It’s amazing how much flak Yoko Ono has taken over the years because of the Beatles controversy. More amazing still is how little most people actually know about her life and work. There’s her marriage to John Lennon, the bed-ins and the fans’ resentment about the fab four’s break-up and Lennon’s apparent “demotion” to househusband.

Her innovative careers as an artist and musician, however, are too often written off as minor, her achievements as an activist and philanthropist overlooked. Yet perhaps it is inevitable that she has found herself a victim to kneejerk reactions. Her history seems too complex to be easily “got”.

London’s Serpentine gallery is staging a survey of Ono’s 60-year-career as an artist over the next few months. Set to open up her work to a wider public, it goes right back to her early days as a member of the performance-art movement Fluxus and her collaborations with Lennon. There will be a selection of the films they made together in the 1960s and early 1970s, such as Rape, in which a woman is pursued by a film camera through the streets of London, in what comes over as both a feminist statement and a retort to the press who had been hounding the couple. As with Ono’s oft-referenced film No 4, aka Bottoms, which shows the bare bums of Ono and her friends in unabashed close-up, her political statements are charged with a knowing, impish wit.

A number of key ideas underpin these early projects and remain central for Ono today. In 1952 she became the first female philosophy student at Gakushuin University, Japan, and there dived into the writings of Marx and the existentialists. Yet, within the year, she had become disillusioned, moved to New York and enrolled at Sarah Lawrence, studying poetry and composition. Her circle would soon include central figures of 1950s avant-garde New York, such us John Cage, George Brecht, Fluxus founder George Maciunas and La Monte Young.

Ono and her friends took Cage’s musical experiments as inspiration for their seminal “instruction pieces”, written directions for works to be performed by anyone, any number of times. Cut Piece, in which Ono sits on stage in her best clothes and the audience members use scissors to slice them away until she is left naked and vulnerable, has become a legendary moment within feminist performance art.

This was more than an artist channelling the mood of an era, however. Ono certainly knew about suffering first hand – in fact, her personal tragedies have been extreme. Born in 1933, she came from an aristocratic banking family and enjoyed a privileged education that included German lieder singing and classical piano. During the Second World War, though, her father was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. At the age of 12, she found herself looking after her siblings and begging for food. As an adult, nearly a decade before the love of her life was shot, she suffered an unthinkable loss. In 1971, two years after her marriage to Lennon, her second husband, a jazz musician called Tony Cox, kidnapped their eight-year-old daughter. Yoko wouldn’t see her again until 1994.

The threat of physical violence and psychological abuse crackling through many of the early projects has fizzled out in the art she makes today. The emphasis on inequality and violation has given way to a broad-brush message of peace and love delivered through simple, positive actions like inviting gallery goers to remake broken crockery or writing down their hopes and tying them to “wish trees”. SMILE, an online project featured in the Serpentine show, involves people from all over the world sharing pictures of themselves smiling. It can seem a rather passive way of addressing global issues, but it is well to consider the very direct action she has taken over the years, such as the Lennon Ono Grant for Peace, the prize she set up in 2002.

The first time I encountered Ono’s work live was by chance in Venice in 2004. The film festival was on and she was making her way around the colonnades of St Mark’s Square with a little entourage. Every few paces she was stopping passers-by to signal “I love you”, using a torch. This was Onochord, one of her best-known recent works. Granted, as political art goes, it wasn’t exactly life changing. Nonetheless, it had a sweet, simple immediacy (even if the message was somewhat overshadowed by having Ono come out of nowhere to shine a torch in your face). I remember the smile, as impartial as a saint’s, that she levelled on everyone, and thinking how tiny she looked, dressed in black, surrounded by “her people”.

Ono doesn’t easily fit in and presumably doesn’t care for conformity. As a singer, her experimental wails freaked out 1970s popsters, just as her art’s straightforward sentimental appeal can seem out of step with the current art world’s love of cool-headed theory. Yet it’s perhaps not fair to see her messages of peace as less edgy than her earlier work with nudity and scissors. Words and gestures stripped back to essentials have always been part of her modus operandi. In that sense her work’s directness has become more honed than ever.

In 2006, a few years after the Venice spot, I did a phone interview with Ono, one of those nerve-jangling ones where someone along the PR chain tells you that you’ve got about five minutes, unless she likes you. Her album, Yes I’m a Witch, was coming out; it featured covers of her songs from the likes of Le Tigre, Cat Power and Peaches. Then she chatted blithely about everything from the disappointed dreams of the 1960s generation to witch burning in Salem and pregnancy, for (phew, phew) almost an hour.

The artist, who turns 80 next year, no longer likes doing phoners. Email is her preferred medium of choice when it comes to interviews. One-word answers in this situation are the stuff that ordinarily makes a writer’s heart sink. Yet the brief responses Ono sent through on this occasion make a kind of sense. Since the “instruction pieces”, she has been using as few words as she can to say as much as possible…

SKYE SHERWIN: “You once said that, in the 1960s, the air was shimmering, and it seems your work’s ethereal quality, engaging with ideas, reflected that. Then, in the 1980s, bronze seemed the right medium for the age of commodity. What kind of moment do you think we’re living in now? What qualities does it have that you’re interested in addressing in your work?”

YOKO ONO: “Heal.”

SKYE SHERWIN: “What are you working on at the moment for the Serpentine show?”

YOKO ONO: “I am working on giving back what a nation lost.”          

SKYE SHERWIN: “What’s your working day like when you’re making art? Do you stick to strict hours, do you prefer music or silence, do you move between different works or do you concentrate on one work at a time?”

YOKO ONO: “1) I don’t stick to strict hours. 2) Prefer silence. 3) Move between different works out of necessity.” 

SKYE SHERWIN: “What inspirational objects, books, sounds, images, mascots, etc, keep you company in the place where you work?”

YOKO ONO: “I don’t have a mascot.”

SKYE SHERWIN: “One of your best-known, more recent works is the wish trees. Have you found that there are recurring wishes that people share? Does it change depending in what country or on what continent you’ve created the wish trees?”

YOKO ONO: “Most wishes are about wanting love and world peace.” 

SKYE SHERWIN: “What are you personally currently wishing for?”

YOKO ONO: “I’m wishing to make this year a good one for my work.”

SKYE SHERWIN: “How did the SMILE project originate and what has been making you smile recently?”

YOKO ONO: “The smile project originated in the inspirational wish I got. It is written in my book GRAPEFRUIT.”

SKYE SHERWIN: “Your work is associated with feminist art. Do you think things are easier for women artists now? What has changed and what challenges remain?”

YOKO ONO: “It is probably easier for women artists now, in some ways. The challenges remaining are mostly the same challenges men artists have.”

SKYE SHERWIN: “You’ve said before that when you started there were virtually no women precedents around to draw inspiration from – except, perhaps, Joan of Arc! What kept you going in the difficult early years? Where did your conviction to keep making work come from?”

YOKO ONO: “Work is like breathing. If I stop working, it will be hard to breathe.”

SKYE SHERWIN: “You’ve been making work for six decades now. Do you think creative drive changes as one gets older? Perhaps in terms of confidence or understanding, desire or purpose? What changes and what remains?”

YOKO ONO: “Six decades in public. More in private. Creative drive gets stronger as you get older. You become more confident, your understanding becomes deeper and your desire to create becomes stronger.” 

SKYE SHERWIN: “What crossover is there between your music and art projects – do you work on art and music in tandem, for instance, or do you focus on one or the other? What’s your working method?”

YOKO ONO: “I just go by my instinct and inspiration at the time. No set working method.”

SKYE SHERWIN: “What was the last artwork you saw and/or piece of music you heard that made you go, ‘Wow!’?”

YOKO ONO: “A room full of 14th-century art in a museum in Vienna where I am now.” 

SKYE SHERWIN: “Which people have been inspirational to you lately?”

YOKO ONO: “All people I have met.”

Yoko Ono, Jun 19-Sep 9; Serpentine Gallery, London W2


Image courtesy: Bettmann / Corbis

by Skye Sherwin