YES Yoko ono featuring multimedia works, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West), from Saturday (February 23) through May 20, $12, stu/srs $9; artist's talk with AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum, 2:30 pm February 23 at Hart House (7 Hart House Circle), $25. 416-979-6648.
there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think Yoko Ono would be a blip on the horizon had she never met John Lennon, and those who say that meeting the most famous man in the world was the worst thing that could have happened to an artist who was sure to matter no matter whom she married. The complete retrospective of Ono's art -- spanning everything from her early avant-garde works and the famous Ceiling Painting (YES Painting) that Lennon climbed and that changed her life to her more recent installations -- lets you come to your own conclusions. Either way, it's obvious Ono did not need a pop star to top up her own creative ambitions.
Those of us who find her solo music cringeworthy need to know that no less a figure than free jazz legend Ornette Coleman asked Ono to join him onstage in 1966 (pre-Lennon) and that her 30-year-old solo records have inspired a new generation of hip musicians (see sidebar, this page).
Art, she has always said, is as much about consciousness as it is about beauty. "I thought art was a verb, rather than a noun," she said famously, encapsulating her radical notion that political action could make big aesthetic statements and that everyday experience, including the most intimate act, could be a work of art.
"Artists are all world citizens," she says in an exclusive interview from her fabled Dakota digs in New York City, "and each of us is responsible for speaking out."
If her art comes across as completely modern (see sidebar, page 56), one might still be tempted to see Ono's politics of love and peace as oh-so-60s. The charismatic elder -- she is 68 -- has stayed on message for over three decades. But then again, so has America's imperial foreign policy.
You'd think a nerve-racked NYC post-September 11 would be none too open to the non-violence shtick. Yet just 12 days after the attacks, Ono unhesitatingly shoved the old love vibe right in the face of America's ever-escalating bloodlust. She bought space in the New York Times to spread the message: Imagine All The People Living Life In Peace.
"I never put out the message to be against anybody," she says, plainly smarting from barbs tossed at her for carrying the pacifist message into a difficult time. She speaks with a tentativeness that's surprising in such a brazen character.
"I understand that other people are angry -- I feel for them,' she says, measuring every phrase as if one false word could be her undoing. "But somewhere we have to stop the dialogue of violence. Art is the way to do that. That is why I didn't sign the message in the New York Times. It was bigger than me -- not signing it makes the message purer."
Could be that talking about the U.S. war has distracted her, but some of her answers are starting to have a rehearsed feeling, like her response to the suggestion that George Harrison's death might close the Beatles chapter: "The Beatles' music will always live, and so will the Beatles myth." But then she adds, "What's changed is the idea that I was the single bad element that led to their breakup. That's disappearing."
Could be a double fantasy. Legions of fans still think she busted up the Beatles, and tons of Lennon lovers are grossed out by how she's pimped his memorabilia to insatiable buyers.
But I always feel like what really bugged Beatles-watchers was that they never got over seeing their godlike boy pop heroes so blissed out in love. Both Beatles romances, McCartney's with Linda Eastman and Lennon's with Ono, were openly mocked. The relationships seemed so trivial compared to the boys' gaudy impact on what was turning into a global pop culture.
Why was everyone so surprised that these young megastars, at the eye of an alienating cyclone of hero worship, sought out obsessive, self-protective intimate relationships?
In the documentary Anthology, watch Ono stroking Lennon's hair during recording sessions for Get Back. You can ask, "What's she doing there?" or you can marvel at how much Lennon at that time in his life needed to be loved up. In those days Ono turned her lovership into a work of art.
Now approaching 70, she may still find the peace part easy, but the love connection is harder. Last fall Ono split from antique dealer Sam Havadtoy, and things haven't been looking up since. How does someone who has felt so deeply find love again anyway?
"Tell me about it," she explodes, and suddenly the iron guard is down. "Oh," she says, "that didn't come out the way I wanted it to. But you see, it's true.
"We were working on a track on (her recent CD) Blueprint For A Sunrise. I invited all these women of different backgrounds and cultures -- the most beautiful women in New York, really -- to speak the words "It's time for action -- there is no option' in their first languages.
"They began to speak, in Chinese, Korean, Arabic, and I looked at them and couldn't help saying, "So many beautiful women.' And one of them shot back, "And so few men.'
"You see, women are getting too aware. It's intimidating for men, and it makes it so that it is not that easy to connect."
Experience, she is discovering has its consequences, but the wise woman still has her longings.
ONO'S NEW SCHOOL OF MUSIC
The old joke is that Yoko Ono's musical recordings are little more than albums to scare your cat with, uneasy listening driven by heavy-handed politics, amateurish musicianship and Ono squealing like a stuck pig.
All of that is true, particularly on Ono's frightfully bad new Blueprint For A Sunrise album (EMI). But her influence on contemporary music, particularly the art pop and post-rock of the 1990s, can't be ignored.
Ono's 1970s double albums Fly and Approximately Infinite Universe became hip again after their late-90s reissue, in part because of the praise of folks like Sonic Youth and Chicago post-rock ensemble Tortoise. Of the two, Fly remains the most influential, and most listenable, disc.
Recorded in 1970 in the wake of the Beatles' breakup it features an all-star cast of John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Jim Keltner.
The highlight is Fly's second track, the wrenching 17-minute epic Mindtrain, which features Ono ululating over a churning, rubbery rhythm. It's a slab of elliptical, slithering funk that falls somewhere between free jazz and the motorik Krautrock rhythms of Can and Neu.
British art rockers Stereolab, whose tastemaker touch has made obscure Brazilian psychedelia and loping Afrobeat cool again, began shouting Ono's praises in the mid-90s. To prove that they were fans, the 'Lab ripped off wholesale the riff and beat of Mindtrain and used it for the song Metronomic Underground on their 1996 album Emperor Tomato Ketchup.
The Ono revival peaked later that year with the release of the Rising Mixes EP. The mini-album featured new-school fans like the Beastie Boys, Cibo Matto, Tricky, Ween and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth remixing tracks from Ono's recent Rising disc.
With the new tracks plus the swelling popularity of her son, Sean Lennon, Ono's unlikely comeback from primal screamer to post-rock hipster was complete.
by MATT GALLOWAY