BY Philomena Epps in Opinion | 04 MAR 24
Featured in
Issue 241

Yoko Ono’s Memorable ‘Bottoms’

As a major retrospective opens in London, we take a rearview of one of her most iconic works 


BY Philomena Epps in Opinion | 04 MAR 24

Yoko Ono’s Film No. 4 (Bottoms) (1966–67) was banned by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) in March 1967, before it was due to premiere at the Royal Albert Hall. Recorded at the London townhouse of the art dealer and poet Victor Musgrave, the 80-minute, 16mm, black and white film was an extended version of Film No. 4 (Fluxfilm No. 16) (1966), shot in her Manhattan apartment with a group of friends. Her instructive event score was simple: ‘String bottoms together in place of signatures for petition of peace.’ Both films have the same highly mediated, repetitive structure: a sequence of naked bottoms are captured by a stationary camera in a controlled, tight-framed close-up. A new pair of buttocks fills the screen every 15 seconds, moving rhythmically as the individual walks on the spot. The second version included an audio soundtrack, comprised of interviews with participants, excerpts from media coverage and an interview with the artist.

Ono conceived the event as a happening. Behind-the-scenes photographs taken by Graham Keen during the London filming reveal the collaborative, social dimension of the production: the distinction between domestic space and studio is blurred, with the fireplace mantel used to shore up the technical set-up. Ono intended to feature 365 participants – a bottom for every day of the year – but, in the end, recruited only about 200, discovered through mutual friends, word of mouth and advertisements in various newspapers. They were ‘people who represented the London scene’, Ono wrote in the self-published pamphlet Thirteen Film Scores by Yoko Ono (1968), ‘the 1960s was not only the age of achievements, but of laughter. This film is like an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses.’

Yoko Ono, Film No. 4  (Bottoms), 1966–67. Courtesy: © Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono, Film No. 4  (Bottoms), 1966–67. Courtesy: © Yoko Ono

While recalling the radical jouissance of Carolee Schneemann and Yayoi Kusama – notably the latter’s performative orgies, in which pacificism was similarly pursued through eroticism – the film also prompts comparison with Pauline Boty’s painting, Bum (1966), in which the exposed body part is enlarged, fragmented and framed by a decorative proscenium arch. Boty had been commissioned by Kenneth Tynan to make stage designs for his cabaret Oh! Calcutta! (1969), the title of the revue being a translingual pun on the French phrase O, quel cul t’as! (Oh, what an arse you have!). However, unlike Tynan’s libidinal provocations, there is a vulnerability and sweet sincerity to Ono’s Film No. 4. As opposed to pure bodily spectacle, her structural filmic gaze is democratic and anti-essentializing, conjuring an erogenous sensuality that might align more closely with the polymorphous drives of infantile sexuality. Her non-hierarchal approach also demonstrates the potential for the body, all bodies, to be freed from the voyeuristic, sexualized tropes of gendered display, united in the uninhibited pleasures of their perambulatory, naked protest.

Yoko Ono, Film No 4. (Bottoms), 1966, behind the scenes. Courtesy: TopFoto; photograph: Graham Keen
Yoko Ono behind the scenes of Film No 4. (Bottoms), 1966. Courtesy: TopFoto; photograph: Graham Keen

When the BBFC banned the film, Ono stood outside their Soho offices, passing out daffodils to members of the public: ‘The whole idea of the film is one of peace,’ she reportedly told journalists. ‘It’s quite harmless. It is not in the least bit dirty or kinky.’ It eventually received an X-rating, premiering at the Jacey-Tatler cinema on Charing Cross Road in August 1967, accompanied by much media furore. Quotes from the press were collated and utilized in the promotional poster for the film. Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail found it ‘frankly revolting’.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 241 with the headline ‘Bottom Line’

Yoko Ono's ‘Music of the Mind’ will be on view at Tate Modern, London, from 15 February until 1 September

Main image: Yoko Ono, Half-A-Room, 1967. Courtesy: © Yoko Ono; photograph: © Clay Perry

Philomena Epps is an editor and writer based in London.