To make The Beatles: Get Back, director Peter Jackson was given access to a staggering 60 hours of footage of the band recording their 1970 album Let It Be. The documentary’s emphasis, of course, is the Fab Four – John, Paul, George and Ringo – but, on the periphery, Yoko Ono, then aged 36, is a constant, subtle presence. Wearing all black and then all white, there she is; reading a Beatles fan magazine, mending some clothes or eating a pastry.
In a piece for the New York Times, called “The Sublime Spectacle of Yoko Ono Disrupting the Beatles”, Amanda Hess writes that, at first, she was unnerved by what she saw: “Why is she there? I pleaded with my television set.” But as Get Back goes on, she becomes impressed with Ono’s defiance and her deference grows – woman to woman. Hess further wrote that she was “impressed by her stamina, then entranced by the provocation of her existence and ultimately dazzled by her performance.” When confronted with footage of the most famous band in the world almost breaking up, getting back together, then writing a tranche of enough hits for both Let It Be and their last album, 1969’s Abbey Road, Hess “couldn’t stop watching Yoko Ono sitting around, doing nothing”.
Was Ono, who had created a successful career as a contemporary artist by this point, engaging in a performance piece? A woman surrounded by men, she symbolises all the times women have found themselves in this situation and felt the need to prove themselves, be seen. So instead of trying to capture the attention of the men or serve them, apart from when she joins in with one session, wailing into the microphone, Ono goes inward. In the midst of a group of powerful men, she takes a step back – contented and self-sufficient – displaying an inner peace. Get Back destroys the misogynist image that millions had of her as an unwanted interloper, an interrupter, a disruptive influence on Lennon, a distraction in the studio. She was, it was now plain to see, none of those things.
Instead, it shows Ono’s wisdom. Fast-forwarding to the modern era, on Twitter she suggests, “Start with yourself. Say as many times as you can to yourself: I love you, I forgive you, I accept you 100 per cent.” In another post, she said, “If you are peaceful, you will see how peaceful the world is already. If you are not peaceful, you will not see peace.” Ono has been asking us to “imagine peace” for more than half a century. Away from the media circus and the subverted billboards she created with Lennon, here she asks people to wish for something altogether simpler – a quiet, internalised peace.
It is something we struggle with intensely in Western society, so much so that there are whole sections of bookshops devoted to helping us find inner acceptance. Where, arduously, we search for self-esteem that somewhere along the way seems to have tumbled down a big black hole, if indeed it was ever there to begin with. In the background, with the Vietnam War raging far away from the West, Ono’s artwork encouraged an imagining of world peace – an end to war. But previous to that, she engaged in a more inward-facing practice.
In Grapefruit, published in 1964, Ono shares what she called scores, which you are encouraged to act out. “Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” “Listen to the sound of the earth turning.” “Bandage any part of your body. If people ask you about it, make a story and tell. If people do not ask about it, draw their attention to it and tell. If people forget about it, remind them of it and keep telling. Do not talk about anything else.” Christophe Cherix, Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, told me, “Through this book, Ono developed a new, more direct relationship with viewers – inviting them to become a part of her work, not by acquiring it, but by performing it in their minds.” Ono told Vogue in 1971 that she wrote the pieces for Grapefruit during her time in upstate New York at Sarah Lawrence College in the early 1950s “for my sake, to save me. They were my therapy in a way.”
Ono, born in Tokyo in 1933, moved to America with her family in 1953. She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence to study poetry, though she left to elope with her first husband, Ichiyanagi Toshi, an avant-garde composer. She was from a wealthy family: her father was a former classical pianist turned banker and her mother was a descendant of a samurai clan. She lived in privilege, able to visit New York from her home in Japan, until World War II, when Tokyo was heavily bombed. In March 1945, as many as 100,000 people were killed in a single night. Some 1 million people were left homeless and Ono and her family fled to the countryside, where they faced starvation. Her father was held in an internment camp in French Indochina, a grouping of French-owned territories that included Cambodia, Laos and parts of Vietnam.
This period of trauma was formative; it fuelled her imagination. When journalist Sean O’Hagan, writing for the Guardian, asked Ono in 2013 to recall the first piece of art she ever made, she said, “I remember, when we were evacuated during the war, my brother was really unhappy and depressed and really hungry because we did not have very much food. So, I said, ‘OK, let’s make a menu together. What kind of dinner would you like?’ And, he said, ‘Ice cream.’ So, I said, ‘Good, let’s imagine our ice-cream dinner.’ And we did, and he started to look happy. So, I realised even then that just through imagining, we can be happy.”
Grapefruit reads like a manifesto for this imagining; it encourages people to create space for new thoughts to exist. To accompany Assembly Required, a showing of around 80 scores of Ono’s and visitors’ response pieces to Grapefruit at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St Louis this year, the museum organised a workshop series to engage people to act them out. Joshua Peder Stulen, the organiser of the event, told me, “As kids, we create that space to imagine and have our sense of the world be questioned constantly. We allow for different types of possibility and to be untethered from reality. But as we grow up, we lose touch with that.”
This approach to making artwork was in its infancy in the late 1950s. But Ono was able to find a group of like-minded people in downtown New York and became part of an art movement called Fluxus, an association of Dada-inspired avant-garde artists co-founded in the early 1960s by Lithuanian-American artist George Maciunas. The group engaged in experimental art performances which emphasised the artistic process over the finished product and were at the forefront of the nascent contemporary art movement. In her loft on Chambers Street, which she shared with Ichiyanagi, Ono organised concerts and performed her work.
Her breakthrough, a pioneering performance artwork called Cut Piece, was first performed in Kyoto in 1964. It featured Ono sitting on a stage in her best suit with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience was invited to come up to the stage and cut small pieces from her clothes, eventually leaving her naked. The piece presented a form of violence against the female body. When she performed it again nearly 40 years later in Paris, she said that when she had first shared the work, “force and intimidation were in the air. People were silenced. Cut Piece is my hope for world peace.” Cherix staged an exhibition dedicated to Ono’s early work, Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971, at MoMA in 2015. “It felt urgent to demonstrate how influential Ono’s work had been not only to her peers but also to the generations of artists that followed. In order to do so, [former MoMA curator] Klaus Biesenbach and I decided to focus on the first decade of her practice, which was lesser-known to the public, yet held extraordinary historical significance.”
The thread of imagining and peace has existed throughout Ono’s work. In 1966, during her second marriage, to American film producer Tony Cox, she met John Lennon at the Indica Gallery in St James’s. He was bowled over, he later said, by the positivity of her exhibited piece Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting, which consisted of a ladder that one climbed to the ceiling where the word “yes” was printed in small letters, accompanied by a dangling magnifying glass that allowed the viewer to read it.
They became a couple and married in 1969. Their fame allowed Ono to engage with an audience that her work had previously not reached. Lennon and Ono performed Bed-In for Peace during their honeymoon in Amsterdam and Montreal, protesting the still-ongoing Vietnam War. Taking inspiration from non-violent protests like sit-ins, they invited reporters to their hotel bedroom to debate the topic. Later that year, they staged a multimedia campaign that included advertisements, billboards, posters, radio spots and postcards – all of which said: “War Is Over! If You Want It. Love and Peace from John & Yoko” – and co-wrote Imagine, which has its roots in Grapefruit. In 2015, Lindsay Zoladz wrote in New York magazine that, “Ono’s art came alive when it broke out beyond the avant-garde, because her mission was to awaken the artist in everybody – not just those who were cool enough to know about the latest goings-on in that Chambers Street loft.”
Her work was asking you to imagine peace collectively. Ervin Straub, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and the Founding Director of the Psychology of Peace and Violence program at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told me: “Imagining peace, when it is most useful, would be to imagine it in quite specific ways, what peace would mean for the way people behave, how they interact with members of other groups, and what actions they might take to make the peace they imagine a reality. So it can be a bridge to what I call ‘active bystandership’ in promoting peace.”
Ono’s work doesn’t ask us to imagine specific examples of peace but they do co-opt spaces that are usually used to promote products, which as an act is itself subversive, jolting the viewer into a new frame of reference. Kathleen Lynch, Director of Operations for Art Production Fund, which staged Ono’s Imagine Peace installation in Times Square in 2012, told me, “When people encounter an artwork in public, they aren’t necessarily seeking it out. Encountering it on your walk home or on the way to work can be incredibly impactful because the experience is unexpected.” Cherix said that utilising these commercial spaces “emanates from [Ono’s] early belief that you do not need a museum, a gallery or a publisher to change the world.” It is also disruptive to ask someone to imagine peace somewhere so dedicated to capitalism, such as Times Square. The nature of capitalism is to protect the status quo; it allows no room to imagine an alternative.
So let us imagine peace. What would it mean to you? Is it micro? A rupture in a relationship where you long for respite? Are you at odds with yourself in your struggle for self- acceptance? Or is it macro? Do you envision a world where dozens of ongoing global conflicts end? Do you long for world peace? Staub says that, “Peace would look like people reaching out to others across political, psychological, racial and group divisions.” Although, he adds, “This is especially challenging now, since divisions in the US are so intense. It could involve inviting ‘others’ to spend time together to imagine peace, then discussing what they have imagined and, if possible, coming to joint actions to fulfil at least some visions. Imagining peace could also include imagining love for others whom one normally diminishes in one’s mind. But imagining and acting to promote peace should go beyond the boundaries of one’s nation… [It is] not ‘cold peace’, which we now have, but a warm peace so that hostilities become less likely.”
If you find it difficult to envisage, Ono offers support. On Twitter, where she continues expressing her art to 4.5 million followers, she wrote, “The door doesn’t open with the first knock. Be patient.” While writing this article, I started to believe that Ono’s most radical act was encouraging us to try to be peaceful, perhaps in a collective sense, but first on a personal level. While doing the Grapefruit workshops at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Peder Stulen said that when the scores are displayed “in the white wall, gallery space, these tiny little note cards – very precious objects, in a frame – can feel like they’re not for you. But then when you have 17 people screaming collectively, three times, suddenly, people realise: Oh, this is for me. This is the most accessible artwork I’ve ever interacted with.” He continued: “Maybe imagining peace on a mass scale does seem too grandiose. But I can imagine peace on my block. I can imagine peace in my yard. What does that look like?”