One of the few contemporary artists — let alone Asian women — to become a household name, Yoko Ono has often been the target of invective, from audiences and critics alike, throughout her 45-year career. Nonetheless, she has once again redefined herself: Billed simply as ONO, she has returned to the charts with club-friendly reworkings of songs from her extensive catalog.
Although many think her career began in 1966, when she was introduced to John Lennon, Ono was already an important postwar interdisciplinary artist. By age 33, she had performed her works worldwide. She was also on her second marriage — the first to Japanese composer Toshi Ichianagi and the second to American artist Anthony Cox, with whom she bore a daughter, Kyoko. Yet the chance encounter with Lennon ignited an exceptionally fruitful period in not only her career but also her life.
Ono was born into an influential family in Tokyo. At the age of 4, Ono was enrolled in classical piano and voice lessons. She studied operatic singing in her teens but was eventually drawn to composition. While Ono was studying at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, a teacher suggested that she investigate the postwar avant-garde composers, which led her to John Cage and the members of Fluxus. The post-Dada, anti-art sensibilities of this worldwide community of artists fit in well with the rebellious nature of Ono's works. However, she maintains that her work didn't change to fit the movement; rather, she was included within the group when it was named.
Her most influential early works are simple Zen-like instructional pieces, many of which appear in her book Grapefruit (Simon & Schuster, 1964). Unlike other Fluxus pieces, Ono's works are distinctive in the way they combine sophisticated postmodern sensibilities with a timeless simplicity. She also explored sexual and sociopolitical themes, as in the films No. 4 (Bottoms) (1966), Rape (1969) and Fly (1970). In one of her most important early works, Cut Piece (1966), the audience is instructed to cut away her clothing while she sits motionless.
However, it was Ono's music — and her distinctive voice in particular — that ultimately brought her notoriety. In the early '60s, Ono experimented with extended vocal techniques, combined with musique concrète, which led to an uninhibited style that encompassed every kind of vocalization imaginable. Included were cries, screams and grunts reminiscent of archetypal female experiences such as sorrow, sex and child birth. Ono perfected her famous yodel-like scream so that she could be heard over the amplified instruments in the rock bands she shared with Lennon. Although her singing polarized listeners at the time, Ono's voice later inspired a generation of musicians, most notable The B-52's and an array of Japanese noise artists.
At 71, Ono continues to stir things up, both artistically and politically. As ONO, she has invited a number of artists to create remixes of her singles, including Peter Rauhofer, Dave Audé, Basement Jaxx, the Pet Shop Boys and Murk. Riding on the success of her hit single “Walking on Thin Ice” (the song she and Lennon were working on the night he was murdered), Ono has released her response to the issue of gay marriage with “Every Man Has a Man Who Loves Him,” based on “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him” from Double Fantasy (Geffen, 1980).
“Why should this be an issue?” she asks. “It's terrible: It's a human-rights issue. Anyone who wants to get married, why not just let them?” Her latest release, “Give Peace a Chance 2004,” adds a contemporary twist to the popular anthem.
In the visual arts, Ono recently created a sensation with My Mummy Was Beautiful for the Liverpool Biennial. The city-wide exhibit features large close-up photos of a woman's breasts and crotch. But Ono maintains that she is simply channeling artistic experiences rather than creating them. “I'm always inside myself and listening to what's coming into my head,” she says. “I'm like a conduit of some message coming through me. I'm interested in everything, equally, every day. I'm in love with life, the world, every moment.”