Over the last 40 years, the name Yoko Ono has become synonymous with so many things; musician, mother, wife, widow, celebrity - of course, she is all of the above - and more. 'Artist' is the hat she wears on her most recent trip to London, to mark a major retrospective of her work at the Serpentine Gallery.
Yoko Ono would like you to make a wish. Stop for a moment, have a think, take a card and pencil, then write it down. Do not put it in your pocket, instead you are invited to hang it on a tree in Hyde Park and then make your way to the serenely elegant surroundings of the Serpentine Gallery, which is housing To the Light, a major retrospective of the artist’s work, for the remainder of the summer.
The exhibition features pieces from Ono’s long and varied career that has spanned a half century. There are visual and sound installations, written publications, etchings and sculptures of varying scale and impact. If there is one underlying theme that unites these elements, it is the powerful, edifying qualities of reflection, surprise and positive thought. Her work is beguiling and inclusive, and unconcerned with any visual or conceptual barriers that separate artist and viewer. As well as writing on her Wish Tree, visitors are invited to wander and lose themselves through Amaze, a giant perspex labyrinth, while Painting to Be Stepped On, which dates back to her 60s tenure as member of the Flux collective, is pretty self-explanatory.
For someone who’s career has existed on the fringes of the mainstream, Yoko Ono’s image and persona resonate highly within the public consciousness. For the most part, this was a result of her indelible association with late husband John Lennon at a time when the all-encompassing notion of modern celebrity was just beginning to tighten its grip on the world. There are posters in the exhibition that represent the couple’s shared belief in the politics of piece, while works depicting Lennon’s footsteps and smiling face provide a palpable presence within the white walls. To the Light serves to showcase and summarise Ono’s many guises. Mother, wife, artist, activist, film-maker, musician. The works are creative, personal and political, with Cut Piece providing the neatest visual bookend of her artistic lifespan. The seminal performance piece was first staged and filmed in New York in 1964 when a young Ono was relatively unknown, then again 39 years later with the artist exuding a grander presence to reverent audience members who are invited to cut out and take away pieces of her clothing. The recording depicts a Yoko Ono that many will recognise today. Composed, enigmatic yet seemingly accessible.
For this encounter, we paired Yoko with Matthew Stone, the London-based artist who has been a long-time admirer of her work and legacy. Before discovering a shared taste in jewellery and positivity, he began by asking her about Smile, the interactive video installation that provides the centrepiece for the new retrospective…
Matthew Stone: So the Smile film is included in your show at the Serpentine Gallery…
Yoko Ono: Isn’t that great?
Yeah, it’s amazing! Initially, that sort of effort or idea already existed as a statement you made in 1967. You talked about the need for collaboration.
Well, I wasn’t thinking about anything, I just had this vision of, you know, everybody in the world smiling together. It would be so good, and that is what I wrote in the Grapefruit book also.
I’m wondering whether artists were imagining the internet before it happened somehow?
Oh my God. I mean, I have that thought! So much of it is amazing. For instance, if you read Grapefruit, you can see so many things which happened afterwards. Like, I had this underwear with De Kooning’s painting on it et cetera! After I wrote that book I had a vision of this thing which I believed wasn’t going to happen. At the time I was thinking, “Maybe we could get a collaboration with the post office or some other similar communications network.”
That sort of leads on to my next question, which is the relationship between technology and spirituality. And I see the Smile film as…
Yes! I see a total connection there. And you know I believe smiling is very good for your health and is the best sort of non-verbal communication we can share with one another. I saved myself with it when John passed away. You know, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “This just is not right. For Sean’s sake too. Firstly, I am a mum and I have to stay alive and keep smiling, even for him”. So I saved myself that way.
So it was an emotional exercise in a sense?
Well yes, it is most definitely a purely spiritual thing.
And obviously such a simple action. Do you think spirituality is something which is complex or difficult?
No, no. Breathing is so very simple, With anything that is totally basic or instinctual we always try to make it more complicated. Simplicity is the foundation of all of our lives.
I wanted to ask about our current use of technology, which facilitates this idea to create this type of artwork.
Well, it’s almost like I thought about it and then therefore the technology said, “Right, O.K. I’ll accommodate something for it.”
So the technology follows the dream in a sense?
Well, I was walking in the park with a trainer and as I started to slow down, he asked me why, and if I was thinking about something. I replied that I was thinking about Apple, that we were going to have a meeting in London. We started running again and I repeated my cut in pace, then he asked what I was thinking about again. So, even on that level, our thoughts control the human body. It’s a very simple and interesting thing. So, in relation, to me smiling is an imperative part of my life.
If you think you are an artist, you are one. It’s as simple and encompassing as that
I often feel like a lot of important words like peace or love, and even smiling, have been associated culturally with weakness or a kind of naive idealism. Is that something you worry about, whether you modify the way you communicate or your artworks for that sort of cynicism?
I don’t worry about it. Worrying is a way of destroying things.
If some people hear the word peace they are like, “Oh, whatever”. They shut down because they think it is an idea from the past, that it’s not something practical in our modern world.
There is no reason that we have to worry, we don’t have the time to be destroying things. At this point in the history of the human race we are chasing simultaneously construction or destruction. It’s a very important time. Destruction in terms of the total culture, the total human race, or our survival, which ultimately depends on us not thinking about destruction.
It is interesting, especially in terms of art. For instance, Picasso said, “The urge to destroy is a creative one”. How do you respond to that?
Again, it is like breathing. It has to have pace. Not constant panting. Exhaling is not destruction, it is part of breathing in, so equalised destruction is natural, a way of making life’s vibration work.
I agree. I think he was taking about impermanence in a sense, that things don’t last forever. The constant creation of something new. He was being energetic in the form of destroying something rather that tearing something apart in order to make two pieces. I am also an artist, and within my work I promote the idea of optimism. I wonder whether you are optimistic yourself?
No, not necessarily optimistic but pragmatic, yes. It’s a very different thing. I dislike the thought of being optimistic for nothing, empty self-awareness doesn’t get you anywhere, but pragmatism does help me. I really think that, because we are breathing animals, as long as we continue breathing we will be O.K. To think that is more logical than positive or optimistic. Pragmatism is logic to me.
How has your creativity changed throughout your life? Do you relate to it differently?
Creativity is necessary for us in order to survive and in order to be alive. I was always thinking about creation. Always. From being a small child.
In the past you have spoken about the potential for fashion to exist as art, that someone can create a portrait of themselves through fashion.
Oh, yes, yes, it’s just incredible! Using your body as a sculpture almost, a moving sculpture. It’s quite fantastic.
Are any cultural divisions in your mind? Is there anything which you think isn’t art?
Is not art? I can’t think of one now. No.
So does that idea that everything is art tell us that, by default, war is also art?
War could maybe reflect somebody’s idea of destruction, to make a construction, but it really isn’t. War is death. We need to destroy something to create something new within life, NOT death. In art there is that movement in the balance that is always geared more towards life.
What do you think makes somebody an artist?
If you think you are one, you are. It’s as simple and encompassing as that.
You’re now at the Serpentine Gallery. Do you remember the Serpentine Marathon in 2008, when everyone was dancing at the pavilion? You were there with the manifesto and said that everyone should love one another and just dance.
Yes, and we danced!
I liked that idea of dancing. That simple thought that the action and the idea became a physical manifesto in a way.
It was a physical manifestation yes, of the unity of our bodies. We keep mentioning the word “simple”, but actually our very being is in fact quite simple to begin with.
What are the new works you are exhibiting in the show?
Well, I think that the worldwide smiling event is something very new, never undertaken before on this scale, by anyone. Also, there are a few things which I won’t elaborate on, which should be a surprise.
With the Smile film there is obviously an installation, right?
Well, kind of! But of course you can do it with your eyes closed too, so don’t imagine it being like a sculpture sitting in a museum placed there to just be viewed.
So it is important for you that this idea is able to live in various forms?
It has a form which is called “no form”, which includes the gallery, the iPad, internet, everything. (points to Matthew’s hand) I love that ring! It goes over two fingers? It’s beautiful, beautiful! Who made this, what is it for?
There is a jeweller in New York who makes these. I had him create this for me recently. It says “Love Changes Everything”.
Oh, amazing! Love does change everything. That is great! You ask me questions on simplicity but you already know all about it!
Well, on the topic of love, I think we should let you talk!
I think we already know about that, don’t we? (laughs)
I also have this one (shows necklace) which says “Everything Is Possible”.
Oh that is beautiful! You are talking about it as being positive and optimistic.
Well I talk about optimism, but I completely agree with your earlier point on pragmatism. I have always talked about optimism as cultural rebellion, because I think that particularly young people fetishise the idea of being pessimistic, like it’s cool or something.
Yes, it is terrible isn’t it? But, you know the point is, there are many people, even leaders of countries for instance, and they have had experiences of being very depressed, so much so that they wanted to die. All people go through these feelings. It’s natural, you know.
Creativity is necessary for us in order to survive and in order to be alive
Yes, but I see optimism in a sense as the energy that carries you out of that emotional feeling. It may lift the mouth and become a smile. I think a lot of people still believe that the youth of today relate power to violence or negativity, but that is more of a 20th century idea.
Totally. That day is over. It is an old fashioned, old hat idea. Now we all have to be together and focus on positivity to get out of the mess we are in. We’re in a big mess!
I think part of the reason we are in such a mess relates to the desire for money and the relationship people have with it.
Money can be used in a range of different ways. It is such a huge part of our lives. We can’t ignore it, but it can be used to help the world. Money is so very strong and powerful when it is used in the correct way. Watering down good intentions or morals for the greed of money on the other hand is the most terrible thing.
I believe there is surely the potential to imagine a new type of money, a new form of exchange and currency ? A lot of people assume that before money, commerce revolved around the swapping of amenities or valuables, but actually somebody explained to me that it was more likely for people to have operated gifting economies. These exist in our society today, but in the most extreme pockets and minorities, like in your family home for example.
Gift is an amazing word. It truly is! There was a book I have read which gave an interesting view on the lives of prime ministers and presidents and high-ranking officials within corrupt world power systems. It described the depressions and emotional trauma which they all shared and concealed within their lives, hiding the fact that they were suicidal et cetera. This to me just shows the point in your brain where you have a depression is very close or almost the same as the point of which you are gifting less, sharing less and retaining more for personal benefaction.
So the more you steal the sadder you feel?
Absolutely! It’s incredible, as a human you are the gift. One of the reasons I think people commit suicide or harm themselves is that they stop feeling like they are not a gift anymore. They have no worth, society doesn’t need them on any credible level, so why waste their presence? It’s so desperately sad.
I think it is interesting that you are pointing out that many world leaders and especially those in breach of their political responsibilities or duties are often depressed. I often struggle to understand why some people are so motivated to do the things that they do.
It’s just this phony laugh, this phony smile, the characteristics of dishonesty. They have to do that. People who are arrested and transported from one prison to another with press coverages are always smiling, did you realise that? That’s because the lawyer or whoever tells them to. I’m not interested in that sort of smile.
On the topic of politicians and power, I think “power” is an interesting word, actually.
Yes, but you put the words “power” and “politician” together in the same sentence and already that is wrong for me. I think those people have this illusion of having power, and the general public think they do, but I am most sure that they do not!
But they do have the power to enforce laws, and police the laws which they create, right? Surely that is a form of power?
No they still don’t even have that political power, I disagree. They create or change laws, not because they think it should be done, but because they are instructed to do so by a circle of advisors and systems. The system creates itself, a circle of bad energy. If just one of them stood up and said, “Look, I don’t want to do this. I don’t agree with what I am being instructed to do, but if I don’t do it, my family will be killed. Excuse me, but I have to tell you all.” He would probably be killed, yes. It’s disgusting but somebody, at least one person, should be heroic and honest for the greater good of the world. So, (pointing again to the ring) is this something you are trying to give me?
I don’t think it would fit you, though. That’s the problem. But yes, of course.
Oh it’s beautiful, really it is, but you should keep it. How special! You were just showing me so I could get it similar, right?
Well, you saw it on my hand so I feel as though I should give it to you! You seem to like it a lot! I do have the necklace too, if you prefer.
Oh that goes very well with your hands, actually.
Well, then maybe you should have Everything Is Possible. Try it.
But to be honest I don’t wear necklaces. (laughs)
Then you should definitely have the ring. I could have one made to fit your fingers, it would take a little while, but I would like to. Also I brought a little book that I made as a gift for you. (hands over The Body Beyond, 2012)
So you made this with Yuima Nakazato? That is a Japanese name right? I love the title.
Yes, Yuima is a Japanese designer and he wanted to make a book about his fashion collection rather than a fashion show or a cookbook. He was inspired hugely by the idea of a community of naked people and I take a lot of nude photography for my personal work.
I think it is rather beautiful. He seems to have the type of direction I can appreciate.
It’s an unusual collaboration judging by the fact he is a fashion designer and 90% of the content of my photographs in the book have only naked bodies in them.
Did you print many of these books?
Well, this one is for you! I did bring it as a gift.
Oh good! I got something great! (laughs)
And if you would like a ring I would like to make you one!
Oh yes please. I think I would prefer Love Changes Everything, rather than anything with positivity. That seems a more abstract notion, I am more for the possibilities of love.
For sure. (looks at her hands). Oh, is that Moldavite? The stone on your ring? Wow, it’s amazing!
No actually, I was recently in iceland, and they have a lot of volcanic geo-activity, and this is something which came out! From the recent explosion? I really don’t know!
Oh I thought it was Moldavite. That’s created when a meteorite hits the earth and is formed when the heat forms with sand and creates this green glass like a compound. When you hold it you feel as though you are connecting with aliens almost! That mix of something from out of space which forms with sand on earth. Amazing.