Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky



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Selected Writings by Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky

"Yoko Ono: Art of the Mind" (Art New England, October/November 2001)

For most of us, the name Yoko Ono is inextricably linked to music legend John Lennon. But before she met Lennon, Ono was a boundary-crossing artist associated with the international avant-garde. They met when Ono had a show of her instruction paintings and objects in 1966 at the Indica Gallery in London. One of the pieces exhibited was a white stepladder that viewers were invited to climb. Once on top, a magnifying glass could be used to read tiny letters on the ceiling. While visiting the gallery, Lennon climbed that ladder and read the word "yes." Relieved that the message was not negative, he wanted to meet the artist.

They connected immediately, but their love affair didn't really take off until about two years later, in 1968, when Lennon invited Ono to his home studio to spend the night recording tapes that would later become Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. That recording evolved into a sound collage known as much for its edgy music as for the controversial album cover, showing both of them nude. Ono and Lennon married in 1969 and for the next 11 years, they became cultural iconoclasts, political emissaries of the international peace movement and artistic collaborators. They produced experimental sound works, films, recordings and mass media events that transformed social consciousness and made their private love into the subject of public art. Since John's tragic death in 1980, Ono has kept his spirit alive, fiercely guarding his legacy and being a devoted single mom to their son Sean Ono Lennon, a musician, now 26. Ono also has a daughter, Kyoko, (from her second marriage to Tony Cox) and two grandchildren. Now in her sixth decade, Ono is continuing to break boundaries by exploring, refining and reinterpreting ideas and expressing them in a range of new art forms.

Although Ono's identity as an artist has been overshadowed by her public status as a celebrity, she is currently being recognized as a pioneer of Conceptual Art, developed in the mid-1960s. Moving seamlessly between media, Ono is a new-world artist who works in film, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, photography, music, poetry, composition and performance. Known more in some circles for her music than her visual art, Ono has had a strong effect on a new generation of musicians. Among performers who have appeared with her are Thurston Moore, John Zorn, DJ Spooky and son Sean who plays with a Japanese pop group called Cibo Matto. Although her music has been described by some critics as shrieking, guttural or wailing noises, it is precisely Ono's adventurous vocals and expansive approach to sound-mixing that have influenced contemporary bands such as Cibo Matto, the B-52's, Sonic Youth and Blur.

Ono has also recently had a high profile in the visual art world. A new appreciation of her work started in 1989, when the Whitney Museum of American Art invited her to exhibit a selection of early work together with a retrospective of her films. She had a show at the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum in Michigan that same year. A renewed interest in conceptualism in the early 1990s propelled Ono's installations, objects and sculptures into the limelight. In the past few years, she has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, England, Norway's Bergen Kunstmuseum, New York's Queens Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and at venues in Finland, Switzerland, Brazil, Spain, Japan and Israel. Her work has influenced multi-generations of artists including contemporary notables Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman and Cornelia Parker.

Ono's 40-year retrospective called "Yes, Yoko Ono" premiered to rave reviews at the Japan Society in New York City last January and will travel to Minneapolis, Houston, Cambridge, Toronto, San Francisco and North Miami. The show will be at MIT's List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge from October 18, 2001- January 6, 2002. The recent recognition of Ms. Ono's art is important, not just because the work has been under-appreciated and marginalized in the past, but because the retrospective will give viewers a chance to see that it is cohesive, comprehensive and accessible. Over four decades, Ono has helped redefine how we think about art, while keeping the emphasis on art process.

Influenced by Zen Buddhism, minimalist haiku poetry, and Noh Theater, Ono sees art as an extension of the mind. In contrast to the expectations of the commercial art establishment, Ono's work evolved as a fluid, unfinished process to be completed by others rather than a static, overly polished product to be bought and sold. This is clear from early works such as Instruction Paintings, which consist of poem-like verbal instructions to be performed or just imagined. The instructions, which convey Ono's thoughts and ideas, rely on chance and audience participation for completion. Some instructions focus on real or imaginary actions, that, when isolated, bring us into a higher state of awareness and meditative introspection (Beat Piece, 1963: "Listen to a heart beat"). Others are fanciful, humorous and/or enigmatic, encouraging what Ono called an exploration of the invisible (Cloud Piece, 1963: "Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in"). By providing viewers with an open-ended template for creativity, Ono underscored her belief that everyone has the potential to be an artist.

In 1961, Ono exhibited the Instruction Paintings at the AG Gallery in New York City. The instructions were accompanied by abstract imagery that viewers were invited to complete, either by stepping on a work, dropping water on it or even burning a hole in a canvas and watching the smoke rise. (Smoke Painting ended when the canvas turned to ashes.) By inviting the audience to participate in the art process, Ono departed from the traditional concept of artistic ownership of a product and also made it clear that the idea was the most important part of artmaking. In 1962, at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo, Ono took this concept even further. She exhibited the instructions as text alone, implying that the idea itself was art. Ono was among the first artists of that era to use pure language as a visual art form and to advance the radical notion that art was perceived in the mind. In 1964, the instructions were published in her book called Grapefruit (since reprinted), now considered a seminal work in Conceptual Art. Ono's innovative, multimedia work is best seen in the context of her personal history and to some extent, her involvement in the early 1960s with the international group Fluxus which arose from Duchampian Dadaism and struggled to rethink and even revolutionize the whole concept of art.

Ono was born in 1933 to a prominent, aristocratic banking family and raised in both Japan and the United States during the rise of World War II. While in Japan, she studied philosophy, Marxism and existentialism and, like so many of her generation, became a committed pacifist in the midst of war-torn Japan and the ravages of the atomic bomb. In 1952 she moved with her family to Scarsdale, New York and attended Sarah Lawrence College. Three years later, she dropped out of school, broke family ties and eloped with a young, Japanese pianist and composer, Ichiyanagi Toshi who was interested in electronic music. In the early 1960s, the couple moved to lower Manhattan where they linked up with other experimental artists and musicians such as John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Nam June Paik, LaMonte Young and Yvonne Rainer. While supporting herself with jobs as a typist, waitress and translator, Ono presented a series of collaborative events with LaMonte Young in her downtown loft at 112 Chambers Street, which featured artists, musicians and poets at the cutting-edge of the avant-garde. These events, called "Chambers Street Series" laid the groundwork for Fluxus.

According to Jon Hendricks, Ono's curator, author of Fluxus Codex and co-author of Yes, Yoko Ono, Fluxus was a concept that was still developing when George Maciunas met Yoko Ono at some of the events at her loft during the winter of 1960-61. Maciunas, who had been a student of architecture and Siberian archeology, was intrigued with Ono's ideas about art being completed in the viewer’s mind because it meant removing the artist from the art process, thereby diffusing the "preciousness" of art. Ultimately, these ideas of conceptual painting, participation, and interpretive license became very important for Fluxus. As Fluxus evolved, artists would give Maciunas an idea, which he would interpret and produce in an inexpensive, marketable form. With Maciunas playing the multifaceted roles of coordinator, programmer, producer of editions, editor, designer of publications and theoretician, Fluxus emerged as a loose band of multidisciplinary artists breaking boundaries in the arts and bourgeois culture. Influenced by John Cage and his idea that art lies all around us, they produced new forms of creative expression including events and happenings that sought to dissolve the distinction between art and life. Whether performing at established venues such as Carnegie Hall, or alternative spaces including the streets, they shocked audiences and challenged social and artistic conventions, often using humor. Some performances lasted only 30 seconds, while others, could, theoretically, go on for days. In a 1965 manifesto, Maciunas referred to Fluxus as, "the fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children's games and Duchamp."

Uninterested in working as a part of a group, however, Ono eventually distanced herself from the movement. Still, she kept close ties with some of the artists especially Maciunas, who strongly supported her work and continued to include her in Fluxus events until his death in 1978. Hendricks said, "Fluxus never encompassed all of an artists work, and much of Ono's work is outside of Fluxus. Some is parallel to the movement and some harkens back to it.”

In the mid-1960s, Ono started producing objects, installations and sculptures. Presenting objects with provocative text, she created some mind-bending pieces that attempted to trigger new perceptions and nonrational ways of thinking by altering the viewers sense of reality. In a work called Pointedness (1964/1966) Ono exhibited a crystal sphere on a pedestal with text that reads, "This sphere will be a sharp point when it gets to the far corners of the room in your mind." She also exhibited Three Spoons (1967) which consists of four silver spoons on a plexiglas pedestal. The title suggests that one is missing, raising questions about language, reality and illusion. Ono was quoted as saying, "I've realized that the maps in our minds have very little to do with reality."

Around this time, Ono was also exploring the frontiers of performance art, which she believed to be a vehicle for social change. One of her most powerful works, Cut Piece, was performed in 1965 at Carnegie Hall in New York and filmed by Albert and David Maysles. It consists of Ono sitting on stage, legs folded under her, while audience members were invited, one at a time, to cut off her clothes with a pair of scissors. Forty minutes later she was left practically naked. Throughout the entire event, Ono sat perfectly still, showing no emotion. Now viewed as a landmark pre-feminist work, Cut Piece raises issues such as gender subjugation, voyeurism, sexual aggression, and violation. Reflecting on the experience, Ono wrote, "People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me, finally it 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."

From 1966 -1982, Ono made conceptual films, several of them produced with John Lennon. These films addressed many of the same themes explored in her other works such as the body, ephemerality and a collective consciousness. Among her most well known films are Bottoms (1966) and Fly (1970). In Bottoms, Ono filmed the naked buttocks of many male and female Fluxus artists and friends, as they walked. The images are cropped and presented close-up, giving the film a rhythmic and sequential structure. In keeping with her Fluxus sensibility, the film is humorous, rebellious, and confrontational. (Ono reportedly described the filming process as a "happening.")

In Fly, Ono once more focuses on the body. She takes a mundane event, the movement of a common housefly, and turns it into compelling cinema verité by following its actions as the fly explores the naked body of a seemingly drugged-out, supine woman. The journey of the fly is accompanied by otherworldly vocals, consisting of primordial buzzing sounds, whimpers and groans that could represent the fly, the psychic pain of the woman, or the repressed collective rage of those who have experienced emotional and/or physical violation. The riveting soundtrack was brilliantly composed and performed by Ono. Looking back at the film, Ono was quoted as saying, "It's really obvious that Fly is the statement of a woman, what women go through. It's interesting that from a male point of view, it's a totally different film-it's about curvature."

In recent years, Ono has revisited other themes she explored in the 1960s, such as the transitory nature of life, spirituality, illusion, metamorphosis and the power of imagination. Creating works that relate to a more global, technological world, she has produced objects, sculptures, installations, conceptual photography, musical compositions, and virtual art. She has also explored the very nature of art and even the nature of existence itself. In an early installation called Half-A- Room (1967), Ono presented bi-section as a metaphor for the human condition. The installation, which has been reconstructed many times, consists of objects such as a chair, a rug, a bureau, shelves, a table, a teapot, a picture on the wall, a hat and shoes painted white and, literally, cut in half. The truncated objects, infused with memory, reflect the split between the material world and the rich inner life of the mind. The piece questions what is present, what is absent, what is whole, and what is missing in our lives. About the work, Ono wrote, "Somebody said I should also put half-a-person in the show. But we are halves already."

Ono started producing bronze versions of her earlier works in 1988. Some of these early works consisted of crystal and plexiglass objects, created in the 1960s. At the Whitney Museum show in 1989, she presented the light, ethereal crystal and plexiglass pieces from the 1960s side-by-side with heavy, impenetrable bronze works from the 1980s. By exhibiting the same works in radically different materials, Ono reinvented the originals, reflecting on change, impermanence and the passage of time.

In 1994, Ono was asked to create a project for the city of Langenhagen, Germany. Connecting to her 1966 film, Bottoms, she created a black and white photo of bare buttocks. Underneath the image, the caption reads, "A Celebration of Being Human." The subtext says, "we are beautiful, we are fun, we are mammals without tails." To some startled viewers, the image appeared on billboards, buses, advertising columns, streetcars, shops, public buildings, posters, shopping bags, umbrellas and postcards. It was even given to passengers at the airport, implying that the motif would travel around the world. While this idea had its origins in the 1960s, the Langenhagen project takes it much further. In keeping with early Fluxus ideas, having the same image disseminated throughout the city (and, potentially, the globe) debunks the sanctity and elitism of art, turning the attention away from the individual artist while presenting art as an interactive, participatory experience.

In 1998, Ono took on the taboo subject of death in an installation called Ex It shown at New York's Deitch Projects. The piece consists of 100 wooden coffins with fruit saplings growing out of them. In the background are sounds of human voices and chirping birds, implying that death is not the end of life, but more of a passage that leads to growth and renewal. The conceptual forest symbolizes some of the basic metaphysical and esthetic tenets that underlie Ono's work, including the transformation of being, the connection between mind and matter, and the dissolution between art and everyday life. Although Ono's work has been groundbreaking, her celebrity status and public misconceptions about her have kept it relatively obscure, until now. In an article last year in The Nation, eminent philosopher Arthur Danto said, "Yoko Ono is really one of the most original artists of the last half-century. Her fame made her almost impossible to see."


Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky | carolynbk@comcast.net