Chasing Ghosts: The Self-Curated Film/ Performance Art of Yoko Ono

“I’m walking on thin ice, paying the price, for tossing my dice in the air.” — Yoko Ono, 1980

By Donald Brackett.

Yoko Ono (now 91 years of age) is a uniquely situated conceptual artist and filmmaker: she utilizes her private and personal experience as a transnational feminist to express her feelings and ideas in a highly intimate diaristic/journal form that shares with her public the innermost operations of her emotive equipment. It is the contention of my article on her idiosyncratic methodology that every work of art she ever produced, whether it be an object, a poem, a sculpture, a musical composition, a performance piece, a film or a video, is in actuality an essay, albeit an embodied essay, and one which is parallel to other feminist artists who use autobiography as a source material for their work. The most notable example of this embodied essay form in literature might be Anais Nin, while a parallel to Ono in the visual/performative arts might be Louise Bourgoeis or Marina Abramovic.

Ono is an anomaly, even in the rarefied domain of such peers. She is both a human being with a personal history but also an aesthetic energy source, a radical constellation of experimental ideas with the collective public history of a living myth. She is a highly public persona but also an obscure performer, photographer and filmmaker, a musician and visual pun artist; a celebrity famous for being famous but also an elemental force of nature; a kind of pop-cultural storm of intensely high pressure which sweeps across an ocean and collides with another culture, our own, altering its social definition and artistic parameters forever. Indeed, she is a highly capable installation artist whose mysterious durational gestures, which I call embodied essays, masterfully impersonate simplicity.

Cannily co-opting publicity and advertising as merely another potentially aesthetic and politically engaged medium, after establishing herself as an enduring figure in the early formative stages of developing what today we call conceptual art, she then collaborated with her famous musician husband in conducting an eerily alluring private life in public for the performative purposes of contributing to artistic, political and social change, among other things. As we shall see, her very self was a kind of curated construction, especially in its situationist presentation in everyday life. Many of what I am idiosyncratically referring to as her ‘embodied essays’ took the form of what she identified as her ‘instruction pieces’, works which contained an idea for a visual occurrence or experience which existed only in the written form of her narrative statements on small cards, composed from 1960-1964 and later collected in her book of Instruction works called Grapefruit. These instructions for experiences were short discursive texts: they were inherently essays designed to imagine works that may or may not ever be physically fabricated.

It was always as essentially an oblique and obscure example of the performance art she’d been engaged in for almost a decade before meeting her Beatle and attempting to change the world together through theatrical live action gestures, that Ono needs to be properly appreciated. As innocent as that seems now, they were dead serious about it back then, so much so that they may have inadvertently invented one of the prototypical formats which today we’ve become accustomed to calling reality-television. Indeed, their public pronouncements and extravagant performative gestures may even have incidentally inaugurated a primitive and personal form of social media, long before the computed media which transmits it globally today.

So perhaps the best place to start my guided tour of the curated realm of performative installations, films, videos and events, which I myself often term Onoese, is with John Lennon’s typically quirky introduction of his then soon to be wife to an unsuspecting planet: “She’s the most famous unknown artist in the world, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she does.” Ironically, while the four cute British invading mo-tops were dazzling us all on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Yoko was also putting on an entirely different sort of show in New York, a radical feminist performance piece in which wary staid members of the formally attired audience of the Carnegie Recital Hall were invited to come up on stage and snip away parts of the artist’s clothing until very little remained. 

That performance piece alone, entitled “Cut Piece”, which was later re-presented and filmed, can be explored at some length as one of the premiere public gestures of the self-curated and durational documentation of an aesthetic act which is still harrowing in its impact even today. But beyond that specific work, her every gesture and expression is inherently essayistic and aphoristic at its aesthetic heart. Clarifying my sense that her performative works are actually discursive essays disguised as aesthetic emblems, Ono expressed just this conceptual facet in an interview with Alex Needham for The Guardian in 2015. “Art to me is a way of showing people how you can think,” Ono says. “Some people think of art as like beautiful wallpaper that you can sell, but I have always thought that it is to do with activism.” 

The fact is, she has always identified for us the basic fact that her works, as activist gestural content, are inherently personified essays. As Needham also pointed out, the deceptive simplicity (what I call an impersonation) of her artwork may have been derided over the years, but it is exactly that which makes it hugely accessible. 

“Her art and her activism has found a new audience with each successive generation. The apparent naivety of her peace activism is often couched in terms like: ‘A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality’ – the most famous maxim from her 1962 book Grapefruit. Yet its aphoristic style, influenced by haikus, now seems perfect for the internet age, and has easily transferred to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, where Ono has a large following.” Even her legendary “Cut Piece” performance is in actuality an embodied feminist essay in which her clothed body, gradually stripped away of her garments, is itself the syntagm text upon which our social phonemes are enacted in real time.

Lisa Carver, a fellow performance artist who penned a short text on Ono called Reaching Out With No Hands, asks the reader a highly pertinent question with regard to the accomplishments and achievements of an artist’s work which my its very nature is transient, impermanent and durational.

“How do you measure the success of a conceptual artist’s work, when the most important part of it takes place in the minds of others. What Yoko Ono does is plant a seed of doubt. Doubt that things are as we have been told, as we have always believed. Doubt that war is necessary. That women are emotional and fragile and therefore should not be leaders. She is the most important disrespected artist-bringer of strange new communication-of the last hundred years. Yoko’s art is not to give us something to look at or listen to, and her activism is not to give us what to think. It’s to get us to stop seeing what we’re seeing and stop hearing what we’re hearing and stop knowing what we’re knowing, because all that gets in the way of what’s really there.”

To stop knowing what we’re knowing, and to start imagining what the artist is showing us, or as in the case of Ono, demonstrating to us in real time: that might be the most challenging aspect of conceptual art in general, as an art of ideas instead of paint for instance, and the most demanding aspect of Ono’s works in particular, which ask up to observe the actual duration of her gestures. It is in what the French critic Gaston Bachelard once called the dialectics of duration that one can ascertain her embodied meanings: they are virtual evocations or celebrations of the poetics of reverie which present us with vital conundrums related to the aesthetic practice in general and the aesthetic object in particular. 

Pavel Buchler once alerted us to the actual performative function of artists, to be active agents of change, in his cheekily entitled essay Art: What is it Good For?: “Being an artist means not doing different things than others do but doing things differently. Modern society needs artists with their ways of doing things more than it needs the things they make. It needs them for what they are rather than for what they do. Society relies on artists to be agents of culture who provide an index of human experience as well as the ideologies from which concepts of culture are developed. Here again, it is the work of art, the actions and consequences of art, rather than the works of art, that is the active ingredient of cultures.”

Yoko Ono has thus long actively demonstrated the work of art itself even more clearly than her works of art often imply. All of her most confrontational durational performances, whether staged or filmed or both, such as Cut Piece 1964-65, Eye Blink 1966, Bottoms 1966, Match 1966, Wrapping Piece 1967, Smile 1968, Rape (Chase) 1969, Apotheosis 1970, Erection 1971, from her early period, or Blueprint for the Sunrise 2000, and Onochord 2004, a continuous loop from her later period, explore the interconnected realms of the aesthetic aura, the performative affect and the curatorial agency at the heart of her startling alternative agendas. She uses these time-templates as emblems for her feminist ideas, the gender ideals behind them and the larger social issues that arise as implications: the perplexing nature of curated wonderment and the inherent challenges of embodiment and co-existence with other beings.

Therefore, the best place to start with a navigation of her conceptual territory, might be that deceptively simple question asked by Buchler in his penetrating analysis of the purposes and functions of the objects and gestures we call art works. This is all the moreso necessary when they consist of a raw material such as time and consciousness, as in the kind of work produced by Yoko Ono. A pertinent example might be her sculpture for an installation at the Lisson Gallery in London in 1966. At first glance it appears to be a common green apple situated on a pedestal with a brass plate with the title “Apple”, which of course is precisely what it is. But it is also a performative gesture involving durational affect and agency, since the true raw material of this social sculpture is the time it takes for the apple to turn brown with temporal bruises throughout the exhibition period, to decay before our eyes in slow motion, until it remains a shriveled remnant of its original design.

One of Carver’s most insightful and incisive observations arrives early on in her appreciation of the Ono oeuvre: the despair and loneliness of The Outsider, or, what it felt like to be an Asian woman trying to make radical art and make her way in America in 1960. This is the early pre-celebrity phase of the now most famous widow in the world: when she is also the ultimate outsider who became the intimate insider. She is still today however a paradoxical persona writ large, and a lightning rod for extreme responses from several competing camps: both real and mythological, an artist literally wrapped in the layers of personal and cultural heroism which she both embodies as a performance artist/filmmaker and simultaneously denies as a radical feminist. 

Precisely where the heroic myth begins, and where the human being ends, no one knows. But my essay is the portrait of that performative myth, and hopefully of the radically talented artist behind it. The task is a daunting one, but it is made more survivable by also encountering and exploring a group of like-minded artists in New York in 1960: Fluxus, This was the neo-Dada movement of anti-art (or at least dematerialized art) conceived by George Maciunas and popularized by composer La Monte Young, who began using Ono’s Tribeca loft (long before loft culture even existed) to stage happenings together. A happening is a curated live-action event. 

That’s also where she first encountered a powerful American musician-mentor who could support her ideas and inspire her to believe that anything was possible because nothing was impossible: the avant-garde American composer John Cage, as famous for his random sounds as he was infamous for his compelling silences. Cage helped her re-invent herself, to create her life itself as a work of art. And since the avant-garde notion most central to the art movements in which she participated was that of merging art and everyday life seamlessly together, enthusiastically erasing the traditional barriers between art, artist, artwork, and public identity, suddenly a very effective way of understanding and appreciating her enigmatic importance to us comes to light. 

She worked with John Cage intensively during her return to Japan in 1962, along with her then first husband the avant-garde composer and champion of Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, when they staged a bravura series of events and performance installations at the vanguard Sogetsu Centre in Tokyo. Among the most notable examples of her specialty for durational self-curation stances was the “Chair Piece”, in which she swung like a circus trapeze gymnast above the audience, as well as another remarkable collaboration with Cage and his primary musical interpreter David Tudor, along with Toshiro Mayzumi. In this piece entitled “Piano Walk”, Tudor, Cage and Mayzumi accompanied Cage in the delivery of his composition, with Yoko Ono stretched out across the piano’s lifted lid while her collaborators performed varied prepared piano movements. The charm of this piece rested in her use of her body, far from being a mere decorative figure in her black formal dress, shoes and stockings, as instead one of the objects that Cage regularly inserted in between strings to alter the pitch, timbre and tone of the instrument itself, as per his famous prepared piano techniques.

Ono has long used her own “container”, or the bodies of other actresses, in a similar anti-narrative manner for the realization of her conceptual gestures and events. This is especially so in her series of still awe-inspiring filmed performance projects she made once she returned to New York in 1964. In 2018, Studio Miscetti in Rome presented an Ono film festival that managed to capture some of the essence of her enigmatic time-based works, featuring several of those films which I am characterizing as performative and self-curated gesture-events. Stefania Miscetti situated the artist accurately at the forefront of a movement which has since become customary but which at the time (when it was only referred to as “concept art”) was solely operating within the realm of what Ono identified as her “instructional” pieces, works that told the viewer what to do in order to “materialize” her art.

As Miscetti commented, “Yoko Ono is one of the foremost exponents of Conceptual art; since the 1960’s she has built her practice on multidisciplinarity, expressing herself through music, writing, painting, drawing and installation. The works presented are characterized by the variety of their formal approaches, and they reveal the numerous aspects of a multifaceted practice: a commitment to social issues, autobiographical material, political activism, musical performances, and feminism. Ono’s filmic output – itself a milestone in American avant-garde cinema – has always stood out by virtue of its radical conceptual stamp. The body plays a central role, both as an object within the point of view and as the bearer of a gaze – a tension created by the artist in order to make the viewer an active participant, one in dialogue with the images and in the construction of the work.”

Featured works included “Bottoms” from 1966: “An extended version of a previously realized project that stems from the desire to create a petition in which the signatures are replaced by the bodies of those who signed it. A long series of close-ups on the bottoms saturates the frame, canceling the background and dividing the screen into four sections. The movement and the anatomical peculiarities of the protagonists infuses variety to the formal structure. As a soundtrack: the impressions and comments of the participants, who were exponents of the London art scene called upon to participate by word of mouth.”

Perhaps one of the most visionary and unsettling forecasts of the super saturation of our own celebrity culture, and even a grim precursor of stalking social media platforms which now haunt us, was her harrowing 1969 film “Rape (Chase)”. While viewing it we feel both seduced and shamed by the overwhelming visual scrutiny of an unknown woman (actress Eva Majlath) first followed and then chased incessantly down the street by a rogue cameramen (Nic Knowland) who disregards her privacy and stalks her, more and more aggressively all the way into her own house, thus provoking a literal invasion of her personal space, first in public and then in private. This was one of the first films to use the newly invented handheld “éclair” camera by the way, allowing freedom of movement and the unfolding of a narrative in real time, and it is also eerily prescient about today’s suffocating panopticonenvironment. 

Also from 1968, “Smile” is a filmed but almost static performance representing exactly what the title suggests, a forty nine minute grin by the sole actor (in this case the musician John Lennon) filmed with a high speed camera and then projected at a drastically slower than natural pacing, producing a startling effect which Miscetti has described as an “emblematic effigy” accompanied by environmental noises, during which the spectators are all invited to accompany the performance with their own live music.

Seemingly equally passive in tone, yet also strangely melodramatic, time also unfolds theatrically in her surreal 1970 film entitled Fly. It’s not surreal because something weird happens, quite the contrary, it’s even more uncanny due to the manner in which it investigates yet another harrowing, albeit quiet, encounter between the woman ostensibly portraying a character in the film and her actual role as a supine body. For twenty four minutes, the main prone feminine character is presented, both in distant shots and close ups, as a fragmented landscape of sorts, upon which random flies alight and walk in their stilting manner across her skin. The actress remains motionless, revealed only through close-ups apparently controlled by the random movements of the flies who alight upon her. One quirky feminist aspect of the footage is the fact that the body is revealed through the gaze of the creatures who fly on her, not by the neutralized male gaze, while the soundtrack score is provided by often alarming Ono vocalizing that suggests cries, whispers, whimpers and yelps.

Some of the better parts of the Ono myth, and the Yoko brand, were created by her, some other parts were merely flung furiously at her in the storm she accidentally initiated, and some mythical fragments ended up sticking to the surface of her image. Either way, for a tiny person, her personality is so huge that it can absorb almost everything that is thrown towards it. It is also for that reason that hers is an artful life, one lived as a curated performance, because she attempted to live each day artfully of course, but also because she was ingeniously capable of some of the most strategically inventive artifice imaginable. And some of it, quite literally still unimaginable.

Artifice is used here in both senses of the word: that of cunning, ingenuity and inventiveness, as in her savvy business sense and canny media control; and also that of the skillful and clever means of the “artificer”, a medieval term designating fine artist or craftsmen, and used generally for people who “invent” new things. In her case, she often appears, like Andy Warhol did, to have invented some parts of the postmodern future we now occupy. So, what kind of person becomes such an artificer? The kind of person with a quirky enough imagination to include in her exhibitions an ordinary black telephone on a pedestal, complete with official museum label identifying it as “Telephone Piece”. Totally durational in performance, this was likely the first interactive and intermedia artwork, first initiated by her in the mid-60’s, long before the word interactive was so trendy, and it has been repeated regularly in her installations over the last half a century.

During a large retrospective of her works, presented in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I was fortunate enough to have a personal experience involving this durational sculpture. “Telephone Piece” consists of the unusual fact that throughout each exhibition location in the retrospective tour of fifty years of her visionary art, at random times, the telephone will ring. For the visitor/viewer intrepid enough to pick it up and say hello, a special treat is in store: Yoko Ono herself is live on the other end of the line. Whatever random conversation that ensued would constitute the content of that particular performative artwork, only heard once, by one person, and never again. I happened to be standing next to the pedestal during one such exhibition. It rang. I picked it up. 

Sure enough, the high-pitched girlish voice of Yoko was on the line. Suddenly I owned a private artwork consisting of our exchange. Imagine that. Our cryptic chat was brief but somehow engaging and is still meaningful, years later:

Me: “Hello?” 

Her: “Are you in China?”

Me: “No, I’m in Toronto Canada, at an museum exhibition of your work.”

Her: “I’m not in China either.” 

Me: “So I guess we’re both not in China.” 

Her: “Yes, we’re both in the same place, Not-China.” Click.

This is the kind of person who becomes a zeitgeist, the literal meaning of the word time-ghost, someone with a mind so simultaneously clear and obscure that she is able to determine that two people who are both not in a certain place are somehow both in the same place, a vast and all-inclusive place called “Not China”. Indeed, Not-Wherever, might be a valuable key to exploring Ono’s mysteriously shifting domain, migrating from Japan to New York and back again, as she first intimated for an earlier show in Syracuse New York called “You Are Here”. There’s an element of the shaman and shape-shifter to her work, as well as a healthy dose of the trickster motif also prevalent in Native North American first nations. It just might originate as an actual survival mechanism in her own traumatic childhood roots.

Yoko Ono was the child of trauma. If she hadn’t been born out of or into trauma, then trauma would have adopted her later on, just as tragedy apparently did. Once we know of her deep familiarity with trauma, the fragile and ethereal nature of the art, photographs, films, videos and performances she made become much more understandable. Or at least exquisitely bearable, and at best, a marvelous reverie: she does in fact seem to create jewelry for the inside of our minds. Considering the obvious and deep-seated nature of some of her fears and fixations, she clearly must also be assessed as one of the bravest artists amongst us, since she so adroitly mines those fears and fixations at the very foundation of her self-curated art and performative life. 

Given the utter absence of a solid or secure voice in her rather lonely and isolated childhood, her later use of the human voice as such a startling musical instrument is all the more remarkable, and perhaps needs to be judged accordingly. Her unusual voice first entered the world on February 18, 1933 in Tokyo. Like many other displaced persons, she would be born again as an American, in the mid-60’s. That is the crux of her biographical narrative, a tale of three cities, with the focal points of Tokyo, London and New York being the pivots in her geography of the imagination. And yes, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. 

One can only imagine the trauma of someone whose strongest childhood memory was the firebombing of Tokyo by American forces in March 1945, an incendiary nightmare which served as an appetizer for the ultimate destructive force used later that year in August. Tens of thousands were killed and the city of Tokyo became an alien charred surface beneath a flaming sky. It was just the first of many opportunities for Yoko Ono to witness the extremes that human behavior can reach if allowed to do so.

At Gakushuin in Tokyo as a youngster, and at Sarah Lawrence College in New York later on, Yoko Ono was exposed to the most cutting-edge western advances in visual art and music, although she also later obviously rebelled against formalist approaches. Gakushuin in particular was the perfect playground for a future experimenter: permissive, fueled by wealth and privilege, blending both East and West, and on the cutting edge of all things adventurous. Among the many precious students attending were both of the Emperor Hirohito’s sons and the notorious contemporary novelist Yukio Mishima, whose eventual dramatic ritual suicide much later on in 1970 was in fact orchestrated to protest rampant Westernization. 

After graduation from Gakushuin, she applied to its University component, where she dramatically decided to become its first female philosophy major, the first of many firsts she would become. But after two semesters, the peripatetic Onos were on the move again, this time to an affluent suburb of New York, where their unusual daughter would fully embrace a near Beatnik Western lifestyle sure to send shudders through the conservative folks back home. Far from chafing against Westernization as an aberration, as Mishima had later done, she embraced it, and particularly in the department of philosophy where Ono’s feminism was just beginning to germinate, there was a sense of the euphoric freedom associated with profound social change. Such euphoria would eventually become one of the hallmarks of the Ono oeuvre, an ongoing sense of being on the verge of dramatic revolutionary developments, often whether they were actually happening or not. 

But of course Yoko did not suddenly descend one day from a spaceship carrying with her a suitcase filled with avant-garde ideas. Just as Ono and her Fluxus peers made possible much of the art and music of today, these titans, and others, made her work possible. It’s a chain reaction that never ends. Today, the classical ideal best summed up by “this is beautiful” has been replaced by the postmodern sentiment “this is Art”, as the astute critic Thierry de Duve pointed out in his study of the granddaddy of all modern artists, and Ono’s personal muse, Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp (born, 1887) was the pioneer of the anti-art aesthetic directly inherited by Yoko Ono and her Fluxus fellows. He was with us until 1968, alive and kicking on the New York art scene all during her own formative years there, and was as influential in the art world as Einstein was to physics, Babe Ruth was to baseball, and Charlie Parker was to jazz. He revolutionized our thinking by abandoning painting as early as 1918 (his last “picture”, called “T’um”, contained an actual bottle cleaning brush plunged through the canvas) and concentrated instead on playing chess. Yoko Ono would later approach the entire art world as her own personal game of chess. 

Duchamp also invented the concept that art could be an idea, a description of something with or without an object, or even an everyday household or industrial object designated by the artist as a work of his or her own, calling it the “readymade”. He also introduced the truly revolutionary notion that humor could be central to art, going so far as to invent what he called the “reciprocal readymade”, altering something done in the past, such as his instruction to “take a Rembrandt painting and use it as an ironing board”. Ono herself would later apply this notion throughout her classic series of “instruction paintings”, notations in language which describe actions you could perform, where the art was the instruction itself, not the thing you may or may not make at all. She’s always been all about art as process and not product.

Duchamp’s greatest achievement, apart from the often achingly beautiful and funny works he created, and apart from inspiring the Fluxus movement in general, and Ono in particular, was his assertion that art is not a context, it is not a struggle toward solving the hidden problem. “There is no solution,” he once remarked characteristically, “because there is no problem.” And by choosing not to practice art as if it were a golden hike towards the meaning of life, he won that contest, hands down, leaving behind a mountain of meaning for artists such as Ono to imagine

Once the viewer becomes accustomed to the oddity of everyday life being elevated to the level of art, the most truly revolutionary aspect of these works was their inclusion of ironic humor, not exactly a customary experience in art, as a crucial raw material. In fact, it may well have been precisely that crux of laughter at the center of Fluxus, as well as its anti-commodity stance, which permitted both the art world and the real world to dismiss its artifacts, indiscernible as they were from the world into which they were deposited and the history into which they disappeared. At any rate, artists like George Brecht, La Monte Young and Yoko Ono were among the first to utilize event scores in a manner consistent with Cagean ideas, and the first to conceptually craft language itself at the center of a work of visual art in a conceptual manner.

In many of Yoko’s instruction paintings, collected and presented deceptively as poems in her well known 1964 anthology Grapefruit, she “isolates a sensory act of everyday life to bring us into a direct encounter with the self—what in Zen terms is “self-being”. And all while the Beatles were innocently entertaining us with a new kind of primal pop energy. Curator Alexandra Munroe explained to the Japan Society the artist’s intentions, “She calls her events an ‘additional act’, another dimension of art that provokes awareness of ourselves, our environment, our actions.” 

Included in her important early pre-Lennon period was the production of this single piece of work for which she is most remembered by the general public, the publication of a collection of her edited instruction paintings in a strikingly obscure anthology. It would later be re-printed in a mass market edition and be most people’s first encounter with Ono’s ideas and the unique manner in which she expressed them. In fact, Grapefruit is a perfect example of what the artist called her “additional act”, which is also the seminal notion I am referring to here as her enhanced durational curation.

Grapefruit was like a cure for myself without knowing it. It was like saying— please accept me. I am mad. Those instructions are like that—a real need to do something to act out your madness. As long as you are behaving properly, you don’t realize your madness and you go crazy.” 

I can just hear psychiatrists across the country scratching their heads over that one. But for the closest thing we have to a psychiatrist in the world of visual culture, an art critic, this little collection has true significance indeed. As critic David Bourdon put it in the New York Times, quoted by Paul Taylor: “Grapefruit is one of the monuments of conceptual art of the early 1960’s. She has a lyrical poetic dimension that sets her apart from the other conceptual artists. Her approach to art was only made acceptable when white men like Kosuth and Weiner came in and virtually did the same things as Yoko, but made them respectable and collectible.” 

The other memorable 1964 event, a re-staging in New York of an earlier Tokyo rooftop work, and possibly one of my favorite Ono pieces, was called “Morning Piece”. It consisted of both a collection of labeled glass fragment-objects, derived from broken milk bottle parts, with dates and times of upcoming mornings from the future, which a buyer could purchase and personally own, as well as a handwritten notice of who owns which upcoming morning and how much they paid for it. For example, her friend the visionary video artist Nam June Paik was listed as the buyer and owner of the upcoming morning of September 8, 1995, for five hundred yen. 

In her 1966 work “9 Concert Pieces for John Cage” she scored “Breath Piece” with the simple instruction, “Breathe” and another work, “Sweep Piece”, with the instruction “Sweep”. To Yoko, art is not a studio process but the process of living itself. It is experiential, sensual and intuitive. And as the artist puts it, “Art is not merely a duplication of life. To assimilate art in life is different from art duplicating life.” 

It sometimes takes time to absorb the content of important art works which contain apparent absurdity and to accept artists who use “humorous nonsense for serious intent” but by dispensing with logic and its dictates, an artist such as Ono invites us into a unique dimension, what she called a “mind-world”. A good example of this strategy is her 1962 instruction painting, “Sun Piece”, which directs the viewer to “watch the sun until it becomes square”. Not surprisingly perhaps, this “mind-world” of Yoko’s (and of other like-minded artists) is preferable for her to the so-called real world we inhabit and which “clutters” our lives. 

Certainly in her case, given her status as an apparent time-ghost whose futuristic ideas are perhaps only now coming into focus, her preference for the art of the mind-world is based on the fact that it, and the art it provokes, are evidently beyond time. An ideal example of Ono’s performative philosophical approach to a unique form of timeless duration would be her 1962 instruction piece, “Painting to be Constructed in Your Head”: “Hammer a nail in the center of a piece of glass. Imagine sending the cracked portions to addresses chosen arbitrarily. Memo the addresses and the shapes of the cracked portions”. The “instruction paintings”, of course, used ideas instead of paint, and for that reason they are still startling in their utopian candor and poetic reverie even today. These unconventional approaches to the task of creating non-physical cultural property revolutionized the art-making process in a manner so unique as to subvert the entire art market for precious commodities right up to this present day. 

This is also the early Ono period in which she made one of her most emblematic pronouncements, those that most effectively convey her role as a self-curated durational performative agent: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” That declaration alone seems like the job description of the Fluxus “movement” as a group enterprise. Fluxus. Though its secret impact is often acknowledged, many art critics and art historians still can’t quite agree on its importance, perhaps due to the ephemeral, anti-commercial, and even immaterial nature of its artworks. Whatever else Fluxus may have been, it was a welcomed international, cross cultural train bearing like-minded artists and thinkers on which Ono could find a seat for herself, a comfortable seat which in fact she had earned and which was well-deserved.

And for us, as we attempt to assemble the peculiar puzzle of her persona in our lives, Fluxus is a mobile and celebratory sub-culture which provided a home, emotionally, artistically, psychologically, even spiritually, for the homeless outsider living in the heart of Yoko Ono. The Penguin Book of Art Writing has an intriguing entry on Fluxus by Richard Dorment, which suggests, quite rightly, that art need not last long in order to be good, and that the ephemeral events and objects created by the Fluxus movement of the 1960’s left virtually no visible residue but they still were great art works nonetheless. Founded by a left-wing Lithuanian-born American named George Maciunas, and heavily influenced by Zen-inspired composer John Cage, Dorment almost quite correctly points out that Fluxus had only one member that anybody has ever heard of: Yoko Ono. 

He might have also added, heard of almost by accident, in keeping with the principle of the movement itself. Indeed, even fewer people, at least in the real world, would likely know of Fluxus at all if not for the fame and celebrity of the Yoko brand and her involvement with the poetic group in the first place. This is because of the inherent qualities of the Fluxus movement itself: an underground anti-art, rearguard action, against the entire museum and gallery system, against the hierarchy of the art object itself as a fetishistic market product for the wealthy, and especially against the cult of personality of the artist, which had been evolving slowly ever since the early humanist period of Petrarch, back in the 14thcentury. 

Dorment accurately identifies it as “the flip side of Pop”, though it clearly pre-dates Warhol, with its love for poor materials, long before the later Italian style known as “art-povera”, ephemerality, mass production and anonymity. Indeed, some Fluxus works were so collective in nature that it is difficult to ascribe authorship to them at all in the customary sense. The core belief of Fluxus was simply that Fluxus was already inside everyone, a part of who we are, a part of how we live, and that technically anybody and everybody could be a Fluxus artist if they wanted to be. Not exactly the kind of business attitude that gets your work into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art

“That traces of it survive at all seems to me a miracle, but more miraculous still is its continuing influence. In advertising, rock and roll, video and visual art Fluxus is enjoying a comeback. This is because its aestheticizing attitude towards life, its idealistic belief that young artists can change society by turning people’s attention toward the quality of everyday living, is compelling still. The several hundred artists who made up Fluxus wanted to transform society through social change. If that sounds pretentious, in reality Fluxus was light and witty, more Monty Python than Bertolt Brecht. 

It drew heavily on non-western visual traditions, refusing to distinguish between high and popular art, designating as “art” formal gestures, ritualized actions and a conscious aesthetic appreciation of the mundane. Members of Fluxus were musicians, artists, designers, dancers and poets—but what each individual did, played, made, or wrote was of relatively consequence, since all were working together. It was fun to know someone associated with Fluxus, since communications with them, often by post, were apt to contain bits of collage, poetry or instructions to perform a series of absurd ritualistic acts” 

But naturally, that very refusal to recognize any hierarchy was also an ethos fated to follow Fluxus into its own oblivion. When other artists tried to merge high and low, to blur serious art with popular entertainment, they were considered charming and idealistic. When Ono refused to recognize the limits of cultural geography, merging with mass media entertainment, pop music, politics, the peace movement, and even merging with a pop culture icon like John Lennon, she was treated rather roughly, to say the least. 

It’s one thing, after all, to talk about erasing all boundaries, it’s quite another to actually try and do it, and even to succeed in doing it, whether this was noticed or not at the time and that is what made Ono more dangerous and radical than some even many more extremist artists. They stayed safely in their little aesthetic zoos: she wandered out onto the Mike Douglas daytime network television show.

Ono turned conceptual art into an even more radical for actual activism. Two more of her pronouncements, separated by almost a whole decade, one written in her 1962 text “Word of a Fabricator” in Japan and the other made to Rolling Stone Magazine in 1971 in New York, managed to encapsulate both her media-saturated decision to embrace lifestyle per se as a performance gesture, at the same time as clarifying the motives and objectives of what she often characterized as real feminism (as opposed to the corporate media’s interpretive notions of it): 

  1. “Stylization is the materialization of the human desire to free oneself from the irrational rationality of life, hoping to extricate oneself from it by one’s immersion in a fictional world and its order.” 

2. “The ultimate goal of female liberation is not just to escape from male oppression. How about liberating ourselves from our various mind trips such as ignorance, greed, masochism, fear of God and social conventions? Since we face the reality that, in this global village, there is very little choice but to coexist with men, we might as well find a way to do it and do it well.” 

However, therein lies the obvious challenge and inherent danger of her decision to try and merge the high art world with that of popular culture via the media events (such as “Bed-In”) and the many television shows more commonly associated with entertainment such as Mike Douglas’s generally ultra-safe programming. What she called “stylization” was in fact the very crux of her lifelong experiment with curating live-action art in a durational mode. 

Naturally, the audience had no idea that this is what she was doing, even when she and Lennon were later invited to be actual guest hosts for an entire week in February of 1972. She would become the curator of that daytime television show in one of the most radical, although apparently harmless, gestures of her art career. No one realized that what she was doing, even while subversively impersonating a TV host, was actually a daring Fluxus-oriented curated performative gesture of the highest order. 

Nothing even remotely as surreal as Yoko Ono hosting a daytime TV show for a week and inviting whoever she wanted to come in and be “interviewed” by her would arrive over the broadcast airwaves until David Lynch’s Twin Peaks experiment almost two decades later. But even Lynch’s notorious Log Lady could never compete with Yoko for the sheer vertigo of her embodying live Zen koans in apparently innocuous and casual everyday conversations with celebrities. They were often as famous as she was, and they could easily all have shared a profound sentiment elucidated by the novelist John Updike: “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.”  Yoko Ono’s survival mechanism was to become the curator of her own essayistic embodied meanings: by acting in an ongoing filmed performance of her own life, often in real time, she left behind a body of almost immaterial artifacts, a body of work to which the only valid critical response is a rhapsodic and ekphrastic one. One of her most evocative embodied essays or instruction works dates from the Winter of 1960 and encapsulates her efforts at self-curating an immaterial aesthetic experience which is both discursive, essayistic, durational, performative and interactive. It was called “Painting to Be Stepped On”: “Leave a piece of canvas or finished painting on the floor or in the street.” Sixty-four years later, it is still laying there.

^^^

Donald Brackett is a film critic/curator and author based in Vancouver, Canada. In addition to writing numerous articles for Critics At Large, Offscreen, Xibit, Arcade Projects, Found Footage, and Embodied Meanings, he is the author of the recent books Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, 2022, which focused on the conceptual artist’s experimental films; and Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, 2024, examining their unique creative partnership. He has curated programs for Cinematheue, among them Strange Magic: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, 2013. He is currently curating a follow up program of Wilder’s independent films with IAL Diamond, as well as working on a new book about Billy Wilder’s contributions to independent cinema.

Image by Ethan Russell.

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