Interview with Yoko Ono: "I always move on"

As the Japan Society presents a retrospective of Yoko Ono’s work, she talks about the avant-garde in the 60s and her latest work


John Lennon used to say that Yoko Ono was the world's most famous unknown artist. With the release of new and re-issued recordings and books by and about Lennon, today, Yoko Ono is as famous as ever. Although she may be the world’s best known widow, not many people know the other Yoko Ono, the artist that was at the heart of the New York avant-garde in the 60s and whose music, sculpture, photography, and films prefigured the work of many artists of the 80s. A retrospective of Yoko Ono’s work at the Japan Society and then travelling to at least six other cities pays tribute to her forty-year career and includes 150 works from the 60s to the present.

What do you want people to understand about your work?

I have no control over that. But, I really like the fact that you can throw a pebble into the water and then see what happens. I am glad that, finally, I'll be witnessing a retrospective of my work in the United States, while I am still alive.

Has your work had a regular presence in museums?

No. Museums have not had anything to do with me until the late 80s—although in the early 70s the Everson Museum in Syracuse New York did a one-woman show of mine, and I was very happy. Recently an exhibition of my work organised by the Oxford Museum of Modern Art toured all over Europe.

Would you describe yourself primarily as a musician?

Aaaaaaoooohhhaaaah. (laughs) No. I would describe myself primarily as an artist with a capital A. When I get an idea, I choose the medium, or should I say, the idea itself chooses the medium. That would, I suppose, be considered dilletantish or amateurish. In the 60s, I said, I'm proud that they're calling me a dilletante and I still feel that way. I have never made a living with my art work. Of course, now, I don't have to, but before, when my financial situation was rather limited, I preferred to work part-time at the Japan Society, than try to make a living with my own work.

Looking at your work now, it prefigures much of what was considered new in the contemporary scene in the 1980s—the use of language and slogans on posters, minimalism, films about a fly or human buttocks, performance art—how do you feel about so many people doing work that was similar to yours? Were you deliberately making work that would be outside the realm of the market in those days?

I was not intentionally doing something that was not going to bring me money. In about 1965 there was a gallery owner who told my then-husband, “If Yoko made one piece with a scratch or crack in it, then it would become unique and I could sell it. But she’s so conceptual. She’s always dealing with something that can be replicated.” This reflects what the art market was and is, that they were selling something that was not a concept, but an object.

What kept me going was an arrogant Van Gogh complex, thinking that an artist has to make works that are truly artistic—art for art’s sake. In those days I never thought that the things I was doing would ever leave a trace afterwards.

Which artists did you admire—I can see evidence of the influence of Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Man Ray and others?

I loved them all. Some of the artists were doing something graphic and visual, and still extremely revolutionary like Barnet Newman. I loved Rauschenberg's work, Jasper Johns's work—I wouldn't call them colleagues, but we touched base in a sense. I think both of them came to my loft.

What got you into film?

George Maciunas, the founder of Fluxus, called me one day and told me that he had the use of a slow-motion camera for one day. He said, ‘Quick, think of some ideas, and come to my place.’ I went and we made some films. Around that time I had the idea of the "Bottoms" film. I spoke to George Maciunas and he said, “OK.” He set up everything in my apartment, and people came, and they took their pants off, and we shot them. We made a nice, short, Fluxus film.

These days, artists might wait until they get a grant from the government to be able to finance them. It sounds as if the atmosphere was completely different in those days.

I was certainly not waiting for a grant, because I never would have got one. The financial limitation did create incredibly interesting situations for the work, and not just for me. In the 60s, I think it was Jonas Mekas who said if the audience walks out of your film screening, you should think of it as your most successful film. Those were the kind of rebellious bones that we built with at the time.

How important was Andy Warhol to your work?

He was hilarious. If you think of the Campbell’s Soup can, there was nothing unique about that. Warhol played with the mind of people rather than with the visual effect of the work. I like that. That’s the value of his work. In that sense, he’s a conceptual artist.

After you met John Lennon and became involved in the Peace Movement, did you consider that to be a break with what you had been doing?

I always move on, and I thought that it was great that when I discovered rock and roll, I discovered a whole new world of people—shall we say, entertainment people. In the ivory tower world that I was in, we didn't think of what we were doing as entertainment.

When John became extremely successful and famous, he started to feel how much effect his words were having on people. He felt a responsibility to give something more than entertainment. That’s what he was doing. And then I came into the picture, and two souls met. I had been doing things like the “Bottoms” film, and my friends were saying, ‘Oh, she's sold out.’ They wouldn't invite me to their dinners any more, and I was kind of rebelling against the avant-garde. There was a kind of elitist stagnation I felt in the avant-garde.

What work are you doing now?

The newest work that I just finished and unveiled in Berlin is called “Freight Train.” It's a regular German freight train from the 1940s and it stands on a rail in the Schlossplatz. I asked the military people in Berlin to machine-gun the train, so there are a lot of bullet holes in it. Also there’s a huge hole in the ceiling. There's also a very strong light coming from within the train, like a searchlight. At night when you go there, you see thousands of bullet holes from which the light is coming out. It’s almost like a Christmas tree. Then you see this huge tall searchlight going up into the sky. I understand that many people, because of the light, gather around the piece at night. I'm glad to be inspiring people, especially at a time when there's so much talk of neo-Nazis in Germany.

o “YES YOKO ONO” until 14 January, 2001 Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, New York, NY 10017. % +1 (212) 832 1155; box office: +1 (212) 752 3015


Born Tokyo, 1933. 1941-42, Keimei Gakuin Aca-demy, 1952 Gakushuin University

Solo shows include 1971: Everson Museum of Art; 1981:Whitney Museum of American Art; 1989: Boston Institute of Contemporary Arts; 1990: “The Bronze Age”, Paris and Swden; 1992: “Yoko Ono: Endangered species”, Berlin, Warsaw, Tokyo; 1995: “3 Rooms”, Milan; 1997: “Have you seen the horizon lately”, Oxford, Munich and Israel; “Conceptual photography”, Copenhagen