Conceptual artist, performer, musician, experimental filmmaker, peace activist, businesswoman and philanthropist,Yoko Ono is still overshadowed by the role she is most known for: being the widow of musician John Lennon and the accompanying hard-to-shake-off clichés about ‘splitting up the Beatles’.
Yoko’s continuous quest for love, peace and above all HOPE is perhaps exactly what’s needed in Iceland in these times of economical and political turmoil. It hasn’t exactly been a time of positive thinking. Fortunately, she is back in Iceland this weekend to light up her ‘Imagine Peace Tower’ for the fourth time.
Made in memory of Lennon, the work tower has been lit upon his birth date, October 9, since it was unveiled in 2007. This year Lennon would have turned 70 years old, which means a big celebration with events such as the long sold-out live performance by The Plastic Ono Band on Saturday night. We are glad to have her, so we called her up.
“LET EVERYBODY IN THE CITY THINK OF THE WORD “YES” AT THE SAME TIME FOR 30 SECONDS. DO IT OFTEN.” –YOKO ONO–
Yoko Ono’s instructional pieces, published in a book titled ‘Grapefruit’ in 1964, are simple and often Zen-like ‘event scores’ that replace the physical work of art. Yoko started to make a name for herself in the early 1960s avant-garde art scene in New York, performing and exhibiting with artists of the Fluxus group. She explains: “We were all there before” [prior to George Maciunas’ Fluxus manifesto in 1963], and some of their early events were held at Yoko’s loft. Fluxus was an international network of artists who celebrated experimentation, anti-art sensibility and explored media ranging from performance art, poetry, experimental music and film. True to the Fluxus spirit Ono’s final instruction for ‘Grapefruit ‘was: “Burn this book after you’ve read it.”
It could be argued that Yoko Ono has only in recent years gained true recognition for her work, with a retrospective spanning her 40-year career exhibited in 2000, being awarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Japan Society of New York and the Golden Leon award at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Her early works include ‘A Painting (Work) To Be Stepped On’ (1961), literally leaving a piece of canvas on the floor to be stepped on, and the controversial ‘Cut Piece’, which was first performed in Japan in 1964. The artist sat kneeling on a stage, with a pair of scissors in front of her. One at a time, the audience cut off a bit of her clothes for them to keep, leaving the artist naked by the end of the performance. But Ono shares her art and perhaps herself in this way.
Audience participation is important
Audience participation has been an ongoing element in her work, as she explains when asked: “It is very important to me, because it makes people closer to my work. And I don’t want to be put up on a pedestal.” In her notorious ‘Ceiling Painting’ the viewers had to climb up a white ladder in the centre of the room, from where a magnifying glass hanging from the ceiling revealed the word “YES” written in tiny letters. The work was exhibited at London’s Indica Gallery in 1966, which John Lennon supposedly crashed prior the opening and took a big bite of an apple placed on a pedestal the middle of the gallery (stood in this case as a work of art, titled ‘Apple’).
The importance of being geothermal
The participatory element is particularly evident in more recent projects such as the ‘Wish Tree’. First set up in Japan in 1996 and continued in cites around the globe, it collects people’s wishes and refers to her Japanese background and traditions. The work has a special connection to the ‘Imagine Peace Tower’ as Yoko collected a number of those wishes and buried them in capsules around the tower.
Iceland was chosen as a location for the Imagine Peace Tower particularly because of its ability to geothermally generate the electricity needed. Yoko notes that Icelanders should be very careful in the future when we touch on the subject of geothermal and hydroelectric energy, a current and highly debated issue in Iceland. “Iceland is such a beautiful country”, she continues.
Not necessarily having any other connection to neither her nor John Lennon, its particular placement is not the issue. It could have been placed anywhere in the world. Yoko grew up moving between Japan and New York in her younger years. This, she explains, shaped her when growing up and therefore the aim to bring people of the world together and blurring geographical boundaries has meant something very special to her. Having travelled around the globe she celebrates increasing globalization: “It’s like a melting pot today,” she says in an excited voice.
Things are always changing
When asked about the changes that have occurred in Iceland since the Peace Tower’s unveiling in 2007, a year that represents the end of an era of wealth and perhaps innocence, and if it has affected the way people view the work, she agrees. She says that “of course it shapes the way we look at things,” but then calmly, in an almost spiritual manner, she goes on: “Things are always changing”. Her words are inspiring and full of hope.
It is by looking back at her career you really start to appreciate her work. The Peace Tower has taken some time to grow on me, personally. The work was originally a conceptual text piece called ‘Light House’ (1965), noting “- a house constructed of light from prisms, which exists in accordance with the changes of the day.” It was Lennon’s idea to make it a reality. One beautiful wish has come true.
We do not need to look at the work as reminder of the silly things we got up to in 2007, but rather the symbol of hope it is meant to be. It might just feed off something positive. Perhaps it seems like a wishful thinking, but that is how the best of things often start to take shape.
Yoko Ono ends our conversation in quite Japanese fashion with the words: “Iceland, I love you, and see you soon!”
The Peace Tower will be lit on October 9. Yoko Ono plays a concert with her Plastic Ono Band the same night at Háskólabíó.