SCREAM AT THE SKY
Thurston Moore & Byron Coley talk with YOKO ONO
Photography by Eden Batki
Originally published in Arthur No. 26 (Sept. 02007)
Yoko Ono is a beauty. When we walk into the room for our interview she is stunning, vivacious, delightful and welcoming. We discover her handlers have deemed us worthy of only half an hour of access. Because our interests lie in focusing on specific, somewhat more arcane aspects of Yoko’s career, particularly those related to her access points into the avant garde of the 1950s and 60s, we are bummed about these time constraints. Yoko is an extremely significant figure in the flow of much that is radical and/or experimental in visual art and musical culture of the last half-century. Our century, the century where media, performance and multi-disciplinary expression was galvanized into wholly new alloy.
The avant garde and its attendant testing, prodding, trapping, releasing, liberating and wildly intriguing vocabulary is something that looms large in Yoko’s history. It was a driving force for her transformation as an artist, and is an exploratory philosophical stance she has embraced for well over 40 years. Her physical trajectory took her from Japan in the 1940s to America in the ’50s and ’60s. There was a momentary return to her homeland in the early ’60s, then back to America (specifically New York City). After that there’s her mid-’60s visit to London, where she meets John Lennon, and all that transpires henceforth—famous and infamous. Hers is a spectacular timeline through the counterculture of the late 20th century.
The celebrated flash notes of her life with Lennon have been obsessively documented and analyzed. Yoko’s own, autonomous history as an academic, musician, artist, filmmaker and a radical innovator in all of those fields has been perenially overshadowed in mainstream journals. It has only been within the last decade that serious consideration of Yoko’s work by above-ground culturistas has even been considered. But it remains a subject that most media-types approach with mincing trepidation and uncomfortable jokes.
When the fantastic Yes Yoko Ono exhibition (and its amazing catalogue, published by Harry N. Abrams) was realized at Japan Society in New York in 2000, art critic Michael Kimmelman reviewed it succinctly in the New York Times (October 27, 2000), detailing Yoko’s rich art lineage. He noted how Yoko established, alongside La Monte Young, the first real artist’s loft, where music and performance were united with the shock of art-as-action. This was where Yoko created works such as “Smoke Piece,” where the audience were asked to burn the art and the self-explanatory “Painting To Be Stepped On.”
Yoko’s loft is where the iconoclast George Maciunas—an amazing outsider force in his own right, who ran the AG Gallery uptown—first became entranced by Buddhist positivity with its smiling, gentle nature. This was an element he immediately grabbed and threw into the berserk counterculture soupcon he christened “Fluxus.” If there’s anything that prefigures punk rock, it’s Maciunas, Yoko and the Fluxus movement. And even more than punk, they’re the direct antecedents of No Wave, that hermetic period in New York City between 1977 and 1980, where actual rock music, regardless of sub-genre, was temporarily obliterated. Yoko spoke of how the Fluxus movement consisted mainly of a single small group of individuals, most of whom were somehow connected to the scene’s own creative process. This is basically the same script the No Wave scene followed in its day, in terms of being part of a small, consistent and almost-fully-participatory community. The biggest parallel is that both scenes, as marginalized as they were at their times, continue to be living underpinnings (or secret histories) of contemporary avant-garde activity.
Interestingly, Kimmelman blows his cover as one art critic who might fully grasp Yoko’s genius, by denouncing her musical activities. He proclaims her visual art, in retrospect, to be underappreciated. He posits her marriage to Lennon as a leap into celebrity, but one to which she absolutely brought an awareness of celebrity-as-performance. He even opines that her films are her greatest achievements (alongside her brilliant, pre-feminist performance masterwork, “Cut Piece”). But he negates these opinions by tossing out a dismisssive kneejerk comment about her music, one whose idiocy is not mitigated by its wide currency. “The music is unbearable,” he writes. “And let’s leave it at that.”
An art critic without the ability to assess musical art with the same aesthetic consciousness he applies to visual art is, to some degree, crippled. But Kimmelman’s myopia is not confined to the compartmentalized world of conventional art critics. There has been a general idea batted about that Yoko Ono’s art, particularly in its musical form, is not worth much or is some kind of cruel joke being played on the public. This idea is so foreign to our ears that it’s almost ungraspable.
Yoko’s music and her visuals have always been stunning, and not easily separable. Yoko Ono as musician, as composer, is inhabiting personae explicitly integral to her life and career as an artist. The ideas and sounds that run throughout her compositions are as filled with wonder and humor and ingenuity as her most engaging work in film, object art, et al. Indeed, her vocal concepts, inside the context of Beatles recordings—the highest profile pop music recordings in history—are astounding, not only for their organic thought-tongue individuality, but also for their ability to deliver genuinely avant-garde statements to a mainstream world.
The fact that this person is female, Japanese, an artist, and was married to John Lennon is something people are still trying to figure out. For many, it’s just a weird bit of proof that there’s a world out there (somewhere) far more fascinating than Main Street. But Yoko’s music is still regarded by the straight press and the bulk of its adherents as an anomaly, some sort of eccentric affectation. The truth is that Yoko studied and practiced traditional composition in the 1950s, while simultaneously exploring ideas of alternative notational theory. This places her right in the same class as such acknowledged transitional thinkers as John Cage, Henry Cowell and David Tudor. Yoko’s compositional work, perhaps especially the “instruction pieces,” and her sharp-edged performances, were profound by any measure. When you factor in her ethnicity and gender, it’s easy to believe her efforts were more functionally radical than those of any contemporaries. In the context of her partnership with John Lennon, we got to experience a premier avant garde artist’s attempt to unify her own process with a rock n’ roll dynamic. Which, alongside the art/music relationship of Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground and the influence these mutually beneficial connectives have had on the modern state of art/rock, is pretty goddamn great.
Anyway, the time constraints meant we were only able able to get a small taste of Yoko’s incredible history. But with Yoko a taste is way more than a mouthful.