By: Victoria Yates
Yoko Ono was born on February 18th 1933 in Tokyo to Zenjiro Yasuda, of the Yasuda banking family, and Eisuke Uno, a descendant of the Emperor of Japan. In her early years the family moved to San Francisco before returning to Japan in 1937. Ono attended several good schools, notably the prestigious Gakushuin University which was only open to those descended from aristocrats and the imperial family, where Ono was accepted into the philosophy program (the only female ever to be accepted into that department). After two semesters however she left the school. The family moved to New York after the war and she enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College. Following her time there she moved to Greenwich Village and got involved in the avant-garde arts scene, developing her interest in conceptual pieces.
For years her work was ignored as her reputation grew as an “artistic radical,” until she married American jazz musician/film producer Antony Cox who had come to find her in a Japanese psychiatric ward where she had been placed after a suicide attempt. In 1963 the pair married and later that year their daughter Kyoko was born. After their divorce, and following a custody battle (1971) Ono was granted full custody, Cox however took Kyoko and disappeared, - Ono was only reunited with her daughter again in 2001, despite her best efforts to find her.
During Ono’s time in New York she was a reluctant member of Fluxus a Dada-inspired avant-garde group, The founder was a keen admirer of her work and advocated it with enthusiasm. She declined promoting the group however as she was skeptical and wanted to remain an independent artist. Ono was a great explorer of conceptual and performance art, creating a wide variety of pieces which challenged and provoked, including a piece in which members of the audience cut away her clothes until she was naked. Ono was also an experimental filmmaker, creating who sixteen works between 1964 and 1972, one of particularly renown being a 1966 film which features close-ups of human buttocks as the subjects walked on a treadmill.
The 2001 retrospective YES OKO ONO received the International Association of Art Critics USA award for the best museum show originating in New York. She has received numerous other awards for her work as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Japan Society of New York, and recently a further lifetime award from MOJO magazine.
Ono first met John Lennon at the preview of an exhibition of hers at the Indica gallery in London in November 1966. They apparently encountered each other when he remarked on one of her works. The pair began an affair roughly two years later that resulted in Lennon’s divorce from his first wife. Lennon and Ono were eventually married and had one son together, Sean.
Although she was active in the fight for human rights and peace throughout the 1960s, it was from her relationship with Lennon that some of Ono’s more prominent political activism stemmed. On their honeymoon in 1969 the couple held a “Bed-In for Peace”. The press were desperate to see them, under the impression that the two would have sex for the cameras. Instead Lennon and Ono sat in their pajamas, eager to talk about and promote world peace. Ono continues to speak out against racism, sexism and feminism; being particularly open about her experiences with racism and rock fans from the UK. Ono later inaugurated her own peace award (in 2002) that offered $50,000 prize money to artists living in “regions of conflict.”
Ono’s musical career had been developing before she knew Lennon, having had her first major public performance in a concert at the Carnegie Recital Hall, featuring radical experimental music and performances. She later collaborated with Lennon on several occasions, and Lennon also sought to aid her solo career as much as he could. Her first chart success “Walking on Thin Ice (For John)” was released less than a month after Lennon’s murder, something which impacted her on an understandably deep level; her 1981 album “Season of Glass” featured the striking cover photo of Lennon’s shattered and bloodied spectacles next to a half-filled glass of water, with a window overlooking Central Park in the background. Ono released several other albums throughout the 80s, prior to taking a hiatus until 1992.
Ono’s work has continued to be both experimental and yet well received. Throughout her musical career she has collaborated with a diverse group of artists and musicians, including Andy Warhol. She is a unique contributor in both artistic and musical endeavors as well as through her activist activities. Lennon once said of her in the earlier years of their relationship that she was “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows he name, but nobody knows what she does.”
This is certainly no longer the case. Ono has pushed boundaries and, though always a controversial figure, she has proven herself a leader in both an artistic sense and in the wider battles for peace and equality.