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The Controversial World of Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono’s character is still difficult to judge objectively, not only did she divide the Beatles camp, who say she “destroyed” the legendary band, but until the tragic murder of John Lennon, almost no one sympathised with her. A major retrospective of the 91-year-old pop icon and artist is being held at London’s Tate Modern this year.

Following the US firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the young Yoko Ono fled with her family to the food-starved mountain resort of Karuizawa. For a few months before the terrible atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II, Ono and her brother Keisuke spent their days gazing at the sky and imagining their favourite foods. This experience was fundamental to Ono’s artistic career, in which the use of imagination and the call for world peace were ever-present.

The exhibition “Music of the Mind” places Ono in a variety of changing contexts, while showing that the content of her work has never really changed radically. Of course, her relationship with John Lennon cannot be avoided, given that it was in fact their relationship that made Ono internationally famous, and of course, she was often unfairly mocked and vilified in the process, while overshadowing her own highly original work. The exhibition dedicates a single room to Ono and Lennon, where they show a video of them being interviewed by journalists about the 1969 Bed Peace sit-in.

We also see Yoko Ono, the musician! The exhibition includes album covers from her career albums, as well as lyrics from her second album Fly (1971), on which she said that the public did not see her as an artist in her own right. What made her not seen as “Mrs Lennon” was her focus on the aforementioned childhood war experiences, her association with the Fluxus movement of the 1960s and the short-lived Japanese art collective Hi-Red Center. She presents her collaborations with fellow immigrants such as George Maciunas and Nam June Paik, composers John Cage and La Monte Young, and her two former husbands, Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi and American jazz musician Anthony Cox. It was during this period that Ono became a key figure in conceptual art, and soon realised that the instructions she wrote to create a work of art did not need to be accompanied by anything physical. It was far more powerful when she invited her audience to create the art themselves, often in their own minds, by decoupling the art from the objects and replacing them with more momentary, fleeting experiences. Drawing on Cage’s compositions and the Fluxus group’s love of randomness, Ono was always restlessly innovative.

Ono has been a huge influence on artists such as Marina Abramovićig, Brian Eno and Kenneth Goldsmith. The exhibition now reaffirms Ono’s influence and significance, broadens the contexts in which her work can be interpreted, and shows how her work can survive beyond her, and of course far beyond galleries and other art institutions.