In her 80th year, Yoko Ono continues to enchant, amuse, and wail.
Of course I’m a little disappointed my interview with Yoko Ono will not be taking place inside her storied Dakota apartment, her home base since the early ’70s. But as I linger over an iced coffee near her brick-and-glass-block SoHo loft, awaiting a text that the avant-garde artist is ready for me, I delight in the clandestine locale, with its clusters of office workers basking on sun-splashed cement steps eating sandwiches, unaware that a legend is in their midst.
The text arrives, and I am met at the door by a publicist for Ono’s new album, Take Me to the Land of Hell, an ambitious 13-song collection, featuring contributions from Lenny Kravitz, Ad-Rock, Mike D, ?uestlove, Yuka Honda, and Ono’s son, Sean Ono Lennon. Chock full of catchy beats and bass grooves, hawk screeches, and her own guttural renditions of such sounds, the album, out this month, will likely find a home in the more out-there dance clubs of the world.
Once inside I shake hands with an agent, then a manager, each ushering me closer to the central sanctuary where Ono is seated at a kitchen table, petite and regal, like the young Dalai Lama but in a black lace top, gray fedora, and dark sunglasses that slip down her nose to reveal tired but twinkling eyes. Her entourage slinks back toward the airy front room, its walls tiled with Ono’s framed dot drawings.
“Take a seat,” she says, nodding toward an empty chair across from her own. And when I do, slightly awestruck, she scooches closer, offering a silent reminder that this is an interview, not an “Artist Is Present”-style performance piece.
Ono bought the space in the early ’70s with the proceeds of a B-side to a single she put out with her late husband John Lennon. “We edited some films here,” she says, taking a sip of water. “And we lived here, though just briefly because it’s very noisy, and sound is something that we were very sensitive to, but we loved the idea of a loft downtown.”
I’m surprised that she brings up Lennon so quickly, assuming that after several decades of producing art and music, the 80-year-old must be bored by the fact that many still think of her as a Beatle wife—or worse, the reason the band broke up. “I have been bashed by people for, what is it, 40 years or something,” she says. “But there were a few people who really liked my work, and I really appreciated that. The big one was John. He appreciated my art, and that kept me going. And so probably there are more people now.”
“She’s my idol,” gushes Lady Gaga, in a blurb for Acorn, Ono’s meditative book of instructions, which came out in July, a sequel to her revolutionary 1964 book Grapefruit. In another blurb, Courtney Love calls her “bizarre but brilliant. She sticks with her own thing.” Originally published online in the mid-’90s, Acorn's action poems resurfaced on social media in the months leading up to the book’s release. Twitter seems especially suited to Ono’s sensibilities—she has more than 4.6 million followers—but “all forms of media are interesting,” she says. “It just depends on how you use them.”
The beauty of Acorn is in its Zen radicalism, in how the artist tunnels inside readers’ minds rather than inviting them inside hers. Every moment feels restorative, wry, poignant, like chicken soup for the weird soul. Consider “Sound Piece IX”: “Tape the sound of the lake gradually freezing./ Drink a cup of hot chocolate afterwards.” Then there’s “Watch Piece II”: “Watch a fly slowly dying on the windowsill./ Watch its movement and how long it takes/ for it to become completely still./ Thank the fly, in your mind,/ for showing what you may go through/ one day.”
Besides the book and album, 2013 has been a banner year for the octogenarian, who celebrated her birthday this past February by playing a show in Berlin and having dinner with musicians and family at the Paris Bar. A few days earlier, she’d attended the opening of her retrospective, Half-a-Wind Show, at Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, an exhibition that travels to Austria’s Kunsthalle Krems this month and then to Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in the spring.
One can only imagine the difficulty in pulling together the artist’s conceptual, often ephemeral, oeuvre. Associated with the Fluxus art movement, which got its start in the 1960s, Ono’s work explores ideas of indeterminacy and eschews commercialism, and many of her pieces require participation, such as “Ceiling Painting,” which instructs viewers to “Climb up a ladder. Look at the painting on the ceiling with a magnifying glass, and find the word ‘Yes.’” Shown at London’s Indica Gallery in 1966, “Ceiling Painting” was what drew Lennon to Ono.
In regards to the retrospective, I inquire about what it was like—“to be surrounded by me?” she asks, laughing. “Well, it was good. The way they did it was very good.” In the early stages, she offered input, suggesting pieces that might fit, but after a while, she left things in the curators’ hands. “I like the fact that there is some input from something else, you know, outside of me,” Ono says.
Over the summer, she did some curating of her own, choosing the acts for London’s Meltdown festival, which featured sets by The Stooges, Patti Smith, and Savages, as well as a panel on Pussy Riot and reprisals of her infamous performance art works, including “Cut Piece” (Peaches did the honors, allowing festivalgoers to slice off her clothing bit by bit) and “Sky Piece for Jesus Christ,” in which members of an orchestra played while being wrapped in gauze, increasingly stifling their ability to make sound.
Meanwhile, the longtime activist has been leading the Artists Against Fracking coalition. “It’s so sad that we’re destroying our green land,” she says. “When I see the pictures of what’s happening, it looks like what we did to Baghdad. So maybe it’s comic: We do things like that to others, and then we do things to ourselves, which is crazy, really.”
While most of the recent attention has been overwhelmingly positive, earlier this year Ono received news that a Brooklyn fashion designer was suing her over a collaboration with Opening Ceremony—a whimsical collection for men with handprint- covered crotches, mesh butt cutouts, and a chest piece with call-bell nipples—claiming that the items copied her fetish-inspired line. Ono can’t discuss the wild designs (though she says she would love to) as the case is still pending. But, as has been demonstrated countless times, the artist is adept at getting through difficult times. And while her latest musical release is mostly upbeat, its hell-referencing title and a few tracks within denote a particular sadness. “To create something that is three-dimensional, you have to have a light part and also shadow,” Ono explains with a smile. “You have to have a shadow to make it become an object.”
I think about the sun outside, beginning its slow descent, casting silhouettes of office workers bunching up their sandwich wrappers as they head back to their desks. I thank Ono for her time, and join them.