in Frieze | 03 MAR 98
Featured in
Issue 39

Happening High Priestess

After a touring retrospective and the reissue of eleven albums, it's time to take Yoko Ono seriously

in Frieze | 03 MAR 98

While Yoko Ono is still regarded by many as the Beatles' persona non grata, a quiet re-evaluation of her art and music has been underway for some time. A sort of subcultural logic has dictated that anyone who's been so successful in provoking so much hatred amongst both young squares and old farts must qualify as 100% Punk. In America, it has become an honour for the likes of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore or Zappaesque indie weirdos such as Ween to be invited to remix Ono's album Rising (1996).

The stereotypical image of Ono screaming like hell, upsetting rockers with her radical hippie caterwauling was only one step - possibly a necessary mistake - in the history of Ono's reception. The recent reissue of eleven of her records from Unfinished Music No.1/Two Virgins (1968) to Starpeace (1985) makes clear that all the way through there must have been more to it. This is emphasised by the timely excavation of her work as an artist from the archives: a retrospective initiated by the Oxford Museum of Modern Art moves on to Edinburgh's Fruitmarket and Villa Stuck, Munich later this year.

It is not as if the world's most famous Japanese woman had to wait until her 65th birthday last month to find acclaim. In the early 60s, she attracted the attention of the New York avant-garde, but in between organising concerts with LaMonte Young at her loft and going on tour with John Cage in Japan, the classically-trained singer from a Tokyo banker's family had to make a living working as an interpreter. After her early involvement with George Macunias' Fluxus as both singer and performance artist, Ono moved to London around the time of the Destruction in Art Symposium in September 1966. Later, together with her then husband Tony Cox, she released the infamous Film No. 4 - close-ups of 365 bare bottoms accompanied by the informal conversations that had taken place during filming. The film was found 'not suitable for public exhibition' by the censors. Following several performances around the country, she was identified in early 1967 by the British press as some sort of exotic freak of contemporary art (the Liverpool Daily Post dubbed her 'The High Priestess of the Happening'). Consequently Ono's relationship with her avant-garde peer group, especially back in New York, began to get a little strained.

Early performances like Cut Piece (1964), in which she crouched onstage in her best suit, inviting the audience to cut off pieces of the cloth with scissors - reducing the traditional distance between artist and audience - were in accord with Macunias' 1964 dictum 'Destroy the world of dead art!'. But once she appeared in England, the public attention she attracted might have been considered a violation of another Macunias maxim: 'Destroy professional and commercialised culture!'. Ono seemed to be stuck in a vacuum between these two rigorous demands.

Her subsequent relationship with Lennon was in some ways mutually beneficial: he offered her the opportunity to challenge a larger audience, while she helped his public transformation from object of fan desire to politically engaged artist. The partnership reached its apotheosis in a hotel bed in Toronto, singing Give Peace a Chance with 50 others, among them Timothy Leary and Petula Clark.

Which is not to say that Ono was satisfied by using her voice as a medium for Anti-Vietnam singalongs. As with her visual/performance work, such as Cut Piece or Rape (a 1969 film after a concept of hers and Lennon's, showing a young woman being systematically persecuted by a cameraman), there is something unmediated about her singing. Without introduction or fade-in, she bursts in like a head through a wall, scissors through cloth: from strangely detached singing right into guttural scatting, chattering, polysounding croaking and screaming. Inside this storm, though, you begin to notice the transformations, as in the 22 minute title-track of the 1971 double-LP Fly, for example, where a dog, a cat, a sirening infant and a kabuki twang seem to morph into each other. At about this time, American freestyle folk-rock singer Tim Buckley was doing similar things with his voice, but a more direct comparison can be found on the great Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band of 1970. On the track 'AOS', recorded with free-jazzer Ornette Coleman and his ensemble (Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell and David Izenzon), her voice makes a perfect replacement for Coleman's vacant instrument.

The mythical origin of this style of singing has been revealed by Ono in several interviews. As a four year old, she sneaked into a forbidden place - the servants' room - and overheard a conversation about giving birth accompanied by an imitation of a woman in labour. It was this sound that she tried to recreate in later life, constantly modulating and adapting it. Her non-linguistic singing may therefore be classed as unconscious, but was certainly not animal-like. There is something in it that sounds like a very energetic attempt to break through class walls with the larynx, especially since at the time there were so few bohemian, bourgeois women artists (one of Ono's few contemporaries may have been Nikki de Saint-Phalle).

Accounts of Ono's work are probably correct to stress her artistic independence from the Beatles' universe. But in order to do that, there is a tendency (and the Oxford retrospective rather supports this impression) to place Ono's sculptural and installation work - Painting to Hammer a Nail in (1961-94), Apple (1966) etc. - above those performance, music and film works that are directly connected to her relationship with Lennon. Works and actions from their 1969 public appearances inside linen bags to their last collaborative recordings in 1980 are taken less seriously, implying that Ono's artistic standing was diminished in the shadow of Lennon's pop charisma, rather than enhanced by a serious artistic (as well as romantic) relationship.

Judging from most critical writing on Ono, it would still seem that the art world prefers not to think too much about her role in the pop sphere. Similarly, her music audience tend to consider her art as no more than a curious splenetic whim. Yet Ono has done much cross-referencing: Fly is not only the name of an album, but of a film depicting a fly moving around on the naked, supine body of a woman; and the title of her current retrospective is taken from a short, kitschy languorous bar-soul ditty called 'Have You Seen the Horizon Lately' on her album Approximately Infinite Universe (1972).

These two double albums, together with Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, document her most consistent and musically free phase, between 1970 and 1972. The two albums that followed, Feeling the Space (1974) and A Story (1974, but not released at the time) though sympathetically solemn, are unconvincing attempts to create catchy feminist agit-prop. On 'Yes, I'm a witch' of 1974, Yoko Ono sings: 'I'm not gonna die for you, I will stick around for quite a while'. Nearly quarter of a century later, it seems she has been proven right.