Most people only know Yoko Ono as the person who “broke up” the Beatles. If they know a little bit more about her, they will know of the experimental music she made with John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. Or they might know about the famous Bed-In at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1969.
What most people don’t know about Yoko is her work as a conceptual artist (or her work as a peace activist, but I won’t get into that now).
In 2002 I took a road trip to San Francisco with my roommate, Blair Fornwald, and her boyfriend at the time, Adam Budd. This was when I had briefly moved back to Regina, after having dropped out of the Artist Diploma program at the Glenn Gould School of Music. Blair, Adam and I drove straight for 30 hours in my family’s trusty Toyota Previa, to spend only three days in San Francisco. The reason we visited the city was that I had a good friend living there, Erik Franden, a fellow Glenn Gould School dropout; Blair and Adam came along for the adventure. Erik, in addition to being a great friend, was responsible for introducing me to an incredible amount of new music, such as Astor Piazzolla, Marc Ribot, and Ali Akbar Khan.
The trip was super fun – we went to the beach, we ate great Mexican food, we went to lots of record stores, and we went to lots of museums. To be honest, I’ve forgotten a lot of the trip, I just have vague images left. But the one thing that is still vivid is our visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where there was a Yoko Ono retrospective. I, like most people, didn’t know the first thing about her. But the exhibit totally blew me away. Her work was powerful in its simplicity, humour, and positivity.
One example is the same piece that caused John Lennon to want to meet Yoko. Imagine this: There is what appears to be a blank white canvas in a simple frame hanging on the ceiling, with a ladder below it, and a magnifying glass attached to the frame. You climb the ladder, and inspect the canvas using the magnifying glass. After a few minutes (or more) of searching, you find a single microscopic word printed on the canvas, which simply reads Yes.
The Japanese influence in her work was apparent not necessarily in the content, but in the aesthetic. Much of her work is abstract, a lot is minimalist, and all of it is understated. Sometimes it’s surreal, sometimes disturbing, sometimes absurd, sometimes child-like in its straightforward honesty. It speaks of strength and perseverance, no matter what the hardship.
At the exhibition, there was a video of her performance of Cut Piece, where she sat motionless on a stage with a pair of scissors, and audience members were invited to come up on stage and cut off parts of her clothing. Watch it here, and see how you feel while this is happening.
Yoko’s work has haunted me ever since I saw this exhibition. I bought her book of instructions, entitled Grapefruit (Simon & Schuster, 2000), at the SFMOMA gift shop, and have read it countless times, always finding inspiration within its pages. A few years ago I decided to write a suite of pieces based on poems in this book, two movements of which appear on my upcoming album. This is one of the poems:
you are water
we’re all water in different containers
that’s why it’s so easy to meet
someday we’ll evaporate together
but even after the water’s gone
we’ll probably point out to the containers
and say, “that’s me there, that one.”
we’re container minders