Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky is coauthor of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies (Amulet Books, 2013) and is a visual artist, arts writer, and playwright who published an article about Yoko Ono in Art New England. She lives in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Can you believe? Yoko Ono turns eighty on February 18. But by all accounts, she’s not aging. How is that possible? Wait. Maybe that’s the point. Aging is supposed to be the last frontier. So it makes sense that Yoko would blow away any preconceptions about it.
I first became aware of Yoko in the late 1960s, through Grapefruit, her whimsical book of instruction poems that invite us to tap into our own creativity. Here’s one: “Cloud Piece: Imagine the clouds dripping/Dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” Here’s another: “Map Piece: Draw a map to get lost.” She puts ideas out there, and we do what we want with them—paint, draw, perform, think, laugh, dream or imagine.
The poem-like verbal instructions encourage what she calls “an exploration of the invisible.” Grapefruit is now seen as pivotal in the development of conceptual art, making it clear that art is about ideas. Taking that a little further, Yoko considers her works unfinished, until we complete them. She once likened her art to throwing a stone in the water and watching a ripple effect.
I found that ripple effect comforting when I first read those instructions, because, as an artist working alone, they made me feel connected to something. And that core of connectedness still runs through her work: that anyone can be an artist, that we’re all here together now, that imagination has the power to transform and heal, and that we should give peace a chance.
In 2000, I went to Yoko’s retrospective “Yes Yoko Ono” at the Japan Society in New York and wrote a feature story about it for a Boston arts magazine called Art New England. Shortly after, I interviewed Yoko for Ruminator Review, and soon linked up with Nell Beram, in a collaborative journey that would become Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies, released recently by Amulet Books.
Nell and I are excited to introduce younger readers to Yoko, but we also think readers of all ages will relate to her, not just because she’s one of the most courageous and pioneering artists on the planet, but because she’s always been an outsider. Whether she was traveling between Japan and the United States (and not feeling at home anywhere), or being criticized by the media for her romantic and artistic relationship with John Lennon, or trying to fit in as a wife and mother, or daring to make art and music that couldn’t be categorized, she always found a way to stay true to herself.
And Yoko’s work, regardless of its avant-garde roots, is surprisingly accessible, like the instruction poems. Or when she puts an apple on a pedestal in a gallery, prodding us to ask if it’s “art.” Or when she presents art as a game, like in “Play It By Trust,” where a chess set is painted completely white, making it impossible to tell who’s the “good guys” or “bad guys.” There’s no “enemy” to fight or defeat, since all the pieces look the same.
And what about the iconic pre-feminist work, “Cut Piece?” We want readers to know how Yoko, as a young woman, sat on stage, in the 1960s, (before “performance art” was even a term) and shockingly asked audience members to come up and cut off her clothes with a scissors. They did. And she was left practically naked. Why did she do it? There are many reasons, but there’s one thing for sure: the audience was left with a moral dilemma. Were they going to sit there passively, like voyeurs, and watch what was going on or go up to the stage and do what she asked them to do? Various artists around the world have performed it for decades, changing the context and the meaning, including Charlotte Moorman in a nunnery. Yoko performed it again in Paris when she was seventy, and dedicated it to world peace.
Yoko’s art continues to be reinterpreted by others—reinventing itself–just the way she does. I mean, who expected Yoko to become a chart-topping dance club diva? Yet, over the past few years, edgy artists like Pet Shop Boys, Basement Jaxx and Felix Da Housecat have stunningly created dance remixes of her work for the albums Open Your Box and Yes, I’m A Witch. And she recently released Ono: Move On Fast, her sixth consecutive number one billboard hot dance club hit, featuring remixes of her catalog by Richard Morel, Digital Dog, Wawa, Chris The Greek and others.
Isn’t it great? At eighty, Yoko is still beautifully blowing our minds. Visual artist, musician, filmmaker, performance artist, poet, peace activist, humanitarian, and environmentalist (and recent founder with son Sean Lennon of “Artists Against Fracking”), I can’t think of a better role model for all ages. Nell and I hope that readers find Yoko’s life story as fascinating as we do. And we hope that her belief in the power of imagination and–against all odds—in the word “yes,” will be an inspiration. Happy birthday Yoko! Can’t wait for what’s next.
Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies by Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky (Amulet Books, 2013) is available now wherever books are sold.