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Why Yoko Ono still matters

Peace, performance and participation: Yoko Ono’s daring art practice has been breaking new ground for decades. MCA/Matthu Placek

“The world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” That’s how John Lennon once described Yoko Ono. It’s a description that would be less apt now. Today a major retrospective of Ono’s work, War Is Over! (If You Want It) opens at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, giving an insight into the work and career of the Japanese artist, musician and peace activist.

Largely as a result of feminist art historical and curatorial hard yards, Ono’s work is now widely recognised in the art world both for its contemporary relevance and its formative influence on current practice. Given the length of Ono’s career, however, this wider recognition is surprisingly recent.

An important watershed was the comprehensive retrospective Yes Yoko Ono held at New York’s Japan Society in 2000. In the following years, Ono has exhibited consistently around the world, creating installations and performances, some of which re-stage works from the 1960s.

Participate in the performance

The currency of Ono’s work coincides with a number of developments in contemporary art, in particular the fashion for works that invite viewers to actively participate, and the renewed interest in performance.

Yoko Ono with her 2010 installation, Balance Piece. MCA/Yoko Ono

In a sense, both of these developments arise from the perceived need to differentiate contemporary art from other cultural experiences, such as the mass media. The drive to make art participatory assumes that most of the time we consume images passively, unthinkingly absorbing messages that numb our critical faculties.

To be forced to act out a different way of being by taking part in a contemporary artwork, by contrast, can potentially shift our habits and release new ideas.

In a similar way, the physical presence of the artist can communicate far more forcefully than a mediated representation. We seek in a live performance the promise of authenticity and accountability, the longed-for value of truth in a world where it has proved increasingly elusive.

Ono’s practice from the beginning blended participation and performance.

Fluxus happenings

Ono’s early works date from her association with Fluxus, an international network of artists who in the 1960s pioneered new interactions between art and everyday life, including through random public interventions known as “happenings”.

Yoko Ono performs her work Cut Piece (1964) at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1965. MCA/Yoko Ono

Ono’s Cut Piece, first staged in Kyoto in 1964 as part of an event billed as a “Contemporary American Avant-Garde Music Concert”, is iconic of her approach and now ranks among her best-known works.

Alone on stage and wearing her best black dress, Ono knelt in the polite Japanese pose assumed in formal situations. She placed a large pair of scissors in front of her, before inviting the audience to come up, cut off her clothes, and take a piece with them. These were the only words she uttered. Throughout the performance, she sat as impassively as possible while viewers, hesitant at first but gradually building up momentum, took turns to slice open her dress.

Feminist art

Cut Piece has for some decades been part of the canon of feminist art, that roll-call of significant works by women that was not included in the official history of modern art until feminist scholars, curators and artists undertook the huge task of historical revision.

Yoko Ono performs Cut Piece (1964) in Paris in 2003. MCA/Yoko Ono

With its confronting tension between exhibitionism and voyeurism, masochism and sadism, and victim and assailant, it has been mostly interpreted as an enactment of the physical vulnerability of women in a world where they are reduced to mere objects to be looked at.

And it has been rightly hailed both as prophetic of feminist activism and of performance art as a form. But more recently, with the growing acknowledgement of the contribution of feminist art and theory to contemporary art more broadly, the performer in Cut Piece is no longer viewed as “the universal female victim”.

Rather, Ono’s specific ethnicity and personal history – the artist lived through the atrocities of the second world war in Japan – and the fact that she invites the audience to act and gives them a token in return moves the work into the terrain of war, protest and memorialisation.

A witness to violence

We might see Ono less as a victim than as a witness, one who calls on us to remember the consequences of violence, be it historical, cultural or personal, and to be guided by that memory in our everyday thoughts and actions.

As Ono once said:

I like to fight the establishment by using methods that are so removed from establishment-type thinking that the establishment does not know how to fight back.

In 2008, I attended Ono’s performance of Promise Piece, a work that premiered back in 1966.

The diminutive artist cut a lithe and youthful figure that belied her age, her mystique helped along by dark shades and a fedora. Her first task was to teach us to spell out “I love you” in Morse code using the pencil torches provided to us, and to flash out in unison to the universe.

Her next task was to smash a breast-high Chinese vase, and to ask each of us to collect a fragment to keep safe for ten years, after which time we would all reassemble to put the precious object back together again: an act of destruction and a promise of reparation.

The piece still sits on my mantelpiece as a gesture to remember.

War is over! (If You Want It), a retrospective of the works of Yoko Ono, runs at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art from November 15 2013 to February 23, 2014.

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