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Yoko Ono’s Bashō: A Conversation

by Alexandra_Munroe on April 14, 2013

Originally published in Yoko Ono: Half-a-Wind Show; A Retrospective. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.


“What I did, I had knowledge of what happened before me and I created my own fate based on that.”
—Yoko Ono, 2012[1]

I recently sat down with Yoko Ono and asked her point-blank about her relationship to Asian aesthetics. I had worked with Ono for over twenty years and written about her art from various perspectives, including her role as a mediator of Zen ideas in the downtown art scene of 1960s’ New York. But writing on this assigned topic for the Frankfurt show somehow made us both balk. Art and biography are not a matter of cause and effect; her being born Japanese does not make her art forever “Japanese.” Artists make myriad choices about the world they feel compelled to mirror, examine, or reinvent; artists like Ono, working in the age of cosmopolitanism and globalism, segue among and between past and contemporary cultures from both near and faraway places, and still remain true to themselves. Does ascribing influences matter?

Sitting around her kitchen table on that autumn afternoon, Yoko Ono scoffed at being cast in some outmoded Orientalist suit. But gradually, memories began to drift by. Over the course of our conversation, a few distinct but unrelated images came into focus. No pattern emerges, but each transmission bears an aspect of Japan’s psyche that may shed light on Ono’s own amazing mind.

Scream

Yoko Ono and I looked back at what I had previously written. Seeking to contextualize her early epigrammatic language and events-based art in what I called the “Cage Zen” phenomena, I wrote the following on Ono in an earlier study[2]:

From the late 1950s, reveling in an increasingly eclectic inventory of Asian thought traditions and in direct contact with avant-garde artists from East Asia, the artists associated with Fluxus and Happenings expanded, challenged, and radicalized the parameters of John Cage’s Asian rhetoric and methodology. Allan Kaprow’s 1959 event composition for 18 Happenings in 6 Parts—with three simultaneous performances, eight overlapping sound tracks, and precise instructions for the audience—transformed central conditions of Cagean indeterminacy and interactive participation. By 1962, when Nam June Paik performed Zen for Head at the first Fluxus International Festival of Very New Music in Wiesbaden, the value shifts from intention to nonintention, from object to process, and from stasis to duration reflected the broader application of what Paik called the old “Zen-Cage thesis”: “It is beautiful, not because it change beautifully, but—simply—because it changes.”[3]

….The proto-Fluxus and Fluxus scores, with their distilled conflation of image and word, epigrammatic structure, and frequent reference to nature, indeed mirrored haiku’s poetics of pure actuality and metaphorics of immediacy. George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and La Monte Young experimented with what critics have called “haiku­like” and “Zen-like” language as art. Young edited a collection featuring scores and other writings titled An Anthology (1963); and Yoko Ono published a collection of her own poetry and instruction pieces as Grapefruit (1964). Their event scores or instruction pieces could be performed in the mind as a thought (their visualization being performative, like La Monte Young’s score for “little whirlpools out in the middle of the ocean”[4]) or as a live performance before an invited audience. They expanded upon Cage’s scores by directing the viewer/listener from concrete experiences to a space composed entirely in the mind. Young’s composition that reads “Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area….”[5] infers the existence of music beyond what is audible by the human ear. And Ono’s Instruction Paintings call for paintings “to be constructed in your head.” At her AG Gallery show, she showed this series as ephemeral objects whose “instructions” she read aloud for visitors to mentally realize (1961). At Sōgetsu Art Center inTokyo the following year, Ono eliminated the object altogether and displayed the instructions, scribed by her husband, composer Toshi lchiyanagi, alone on the gallery wall (1962). Writing on “idea art” as a kind of psychological metaphysics, Ono stated, “Instruction painting makes it possible to explore the invisible, the world beyond the existing concept of time and space. And then sometimes later, the instructions themselves will disappear and be properly forgotten.”[6]

But now, fifty years later, Yoko Ono prefers to distance herself from that early association with Cage. Yes, she and her then-husband, the composer Toshi lchiyanagi, had helped arrange Cage’s 1962 trip to Japan and participated in his performances at Tokyo’s vanguard Sōgetsu Art Center. But when she decided to leave Toshi, Cage meddled. “I was not a traditional Japanese woman, and this disappointed them.” she recalled. “It has to do with submissiveness, which I certainly didn’t have.”[7] Cage, the New York master of all things Zen, was not Zen enough to see Ono’s desperate need “to break out of social constraints, the suffocating sense of propriety.” It was this Japan with its elaborate social mechanisms suppressing deviance in women that incited Ono “to break out, to scream.” Japan as an object of oppression, as something to be totally free of, created the conditions for one of her boldest and most original acts:

Yoko Onos Basho[8]

 

Wakon yōsai

Yoko Ono’s upbringing straddles the prewar, wartime, and postwar periods of modern Japanese history. But to a remarkable degree, her mentality was shaped by the particular modernity of the preceding Meiji era (1868–1911). She was born to fabulous wealth on her mother’s side, and genuine nobility and educational pedigree on her father’s side. Both lineages came into power during the Meiji era, whose national slogan of postfeudal modernization was wakon yōsai, or “Japanese spirit, Western technology.”

“My household was exactly like this,” Ono recalled over tea. “We were trained in Japanese spirit and Western skills.” Adapting Western ways was “convenient and fun” but you never strove to imitate and always had pride in being Asian. Part of the Meiji heritage is the acute historical consciousness of being at the threshold of great change, as Japan turned away from 250 years of isolation and willfully sought to catch up and achieve parity with the West as a modern, technological power grounded in its own unique philosophical outlook. “I always felt that I had to give something to the world,” Ono told me. Seeing an interconnected and contemporaneous human project encompassing the East and West, she understood, “I am the one to bring on the new world.”

Music was central to the Ono family, and Yoko moved with ease between the two worlds of classical Japanese and classical Western training. Her father, Yeisuke, had given up a career as a concert pianist to become a banker, and encouraged his eldest child to fulfill his own lost dream. At Tokyo’s prestigious Gakushūin School (School of the Free Spirit), a progressive school for girls, as well as with home tutors, Yoko received rigorous musical training in German lieder singing, Italian opera, and classical piano. Although she would later rebel against the formalism of her early education and reject her father’s will, these years provided the foundation of her work as a composer and vocal artist. What John Lennon called Ono’s “revolutionary … sixteen-track voice” is grounded in this foundation of classical training.

Yoko Ono was also exposed to Japanese instrumentation and musical notation through her mother, who played the stringed koto and shamisen. Scores did not exist until modern times. Book notations for flute, percussion, and stringed instruments were based on the Chinese tradition and featured columns of dots representing time progression (usually every four beats) and syllables written in the phonetic alphabet katakana, called shoga. These sounds were used as a way to memorize the instrumental part by singing it percussively. The open spaces of Japanese notation impressed Ono, who found its range of interpretation significantly different from “the rigid length of each note in Western notation.” In Japan, music is almost entirely an oral tradition, transferred from master to disciple. In this sense, musical teaching was part of the same culture as monastic forms of Zen Buddhism, where enlightenment passes through direct experience between the minds of master and student, without the mediation of religious texts or ritual.

Taking wakon yōsai to another level, Yoko Ono’s art and music would later combine the concepts of structuring empty space and transmission from Japanese music and combine it with Western avant-garde practices to pose her own musical culture. Ono’s seminal texts “On insound” and “On instructure,” which accompanied her 1964 exhibition and concert in Kyoto, reveal her approach to both music and object-making as a practice, an unfinished process of concept transmission:

Yoko Onos Basho2[9]

 

Fumi-e

Among the works that Ono exhibited at George Maciunas’s AG Gallery in New York in July 1961 was Painting to Be Stepped On. Featured as one of her Instruction Paintings, this work consisted of a torn painting lying on the floor that visitors were invited to step on. Unlike any other work in this groundbreaking show that made interactive exchange the condition of an artwork, Painting to Be Stepped On was based on a specific historical reference. Fumi-e, literally “stepping-on picture,” was a practice enforced by the religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate (reign 1600–1868) as a means to identify and root out Christians. Attacked in the late 1500s using brutal public crucifixions of European and Japanese Catholics in Nagasaki, and officially outlawed in 1614, Christianity was seen as a foreign threat to Japanese sovereignty and its closed-door policy. For over two centuries, suspected Christians were made to walk on images bearing the likeness of Christ or the Virgin Mary; those who refused were imprisoned, tortured, and often executed. It’s no wonder that Japan has more martyrs than any other country in the modern age: 40,000.

“Imagine their courage,” Yoko Ono reflected recently of those who refused to trample on what they believed to be sacred images. That a conceptual power could be strong enough to inspire one’s own death is an extraordinary thing for a conceptual artist to contemplate. The combination of extreme conceptualism and violence both physical and psychic describes much of Ono’s art, especially after John Lennon’s murder in 1980. For The Family Album (1993), she produced a series of everyday household objects marked with signs of violent death. A dressing mirror shattered by a bullet hole, some bent hangers manipulated to abort a fetus, a smashed baseball bat are cast in bronze and painted with a blood-red patina.

The text for Family Album Exhibit C: Box (Mindbox) (1993), a solid, dark bronze box with painted blood seeping from its lid, reads:


Yoko Onos Basho3

 

Bashō

“There is a haiku by Bashō,” Yoko Ono was eager to share with me. She wrote it down memory in her elegant Japanese cursive script, and confessed, “This is me!” It goes:

Yoko Onos Basho4

This is said to be Matsuo Bashō’s final haiku, pronounced before his disciples on his death bed in 1694. There are hundreds of translations. She and I came up with this one:

My journey over, my dreams race around the withered moors.

Why, I wondered later, is this her favorite poem? Like so much of her art, the mind is the protagonist and its work is unfinished. Her early instructions call for “paintings to be constructed in your head,” her 1967 Lisson Gallery show was titled “Half-A-Wind: Unfinished Paintings and Objects by Yoko Ono,” and the first album she released with John Lennon was Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. Her lifelong activism charged with hope is symbolized by the Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavík of 2008, a giant light beam projected into the sky: a reaching away from the tired world. Like Bashō’s poetics, her work makes the unseen seen and distills the everyday into moments that feel piercingly real. Perhaps, Ono’s Scores, films, music, objects, performances, and installations are each like a seventeen-syllable poem—a percussive hint awakening self-realization. Her influential 1966 text To the Wesleyan People predicts how Ono’s art functions, for herself and for us all:

The mind is omnipresent, events in life never happen alone and history is forever increasing its volume …. At this point, what art can offer (if it can at all—to me it seems) is an absence of complexity, a vacuum through which you are led to a state of complete relaxation of mind. After that you may return to the complexity of life again, it may not be the same, or it may be, or you may never return, but that is your problem.[10]

 Originally published in Yoko Ono: Half-a-Wind Show; A Retrospective. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

“Yoko Ono’s Bashō: A Conversation.” In Yoko Ono: Half-a-Wind Show; A Retrospective, edited by Ingrid Pfeiffer and Max Hollein in cooperation with Jon Hendricks, pp. 87–91. Exh. cat. Frankfurt: Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt; Munich: Prestel, 2013.

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Some ideas expressed in this essay are based in previous writings found in Alexandra Munroe and Jon Hendricks, Yes: Yoko Ono (New York: Harry N. Abrams and Japan Society, 2000) and in Alexandra Munroe, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2009).

[1] Yoko Ono, interview with the author, November 18, 2012, New York. Unless otherwise stated, all Ono’s quotes appearing in this essay are drawn from this interview.
[2] See Alexandra Munroe, “Buddhism and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Cage Zen, Beat Zen, Zen,” in: Munroe, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989 (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2009), 201–08. The following passage and quotes are drawn from this chapter.
[3] Ibid. Nam June Paik, “To the ‘Symphony for 20 Rooms,’” in La Monte Young (ed.),An Anthology (New York: La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low, 1963), unpaginated.
[4] lbid. La Monte Young, “Composition 1960 #15 to Richard Huelsenbeck,” in: An Anthology, unpaginated.
[5] Ibid., unpaginated.
[6] Yoko Ono, quoted in “Yoko Ono: Instruction Painting,” in: Yoko Ono at Indica, exh. cat. (London: Indica Gallery, 1966), n.p.
[7] Yoko Ono, interview with the author, November 18, 2012, New York. Unless otherwise stated, all Ono’s quotes are drawn from this interview.
[8] Yoko Ono, Grapefruit. A Book of Instructions and Drawings, New York, 1970, o.S.
[9] On lnsound and On lnstructure in the program to Contemporary American Avant-Garde Music Concert, Yamaichi Hall, Kyoto, 1964, reproduced in Alexandra Munroe and Jon Hendricks, Yes: Yoko Ono (New York: Harry N. Abrams and Japan Society, 2000), p.12.
[10] Yoko Ono, “To the Wesleyan People” (1966); reproduced in ibid., p. 291, and in this book on p. 182.

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