Yoko Ono's career rehab complete
CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS
by Peter Goddard
Yoko Ono's rehabilitation from Beatles-buster to revered artist is now so thorough that no contemporary art season feels complete without some inclusion of her work or reference to her abiding influence.
Just check out her work at Nuit Blanche tonight (even though she won't be on hand herself).
"I am constantly creating things," she tells me over the phone from her New York apartment in the Dakota, the scene of husband John Lennon's shooting death on Dec.8, 1980. "The art (at Nuit Blanche) is meant to bring joy, encouragement and inspiration to people."
For the event, Ono's Imagine Peace billboard in Liberty Village harks back to her "War is Over!" campaign waged in 12 cities with Lennon in the late 1960s. Much derided at the time for their simple-mindedness, the billboards – along with the couple's bed-ins in Toronto and elsewhere – are now viewed as cornerstones in Ono's emerging "utopian social program," so called by a number of critics.
On Oct.10, Montreal's Musée d'art contemporain opens "Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967," organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where 75-year-old Ono is given a central place in the section titled "Ono, Eno, Arto: Non-musicians and the Emergence of Concept Rock."
Ono's Wish Tree installation is another Nuit Blanche intervention, along with the distribution of 40,000 "Imagine Peace" buttons during the night at the southeast corner of Lamport Stadium, in Liberty Village. With Wish Tree, passersby can write a hopeful phrase on a tiny piece of paper, which can be affixed to a nearby tree. It's an installation she has staged previously.
Wish Tree – also part of a current wide-ranging Ono retrospective in England – is in fact a contemporary projection of one of the artist's earliest childhood memories in Japan, "when I was going to the Buddhist temple and would see all these beautiful white flowers in the bushes," she explains. "In the temple itself you could buy these tiny slips of paper, which said you'd received good health or money or whatever. This was a very old tradition. I liked the idea but I wanted (to make the good-fortune message) in your own handwriting."
Ono's work, with its roots in the process-minded Fluxus movement in New York in the early '60s, has generally avoided the production of objects in favour of exposure of these ideas.
"I know, even now people say I am naive," she says. Her work "seems to bring out the hatred in some people. But I am a rebel. From the start I didn't like the idea that artists had to have such (big) egos that they had to create something that would last an eternity. I went against that (idea). It wasn't my thing."
Her role models in this regard were composers John Cage and Toshi Ichiyanagi, her first husband, as well as avant-garde impresario La Monte Young and artists Larry Poon and Jim Dine. They all hung out at Ono's studio at 112 Chambers St. in New York.
Cage's most famous piece – four minutes and 33 seconds of silence "performed" by a non-playing pianist sitting still before a concert crowd – provided a signpost for Ono and the rest of Fluxus to follow. Indeed, it led to her Ceiling Painting, created by Ono in 1966 for the Indica Gallery in London, where she first met Lennon.
Climbing up a ladder, Lennon peered through a magnifying glass to read the word "yes" printed neatly on the ceiling. The work subsequently provided the title for her retrospective, "Yes Yoko Ono," at the Art Gallery of Ontario six years ago.
Ironically, one of her current projects is to revive interest in Lennon's career as an artist, cut short by his decision to play in a rock 'n' roll band with a silly name.
"I'd always wanted John to do a show," Ono tells me, "but he was always being treated as a pop star, not as a painter."
In recent years, a number of Lennon's acerbic sketches have appeared in galleries, with Ono turning up at openings to help the cause. The next Lennon show could be of 10 or so of his previously unknown watercolours, done in one afternoon while the couple were on vacation at a Japanese resort.
"I have no intention of making any copies (of them) or of selling them," Ono says. "At this point, I just want to do a show."
Peter Goddard can be reached at