Vincent Cassar
July 12, 2022

The Ballad of Yoko Ono

“Art is my life and my life is art.” 

When Yoko Ono was called “the world’s most famous unknown artist” that wasn’t the only paradox in her life.

Two faces of Yoko Ono 

She’s… the girl from the nobility who had nothing…an avant garde musician who tops the dance charts…is recognised as a great artist yet has no formal training… she is East and West…. Body and Mind…

She also studied philosophy and rainbows. 

Each Time We’re Open Our Minds To What We See, We’re Living

Her father was a Christian pianist and banker from a long line of Samurai warrior-scholars. Her mother, a Buddhist socialite and multi-instrumentalist. 

They discouraged her from having friends because they thought no one’s good enough. Which made her “crazed with loneliness” her whole life.

Part of Yoko’s musical education was to listen to noises and transcribe them into musical notations, like birds, clocks, which is a form of Aleatoric music. 

Later she would throw in German Lieder, Buddhist chanting and primal scream therapy wailing. She sees it all as germane. Every sound is a song.

My Voice Is Real, My Voice Is Truth

Her family lost everything in the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. They were forced to beg for food while pulling their belongings in a wheelbarrow to sell. Her father was in a concentration camp for over a year. They didn’t know if he was alive. 

She would create imaginary menus for her brother while they were literally starving. Thus she was an early believer in the power of the imagination and its ability to change her/the world. 

Looking up at the sky rather than around her at the devastation of the city. She saw the wonder in the world and held onto blue skies as a vision of peace. 

Because of these experiencesYoko has been a lifelong Peace campaigner. 

She was the first female to enroll in Gakushuin University’s philosophy department, where she read Marx and Sartre. She went to America to study. poetry, English literature and music composition.

Each Time We Don’t Say What We Wanna Say, We’re Dying

While there her parents threatened to disown her if she continued seeing the man she then eloped with: Toshi Ichiyanagi. Quitting college as she did so.

“There was also this very asexual kind of atmosphere in the music. And I wanted to throw blood.” 

Her teacher felt Yoko’s music was a bit too avant-garde. He introduced her to John Cage. and she provided the loft for the composer and his experimental musical “happenings”.

Some of Yoko’s ideas inspired the Fluxus group about pushing the boundaries of art. She made her own unique creations. She would take eggs and Jell-O out of her fridge and smear them onto a canvas. Then set it on fire. 

Painting to Be Stepped On (1960/61) was a scrap of canvas on the floor. She wanted people to think that paintings don’t have to be on walls or even in galleries.

Grapefruit (1964) are a set of invitations written part poetry part instruction. A grapefruit is a mix of orange and lemon thus like her: a hybrid. These pieces show that thoughts can act as works of art in themselves.

“Hide until everybody goes home. 

Hide until everybody forgets about you. 

Hide until everybody dies.” 

“Many of the Grapefruit pieces were written to save me. They were my therapy.” 

She had been in a mental institution in Japan after her marriage broke up so therapy must have worked on some level. She married a friend Anthony Cox and they had a child, Kyoko, which he looked after mainly while Yoko concentrated on her art. 

This was something she felt strongly about and had the same arrangement later with John. 

Yoko has always done art about the human body. Especially what it’s like being female. 

In Cut Piece 1964/2003, she invited people to snip a segment of clothing. And give it to someone they love. It was part of the Buddhist dana of selfless giving. The emotional toll of just sitting like a stone while you are being slowly exposed with a constant air of menace cos we are dealing with men and a sharp weapon.

She recreated it after her husband had once been shot dead by a fan. Which shows tremendous faith in the innate goodness of people.

Each time we close our minds to how we feel, we’re dying

“Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)”(1969) 

When you listen to it you think it’s the sound an animal makes when it has lost its young. This was originally recorded in the hospital during one of Yokos 3 miscarriages. Some say it’s her finest recorded moment.

She was having problems with Antony re custody of Kyoko. Antony was fearful that with Lennons’ power and money it would eventually cost him his daughter. So he disappeared Xmas 1971 with Kyoto. Yoko wouldn’t see her until  1994.  

“Art to me is a way of showing people how you can think,”

She wrote The Feminization of Society. (1972) which argued that women are slaves of a society conrolled by men.

And songs such as “Women are the N- of the World” (1972), “Angry Young Woman”(1973) and“Yes I’m a Witch” (1974) highlighted the plight of women everywhere. 

“I’m not changing the cover. This is what John is now,”

When she used her husband’s blood splattered glasses on the cover of Season of Glass (1981). I thought wow her life really is her art. The world called her heartless. 

Each time we gotta do what we wanna do, we’re living

Her activism has become about saving the bodies. Color (Refugee Boat) (1960-2009) starts as a white room and a boat. She asks the public to add their contributions to make into art.

And honouring them  My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004/2013) invited visitors to write intimate homages to their mothers. Power to the people indeed.

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality”

In Wish Trees (1981- ongoing) she invited people to write down their personal wishes and tie them on a tree. Like the wish knots she saw in her own youth temple courtyards in Japan. Trees in temple courtyards were always filled with people’s wish knots, which looked like white flower blossoms.

They are collected and buried at the base of the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. 

“Some people are old at 18 and some are young at 90. Time is a concept that humans created.”

Yoko Ono wants to awaken the artist in everyone.

She is all about blurring the line between art and everyday life. She has taught me that  every image is a painting; every sound is a song. 

And there’s no paradox in that. 


+ Grapefruit

Vincent Cassar

Vince is co-host of The Wonderbook and a published author and playwright Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.