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Catching Up with the Inimitable Yoko Ono

We met the elusive and singular artist to ask about the challenges of being a woman artist in a male-dominated art world, her storied career, and her new "one-woman show" at MoMA.

by Antwaun Sargent
Jun 24 2015, 11:33am

Yoko Ono with ' Standing Woman' (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, The Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden, New York. c. 1960–61. Photograph by Minoru Niizuma © Minoru Niizuma. All photos courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

In 1971, Yoko Ono staged a one-woman guerrilla show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, mischievously titled Museum of Modern (F)art. For the performance, the Tokyo-born artist released a jarful of perfume-scented flies into the museum's sculpture garden, then asked museum-goers to follow them as they swarmed around the garden, through the galleries, and into the city. At least that's what she said she was going to do in her self-published catalogue and the ads she had taken out in the New York Times and Village Voice. When visitors arrived, the only evidence of her unauthorized performance was a man stationed outside the entrance with a sandwich board explaining the idea. And yet the conceptual act got her in the door, so to speak—Ono and her theoretical flies had accessed the walls of the galleries and the imaginations of the public, all without showing any physical work.

Now, over 40 years later, after the inimitable Ono has distinguished herself as a singer, songwriter, filmmaker, and performance artist, MoMA officially welcomes the 82-year-old artist back to explore her early years with Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971. Chronicling the decade before she turned up at the museum uninvited, the show explores her conceptual work, objects, music, and film.

One of the more well-known and playful pieces is Film No. 4, featuring voice-overs set to a sequence of naked buttocks, which Ono made in the late 1960s as a member of the Fluxus art movement alongside legends like Marcel Duchamp and John Cage.

'Cut Piece' (1964) by Yoko Ono

The decade chronicled in the show similarly represents a time in which Ono challenged conventional thinking about women. In her most iconic performance, the seminal Cut Piece (1964), Ono examines issues of gender, privilege, and cultural status by asking participants to snip away pieces of her clothing and undergarments as she sits impassively on the floor.

Read over on i-D: Yoko Ono Is One Woman Who Loves All Women

Grapefruit, Ono's 1964 book of 150 brief and humorous instructions, also features prominently in the show. Last Sunday morning at the museum, beginning at 4:30 AM, Ono made good on the Grapefruit instruction that reads, "Break a contemporary museum into pieces with the means you have chosen. Collect the pieces and put it together with glue" by staging Morning Peace 2015. The performance was a re-envisioning of her 1965 piece of the same name. Acting as both the hammer and the glue, musician Blood Orange and DJ Virgil Abloh performed until the early dawn as Ono and nearly 1,000 revelers danced in the garden lobby and on top of the MoMA couches and speakers in the early-morning sun.

Yoko Ono at PopRally presents Yoko Ono Morning Peace 2015 on June 21, 2015, at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Scott Rudd

I caught up with Ono last week to ask her a few questions about the challenges of being a woman artist in a male-dominated art world, her storied career, and the difference between MoMA then and now.

VICE: In 1971, you had your first, albeit unauthorized, show at MoMA, called Museum of Modern (F)art , a kind of conceptual joke. Why was it important at the time for you to stage that kind of show?
Yoko Ono: An elaborate joke? My sense of humor you probably saw in many of my art instructions. When a woman artist makes a work with sense of humor, the world asks exactly like what you are asking now. "Why is it important to stage that kind of show?" Seriously, give us women artists a chance!

Your MoMA show focuses on the decade before your first go at MoMA. What was that period like for you creatively?
I was totally creative and had fun being a woman artist and making art, exhibiting and performing in New York City, Japan, and London. The spoilsport male artists were so angry they decided to bury me by saying they didn't think I was an artist.

Yoko Ono, 'Museum of Modern (F)art' (1971).The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York. © Yoko Ono 2014

You were a conceptual artist long before that type of art was widely appreciated. What was it that led you away from objects and toward the ideas that you explore in your book Grapefruit?
I liked making art that existed only conceptually. But there was another reason: When the works were not conceptual, they all walked out on me.

Yoko Ono, 'Grapefruit' (1964).The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © Yoko Ono 2014

Cut Piece , in which you instructed audience members to cut your clothes off your body, raises questions about the status of women and power, and more generally it raises questions about the fragility of an unprotected body. Which is a conversation we are currently having about transgender women. Do you think much has changed since you first performed the work in Tokyo?
When I performed Cut Piece, the people were so shocked they did not talk about it. It's a different time now. It will be talked about, but may be more dangerous to perform.

You recently restaged the work, but with one crucial difference, that you were the one doing the cutting. How did it feel to be on the other side of things?
I was totally scared that I might, by mistake, cut her skin or something. Now I know that the work is not only scary to the one whose clothes are being cut.

'Cut Piece' (1964) performed by Yoko Ono in 'New Works of Yoko Ono,' Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, March 21, 1965. Photograph by Minoru Niizuma

Your peace activism and collaboration with your late husband John Lennon shines through in pieces like Bed-In and the War Is Over! (if You Want It). Do you think the messages in those pieces resonate so powerfully in part because of the way you and John were willing to live your love so openly?
More to do with my hubby's popularity and fame, which was unlike my unpopularity and fame at the time. But the ideas are what all people want. Sometimes they are too afraid to change their lives to live in peace and harmony instead of violence and conflict.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon, 'War Is Over! (if You Want It)' (1969). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © Yoko Ono 2014

A 24-hour performance of Morning Piece was just performed around the world, where people gathered at sunrise to celebrate the new day. What is it about mornings that inspire you?
The time when the sun rises. It is symbolic of all the days of renewal. June 21 is also the summer solstice all over the world.

Fifty years later, what's the biggest difference between your first solo show at MoMA and now?
It's nice and noisy now.

Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 19601971 is on view at MoMA through September 7, 2015.

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