Yoko Ono (born February 18, 1933) is a Japanese multimedia artist, singer, songwriter, and peace activist who is also known for her work in performance art and filmmaking.
Well before her famous partnership with John Lennon, Yoko Ono was the “High Priestess of the Happening” and a pioneer in performance art. Drawing from an array of sources from Zen Buddhism to Dada, her pieces were some of the movement’s earliest and most daring. With unprecedented radicalism, she rejected the idea that an artwork must be a material object. Many of her works consist merely of instructions. In Cloud Piece (1963) for example, she instructs us to imagine digging a hole in the garden, and putting clouds into it. Ono faced the considerable challenge of remaining visible as an artist, not just a rock star’s wife. For brief periods, the media’s intrusive presence stopped her from working altogether. Remarkably, however, she persisted in sustaining a career that was well-established before Lennon’s arrival on the scene, and which deserves to be admired in its own right.
Cut Piece (1964)
Body, Clothes, and Scissors (Performance piece)
A landmark work, and one of the artist’s best-known, Cut Piece was presented at the Sogetsu Art Center, the same Tokyo venue that had hosted her Bag Piece. Ono wore one of her best suits and knelt on the stage holding a pair of scissors. She invited audience members to cut pieces of her clothing off using the scissors. The artist remained still and silent until she was down to only her underwear. The process of witnessing clothes cut from the body elicited a range of responses from the audience. Themes of materialism, gender, class, and cultural identity were central to the work.
According to Ono, her original intention was to harness the Buddhist mentality (Buddha, born a wealthy prince, achieved enlightenment by giving up everything and sitting under a tree for seven years), with a feminist subtext: women too often need to give up everything. This performance was a demonstration of that reality. Ono’s Cut Piece was the first performance piece to address the potential for sexual violence in public spectacle. It is also among the first examples of Performance Art.
During the sixties, Ono gravitated toward the circles of artists participating in “happenings,” and held events at her own loft at 112 Chambers Street in New York City. Fluxus artists, avant-garde musicians, and other performers gathered there on a regular basis. Ono became the informal curator of the downtown arts scene in this space, and was known as a one-woman powerhouse. Named the “High Priestess of the Happening” Ono was considered a lightning rod for culture, always at the cutting edge of emerging trends in visual art and performance. La Monte Young, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were among the artists she hosted in her loft at 112 Chambers Street. Evening events typically drew as many as 200 people.
Ono’s performances and instructional paintings of the early 1960s changed forever the relationship between artist and audience. Bed-In and Bagism, pieces staged in 1969 with Lennon, are direct antecedents for subsequent works that turned private life into public spectacle, most famously Tracy Emin’s My Bed (1998) and her involvement in the peace movement encouraged future generations of artists to use visual art as a political platform. Her mutually influential partnership with John Lennon is well-traversed territory, but it is worth remembering that in leading us through the process of imagining a different, better world, Lennon’s famous solo song “Imagine” is essentially a reprise of Yoko’s instructional pieces. Ono’s innovative, iconoclastic presence in the art world extended far beyond this partnership, furthering the dialogue on materialism and cultural consumerism in a way that has inspired Rirkrit Tiravanija, Suzanne Lacy, and other artists involved in social practice. Finally, in calling attention to the vulnerability and resilience of the female body, Ono gave future female performance artists, among them Valie Export, Hannah Wilke and Marina Abramovic, permission to take even greater risks.
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