Tokyo native Yoko Ono moved to the United States when she was about 20 years old and studied poetry and music at a university. She began her career as an avant-garde artist in the 1950s and married Beatle John Lennon in 1969. She continued her activity as a peace advocate after her husband's death in 1980.
Now 82, Ono is putting on her latest exhibition, "YOKO ONO: FROM MY WINDOW" at The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, in Koto Ward, Tokyo. In the context of her native Tokyo, the exhibition serves as a retrospective as well as a showcase of her latest achievements. She recently spoke with art critic Noi Sawaragi, 53.
Noi Sawaragi: It's been 11 years since you asked me to join an open lecture linked to your exhibition "YES Yoko Ono." I remember you started exercising on the stage and I ended up doing that, too. That was some exhibition. The current one is another eye-opener.
Yoko Ono: I, too, learned a lot during the last 11 years. You'd think that the older you get, the less competent you'd become. Well, on the contrary, I found out that it's easier to tackle things as you get older, like me now, because the inner rigidness evaporates.
For instance, if somebody asks me to write a piece on something, I could finish it in 20 minutes. Unfortunately, that sort of capability is pretty much ignored, just like a woman's ability.
Sawaragi: I was most impressed with the title of the exhibition, "FROM MY WINDOW." I took it as a reflection of your life, a life of a continuous battle against all sorts of prejudice. The works under the title reminded me of how you convey your messages to the world, by looking out of a window, while it protects you [from the outside world].
Ono: Yes. I would like to point out that there are two kinds of "realities." One is something you create and the other is what you observe. As long as you are observant, nobody is going to attack you. This is essential.
Sawaragi: I pondered the appearance and structure of the kanji character "mado" (window). There is the character "ana" (hole) on top that indicates your connection to the world, the tsukuri (main component of the kanji character) of the letter "watashi" (me), and the character "kokoro" (heart). With all of these components, the kanji mado is formed. In the West, [the concept of] windows started off as arrow slits in buildings. They were used as lookouts for invaders. I'm just wondering how the word mado appeared to you when you started your activities overseas after World War II.
Ono: Words have enormous power. [And yes,] the windows were great shields for me. There could never be a world through my eyes if I didn't exist.
Sawaragi: Tokyo is the theme for this exhibition. It reminded me of your exhibition in 1962. You were based overseas, then, but you held this one at the Sogetsu Kaikan hall in Tokyo. That exhibition caused men to harshly criticise you. And I think that leads you to the current exhibition.
Your installation work "We Are All Water" is a line of bowls filled with water with a nameplate placed in front of each one. The water, which indicates prominent people, will eventually evaporate, showing us how fragile human beings are. I felt Zen-like at the time. It must be the Great East Japan Earthquake effect. I now perceive things that way.
Ono: I've encountered racism [in Western countries]. I'm now also facing ageism. It's a total waste if you think there's no need to listen to the elderly who have had [extensive] experiences.
Let me give you an example. Most artists hate to have people touch their works, and I wasn't any exception. Then one day, I started to feel that it would be amusing to permit art intervention. In the end, I began to create works that anyone, old and young, could come and freely touch.
Sawaragi: As a matter of fact, I had the urge to do something in regard to your installation work. But if I actually picked up the bowl that had Andy Warhol's name on it and drank from it, I'm sure I'd be arrested. So, I just did so in my mind. I imagined I was intervening.
This is what I imagined: A powerful earthquake - as big as a near-field earthquake in the Tokyo metropolitan area - hits this spot, rocking the water representing men. Then, the flame in the video shown in the next room shoots up stronger. I envisioned mother Earth experiencing a tremendous jolting, which transcends gender, all sexism and racism.
Ono: There are numerous ways to intervene in artworks. The world of art has changed a lot since people started to recognise it's good to do this.
Some might think that destroying something is the same. But that is not so. Destruction confuses things. That's why I think it's necessary to go home and think about it a lot.
In "We Are All Water," I wanted to point out that nobody should be treated differently. Its aim is to show we are all similar. We can't say who's acceptable and who's not.
Sawaragi: I want to make one more point. When you presented your "Promise Piece" project, offering pieces from a broken vase 11 years ago, you suggested that we all bring the pieces back in 10 years, and put them together in some form. I was really impressed to see the vase displayed in this exhibition. Unfortunately, I couldn't bring my piece because I couldn't find it.
Ono: It's interesting that this entire [phenomenon] took place on this planet. Your piece might have moved to another place in the universe. I wouldn't say it has disappeared.
The exhibition will be held through Feb. 14.