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  • Yoko OnoPHOTOGRAPHY: MICHAEL LAVINE, COURTESY OF YOKO ONO

Yoko Ono: Journeywoman

, 2009/12/16

Yoko Ono’s public persona is one part mercurial, two parts mysterious. She is known for speaking her mind and making bold gestures as an artist and activist. She also has a reputation for being willfully opaque behind her ever-present sunglasses- especially when confronted by the literal minded. Ono has spent a lifetime facing down vitriolic accusations, but no one can accuse her of sitting still. I interviewed her in New York just before she flew to London, where she was due to present a peace prize, give a speech or three, and premiere some of her latest work.

Roland Kelts: I feel like I’ve traveled a lot, but when I look at the many journeys you’ve taken across borders of culture, sex, politics, art and spirit- let alone time and space- I’m humbled.

Yoko Ono: The most interesting journey I have made was not the physical one, but the mental and spiritual. Right now, I am still busy making the journey. It’s not the time yet to summarize it.

R: Maybe the world is finally catching on to your spiritual journey. They are cheering your work in the East and in the West. I’ve heard that you will be featured in the upcoming Shanghai Biennale.

Y: So I’ve heard.

R: But for so many years, you were battling the world’s stereotypes: of women, of Asians, and as John Lennon’s wife. Do you feel that this latest embrace of you and your work is more genuine and complete?

Y: I won’t go that far to say that it is genuine and complete. What are you saying?! As you know, nothing is ever totally genuine or complete.

R: Ah, yes. Nothing is. But you are no longer so easily identified as an “outsider,” and that may pose new challenges.

Y: It may.

R: Leaving Japan and living in Ameirca made you a cultural and racial outsider, at least in the early years.

Y: I have never left Japan. Nor have I decided to limit myself to living in the US. In my mind I live in all the places I’ve been and not been
to.

R: When you spoke at the Japan Society in New York a few years ago, you said that you visited Japan frequently and found the culture changing in a healthy way.

Y: It is changing into a more open society, where people are not afraid to speak out. That’s beautiful.

R: During your student years at Sarah Lawrence College in the Bronx, you were a pianist-turned-composer, attempting t translate bird songs into written music.

Y: The goal was, in a literal sense, impossible to achieve. But the yearning was what mattered.

R: I sense that in your art and music- you’re yearning to challenge lazy ways of seeing, hearing and being.

Y: That’s what artists are supposed to do.

R: It’s something I tend to associate with that era, though- the 60s, experimentation, liberation, seeking realms beyond the dictates of the market. Do you look to other artists today pursuing similar goals?

Y: I don’t know about others. As for me, my artistic search did not start with my life in Sarah Lawrence, nor did it end there.

R: When I read your short article in Rolling Stone following the attacks in New York, I was moved by your memories of the US air raids in Tokyo, precisely what my mother recalled as she drove home in Boston on September 11. She said, “Roland, I thought I’d never feel this way again, especially not in America.”

Y: I have spoken about it…to you, too, I’m sure. Part of the reason I wanted to bring up my experience during the Second World War was because I wanted to remind the American people that other countries have been victimized by terrorism, too- as all military action constitutes terrorism.

R: Do you see hope in the current situation- hope for a new paradigm that eludes the cycle of war, recrimination and vengeance?

Y: It’s not the time to doubt, ponder, and be confused. We don’t have the luxury to have any negative thoughts at this 11th hour. For the human race to survive, we have to come together, initially in thoughts and then in action, to make this world a peaceful place. I trust that we will.

R: You were from a well-to-do household, but you bear memories of hardship during the war- of nearly starving, of having to get by on very little. A lot of your art employs “found” and seemingly mundane objects- umbrellas, rolls of yarn. Is there a connection between the materials you use as an artist and the desires to shave what might disappear tomorrow?

Y: Being creative is using what you have and make the best of it. Nothing more.

R: On one Tokyo to New York flight, I sat beside a 21-year old girl from Setagaya who was headed to Harlem to “hang out” for two weeks. She spoke very little English, but she had the confident nonchalance of a college kid heading home for the holidays.

Y: In the 60s, we had a vision of the word as a global village. You can say that that vision is now becoming a reality. But we who had the vision have never stopped living in that visionary world as our reality. We simply find more people joining us as time goes by.

This story originally appeared in Paper Sky No. 11. Shanghai, 2004.

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