furthermore, by researching into an individual’s expedition, one managed to take analogous steps into an aesthetic journey, a journey of a beloved, often hated and outspoken artist- both through her flamboyant nature and arts.
Yoko Ono with her Installation Morning Beams.
Photograph: Glenn Copus/Rex Features
Conclusion – Closing thoughts
To my conclusion, Yoko Ono unquestionably made a mark on the postmodern realm of the twentieth century. Her role as an avant-garde artist truly shined through the use of art and transformation. She uses language-minimal, epigrammatic and poetic to instruct us to dream, to wish, to feel, to imagine. Yoko pioneers social art that relies heavily on participants-not just to be appreciated in the abstract, but to be actually made whole, made complete. She aims to assimilate the consciousness of of art into the fabric of ordinary living through a process she calls rituals.
“To rationalize the irrationality in us, humans.” – Yoko Ono
While Yoko carried on her legacy throughout her relationship with Lennon, Cut Piece served as a grand finale of Ono’s art career. In the 70’s she was busy with other projects such as producing music, collaborating with her husband, raising a son and to her tragedy, coping with Lennon’s death. Nonetheless Ono would ultimately reengage with her art between 1995 and beyond. Her not work is about simulating life, Rather, she aims to assimilate the consciousness of art into the fabric of ordinary living through operation she calls “rituals.. to rationalize the irrationality in us, humans.”