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YOKO ONO - Born Tokyo, 1933. Lives in New York + works internationally.

Yoko Ono, 'Painting to see the skies', 1961 (2)


"I see life as the playground of our minds." Yoko Ono (1)

Yoko Ono is an artist whose work spans a whole range of media from music, film and writing to performance, painting, installation and sculpture. A key figure in the New York conceptual art movement of the sixties, she has continued to explore ideas-based work dealing with issues of participation, communication, philosophy, and sexual politics.

Much of Ono's work reveals a playful, experimental and inclusive approach to art making. There is a mischief in the insistant way her work undermines the pretensions and elitism of the art world with small, illusive statements, but there is also a constant reaching out for some kind of larger meaning or enlightenment. Her work draws on Zen philosophy through the process of self-discovery and is also informed by her early musical training.

Many of her early pieces or 'scores' still exist as instructions for performances. Some of these were originally enacted by the artist others could only be 'performed' by the viewer or audience. These pieces move a step on from Marcel Duchamp's belief that the work of art is only partly created by the artist and is completed by the spectator. They also frequently represent the search for wholeness or unity which is a central goal of Zen.

"Yoko Ono's idea of license, the setting up of a situation where others could complete a work of art instead of the artist, was a radical departure from the existing concept of the role of the artist." Jon Hendricks

Fluxus was a loose group of international writers, musicians and artists, founded in 1960 in New York by Lithuanian artist George Maciunas, which was anti-elist , anti-commercial and experimented across artforms and outside traditional spaces for almost twenty years. Ono was involved in establishing the movement, staging performances, making films and object-pieces. However, she continued to make work beyond Fluxus, wanting to break away from the labelling and controlling aspects of the art world and of society more generally, as an artist and as a Japanese woman.

Her contribution to Fluxfilms included the famously controversial 'Film No. 4' which was a series of close-ups of naked human bottoms walking. Fluxfilms were experimental and innovative attempts to explore and play with the medium of film, rather than documentary or fictional narrative constructions.

From 1961-2 Yoko Ono made a series of pieces called 'Instruction Paintings'. These were a set of typed instructions (like the one above right) originally in Japanese script but later also in English, exhibited on the wall, just as paintings would be. The apparent absence of images, combined with the instructions of the artist forced the audience to create the work in their imagination.

Even the destructive works such as 'Cut Piece', where audience members were invited up on stage to snip pieces off the clothes Yoko wore, or 'Painting toHammer a Nail' (above right), in which the spectators gradually destroy the traditional art canvas with nails, allude to a process of self discovery.

Ono constantly uses ephemeral or intangible materials to draw the viewer back to a conceptual or philosophical state. She works with glass and perspex, plays with noise and silence, creates temporary pieces out of touch or shadows and constantly uses the colour white because "it does not interfere with your thoughts." In the piece 'Chess Set (All White Chess Set')', 1966 (1) she removes the element of competition from the game by making the opposing sides identical. A later version of the work was titled 'Play it by trust' implying this game of war strategy could become a process of cooperation and collaboration.

Her ideas had an enormous influence on a whole generation in the sixties and early seventies, when she worked in partnership with husband John Lennon. Their peaceful political protests and their music could be seen as an extension of her previous performances, writings and scores, but were often the subject of inflamed media coverage. Ironically, instead of being given credit for her ideas, she is still more famous for an unintended destruction piece, as 'The woman who broke up The Beatles'.


Yoko Ono, 'Painting toHammer a Nail', 1966 (photo David Behl) (3)

"What I'm trying to do is make something happen by throwing a pebble into the water and creating ripples...I don't want to control the ripples." Yoko Ono (2)


  • What would you do or make, inspired by this artist's work?
  • Ono's work is sometimes more about looking and thinking than it is about making. They are performances of the mind. They relate to fundamental questions about life, religion and philisophy. What if you were to whisper an instruction for a piece of work to the person sitting beside you and they were to whisper it to the person beside them?.. When it has passed through twenty or thirty ears and minds and mouths, what has it become?
  • If a piece of work only exists in your head, can it still be called art? What if it only exists in someone else's head - are you still the artist? Could you make some statements or questions and place them around the building, to make people think more about who can be an artist and what might count as art.


For more information on Fluxus :

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