The Zen Work of Yoko Ono

The Zen Work of Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono, inextricably linked with late husband John Lennon and The Beatles, has been an important experimental artist in her own right since the 1960s.

Born in 1933 to a wealthy Tokyo family with banking and samurai lineage, Yoko Ono grew up studying Buddhism, Japanese aesthetics and classical music. In the 1960s she moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. Ono became acquainted with several significant figures in the art world, including Marcel Duchamp, patron and collector Peggy Guggenheim, composer John Cage, video artist Nam June Paik and Fluxus founding father George Maciunas.

Ono began blurring boundaries between art and everyday life, artist and viewer. And she popularized tenets of Asian culture and spirituality for a larger western audience. One of her noted works from this early period is “Cut Piece” (1964), in which she surrendered her body – and a pair of scissors — to members of a live viewing public so that they could cut off parts of her clothing until eventually she was completely exposed. Performed during a time of the highly politicized Women’s Liberation Movement and Vietnam War protests, the work brought up meanings of feminism, violence and war protest.

In 1964, Ono published Grapefruit, a book that contained whimsical and irreverent directions to the reader, including: “Burn this book after you’ve read it.” The writing in Grapefruit, which also included an introduction by John Lennon, is taken from Yoko Ono’s famed “instruction pieces.” Among these is the popular “Wish Tree” (1996) that was inspired by her childhood visits to wish trees at Japanese temples. This work has been reinstalled and performed at a multitude of museums around the world Inspired by her childhood visits to wish trees at Japanese temples, the work has been reinstalled and performed at a multitude of museums the world over: “Make a wish. Write it down on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around a branch of the wish tree… Keep wishing.” Ono’s works are often suffused with the uncomplicated yet meaningful messages of Zen spirituality.

As she has said, “Sometimes something simple gives more to people.”

By Jennifer S. Li