As a child in Japan during World War II, the artist and musician was evacuated to the countryside, where her parents would visit her. Ms. Ono believes her mother sensed that her daughter “was going to go through some strange things. I remember her saying, ‘Yoko, you’re a very good writer, why don’t you write about this experience and think about whatever you encounter as material for your book?’ ”
For the past 60-plus years, Ms. Ono has followed that advice, channeling her experiences and encounters into conceptual art—first with the avant-garde Fluxus movement in New York, then with her own much-misunderstood “instruction” paintings, often bearing a single word, which invited the viewer to interpret and take figurative ownership of the artworks. Later, with John Lennon, she attracted notoriety—and animosity—when they staged their “Bed-in for Peace” protests in 1969.
That large body of work has now been compiled in a lavish, limited-edition book, “Infinite Universe at Dawn” (£325; genesis-publications.com). Its contents—abstract and conceptual art, poetry, text works, photography—not only remind us how pioneering and fearless Ms. Ono has been in her life, but also represent a defiant riposte to those who insist that her career amounts to little more than a few slogans and a fortuitous marriage. But the warmth of her welcome at the English seaside two months ago, when she dotted the streets, shop windows and public buildings of Folkestone with text works and installations during the town’s triennial (until Nov. 2;folkestonetriennial.org.uk), confirm that such doubters are now very much in the minority.
We recently caught up with Ms. Ono, who has gone through some very “strange things” indeed—and used all of them as material for her artwork. Her mother would be proud.
From left, Yoko Ono’s ‘Imagine Peace Tower,' 2007; Ms. Ono at Folkestone Triennial; her new limited-edition book, 'Infinite Universe at Dawn'; with John Lennon in 1969. YOKO ONO; FOLKESTONE TRIENNIAL; GENESIS PUBLICATIONS; GETTY
Artists should adhere to what we are, instead of being sidetracked by other desires. We’re supposed to have that independence. But many artists today are, you know, going with this gallery, with that museum, and thinking too much about monetary success, which means they can’t be free. A life of not being challenged and only hearing what you want to hear is being dead.
I do sometimes think, “Am I always going to be in New York?” In a way, it’s destiny, in that even if I try to find somewhere else to move, I just can’t. But, of course, it’s not destiny—it’s my mind that is blocking that.
When John and I were about to go to Japan to see my parents for the first time, he said, “I bet they live in a hole or something.” And I thought, “Just you wait.” Isn’t that funny?
Everybody is creative. These days, I think that’s truer than ever. There were very few activists in our day, when we were doing “Bed-in” and things like that, but now probably 90% of the people in the world are activists.
The main criticism I got for the instruction paintings was about how arrogant I was, telling people what to do. Can you imagine? Instead of saying, “Thank you.” It typified the image they were giving me: this arrogant woman. Or they just thought, “Oh, she’s one of those kooks.”
‘A life of not being challenged and only hearing what you want to hear is being dead’
I never think of things as being a long time ago. Everything is getting more one-dimensional now. The other day, I was just pulling a chair over to the wall so that I could clear a space, and I thought, “I did this when I was 2½.” Experience repeats itself. There is that belief that just before you die, you go through everything you’ve done in your life. Now, I really believe it. I remember very interesting details about the smallest things. You turn a corner and think, “I turned a corner in exactly this way in Italy that time.” It just all comes back.
I always thought that I was dealing in the future—creating the future and the unknown, which is far more interesting and exciting.
When I titled one of my works “Surrender to Peace” and sent it to the New York Times many years ago, the criticism I got was that it wasn’t grammatical, that you can’t surrender to something abstract. And that was them being annoyed about the fact that I was being political. But it just showed their thinking, you know, “She’s an Asian. We’ll intimidate her.”
John was so intelligent, so quick. I didn’t have to explain, and we didn’t have to talk about what had happened. We just immediately knew that we understood each other.
Folkestone reminded me of the first time I went to Iceland. I was really upset that the world seemed to be only into centralization, globalization…. I thought that the way to go was to localize things, to give energy to all these communities and make a difference that way. So I went there thinking, “This is great. This is a place that is never talked about. I’m going to go there and revive them.” And, in fact, they gave me far more than I was giving them.
Women have come a long way. We should be proud of that. We jumped and hopped and came to this point instead of just walking.