Me and Yoko (Photo: Toni Gauthier)
Did I ever mention that I interviewed Yoko Ono? That was more than six years ago, when she visited the Stanford campus with “wish trees” to take back to the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. We’re still imagining peace and, frankly, it has never seemed so far away.
Yoko was surprisingly personable and open. Absolutely nothing of the prima donna about her. As for the photo – it was far more impromptu than it looks – I was just pulled in front of the lights and the camera popped. Since it’s her 82nd birthday today, I thought the interview might be worth a revisit:
You’ve been a celebrity for so many years. People must approach you with so many expectations and preconceptions.
[laughs] That’s for sure.
How do you handle it?
I don’t feel I’m handling it. “Handling” it is not the word I think of. I’m just going through it.
I understand you just took your first trip to China.
Yeah. I did that. That was great. I just didn’t know what to expect, but the strange thing is that they knew about my work so well, and I said, “I’ve never been here, so what’s the deal?” And they said, “We all look on the Internet.” It’s really a global village now.
You’ve taken a great interest in the global village. I understand that you’re on Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter—you’re more plugged in than most of us.
I think it’s something we should all be doing. The more we do, the more we will be united. It’s a “being on the same page” kind of thing. We’re all on the same page; we’re all in the same boat.
You’ve had a background in Japan and America going back all your life, really. How do you think the two cultures have influenced your art and your work?
I don’t know. I just leave it to the critics. For me, I’m just doing what I can do, and what I feel like doing.
Yet many have commented on a Zen-like quality in your work.
Stanford Prof. Gordon Chang with Yoko (Photo: Linda Cicero)
I was very interested in Buddhism at one time, when I was in high school. But in Japan, they comment that my work is very Western, too.
I found a video recording on the Internet of Cut Piece , in which you let members of the audience cut away pieces of your clothes with scissors. It’s unexpectedly powerful.
This was one from Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965.
After I did that one, I went to London—swinging London, at the time—and the minute I put the scissors in front of me, 20 people came up on the stage and made me totally naked. Oops! It depends on the audience really; it’s a dialogue between me and the audience.
It seemed to draw violence out of the audience, like a poison.
It always draws something out of people. I mean, that’s why we’re doing this.
You said about your Paris 2003 performance of Cut Piece that it was intended to fight sexism and racism.
Yeah. But also, I wanted to show that we have to trust each other. If I’m going to say that, I have to do it myself. I have to trust people myself. Now it’s a very different situation in society. I did think that, really, it could be a bit dangerous. But then I thought, we have to trust each other.
You’ve gone from one of the most reviled public figures—the one that was blamed for breaking up the Beatles—to a celebrated international icon. How did you weather the storms?
I think that I was very lucky. I went through the most horrible situation where I could have been killed. There were people who really wanted me dead. I don’t know how I survived that. You can’t advise people. It’s such a severe situation when people go through it, I don’t know what they can do. All we can do is do our best, whatever that is—our best to survive.
Home movies: Yoko shows her dad playing golf (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
Of course, when you burst on the world stage with John Lennon in the 1960s, World War II was only two decades in the past, and the women’s movement had not yet been launched.
Do you feel sexism and racism played a role in your treatment?
Definitely. It was very upfront, very clear. I think maybe I was used as an example of something—to make people understand what one goes through. Maybe in that sense it was beneficial—beneficial to society, maybe.
I remember those early clips of you. When you were silent, you were seen as a sort of black spider, sitting in the background. When you spoke, you were seen as domineering.
I think that in some ways most women do go through that. You can’t really stand up for yourself, because then people say, “How dare you!” and if you’re silent, then they will think there’s something really creepy about it.
What do you hope to accomplish with the Imagine Peace Tower and the wish trees?
It’s growing, and it is doing what I hoped that it would do. Many, many wishes are being made and they are being sent to the Imagine Peace Tower. There’s an incredible power of people’s wishes that are concentrated in the Imagine Peace Tower. Also, light has the same vibration as love. The light that’s in the Imagine Peace Tower—which is the Imagine Peace Tower—I think many people are enjoying it, somehow, feeling part of it.
What would you say to critics who say these works are too—
I know. People say it is too simplistic, or whatever. Some people say, “Oh well, maybe when you get older you want to do something simple.” I thought that was ageist. My work was always minimal. Minimalism—I believed in that. It was always very simple. I think it is as simple as breathing. Breathing is very important. I don’t feel that that’s bad. I was very surprised myself that the wish tree has become so important in people’s lives. I’m very honored that I was used for that, instead of some very complex, highfalutin work. Sometimes something simple gives more to people.