Елена Окунева
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YOKO ONO: the most famous of the unknown artists

YOKO ONO: the most famous of the unknown artists
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Photo: Matthew Placek / papermag.com


Yoko Ono is a woman everyone knows about, but few know what she really does. The Beatles fans accuse her of the fact that the legendary group broke up precisely because of her, as a result of which Yoko was often presented in a negative light in the media.

However, she is an extraordinary person who changed the course of art and stepped on her own ambitions in favor of a happy marriage. John Lennon himself called Yoko Ono the most famous of the unknown artists, and indeed, now her contribution to the history of art is being revised and reevaluated. It is quite possible that she will be included in textbooks as one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century.

A talented person is talented in everything, and Yoko Ono is a vivid proof of it. She became the first woman to be accepted into a philosophy program at Gakushuin University, one of the most prestigious universities in Japan, and attended by most of the imperial family.

For a period of time, Yoko planned to become a writer. But in 1953 she moved to New York, where her family had emigrated even earlier, and a completely new life began there. She goes to art college and meets poets, artists, writers and composers. Actually, not just getting to know each other, but actively making friends and what we now call collaboration.


YOKO ONO: the most famous of the unknown artists
Installation Ceiling Painting / Yes Painting, 1966


Soon, Yoko drops out of college and escapes with her newly-made first husband to Manhattan. There, bohemian life begins to play with even brighter colors. Yoko arranges endless art parties in her own loft, for which she is entrusted with such an important mission as building an interdisciplinary creative community. John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Peggy Guggenheim, Jasper Johns and many others came to visit her.

In such an inspiring atmosphere, it is difficult not to engage in art, and Yoko Ono will not resist this call – it is by living in Manhattan that she will discover an artist in herself in the broadest sense of the word.

Realizing that it is not necessary to be tied to a certain type of activity, Ono will become one of the founders of the important and influential art group Fluxus, which will include Yayoi Kusama, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, John Cage and others. Along with it, she created avant-garde music, wrote a collection of performative poetry, and began making films.


YOKO ONO: the most famous of the unknown artists
Performance Cut Piece, 1964


And already in 1964, the world saw her work, which is considered almost the first participatory performance and from which feminist art originates. It is the work Cut Piece, during the presentation of which Yoko Ono sat on the stage in her best costume, scissors were lying in front of her, and the audience was asked to go up to the artist and cut off a piece of her clothes.

It was almost for the first time then that the viewer was such an active co-creator of art, almost for the first time they started talking about the role of women in society, about such widely discussed concepts as gender discrimination, objectification, sexism and others. It was that performance that formed the basis for the future famous work of Marina Abramovic, who expanded its boundaries and went even further.


YOKO ONO: the most famous of the unknown artists
Half-A-Room, 1967


In the same 1964, a book was born that changed the rules of the game. It is a collection called Grapefruit of over 150 instructions that the viewer, or in this case the reader, can follow or present.

For example: “Hide and seek: hide until everyone goes home. Hide until everyone forgets about you. Hide until everyone dies”. Or “Look at the sun until it becomes square”. By the way, the very title of the book, Grapefruit, is also symbolic. Yoko Ono considered herself, like grapefruit, a hybrid, but, of course, not different citrus fruits, but two cultures and worldviews – Japanese and American.

Contemporary art scholars point to the injustice that this work and its author did not gain the popularity and recognition it deserves despite its fundamental contributions to conceptual art, while Yoko Ono’s successors, white men, of course, such as Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner did the same thing later and got much more fame and approval. Do not forget that in those days a woman, moreover an Asian woman, looked very atypical in the world of American art.


YOKO ONO: the most famous of the unknown artists
White Chess Set, 1966


Back in the 60s, Yoko Ono understood the depth of the problem of overproduction and overconsumption and said, “Artists should stop creating new objects – the world already has everything”. Indeed, the artist will never create new objects; she will always use ready-made things in her works.

For example, in her cult installation White Chess Set. The meaning here is absolutely transparent – about equality and pacifism. Or in the romantic installation Half-A-Room, where the pain of separation from a loved one is very literally shown.

Only after all this, being, in fact, already a rather successful conceptual artist, Yoko Ono meets John Lennon and their common story begins, as well as the epic with the unprecedented success of the Beatles. Researchers say that it was this extraordinary popularity that prevented Yoko Ono from becoming a truly great artist.

Now her artistic language looks too simple and obvious due to the fact that it should be understandable for millions of people around the world. But, on the other hand, if we discard snobbery, then it is a plus, because in this way Yoko Ono attracts the attention of a very wide range of people to contemporary art, for whom too conceptual works can be difficult to perceive.

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