Things you should know before judging Yoko Ono

The experimental Japanese multimedia artist was a pioneer in her field, but her marriage to a Beatle often overshadowed that

Abdullah Rayhan
Published : 18 Feb 2023, 02:30 PM
Updated : 18 Feb 2023, 02:30 PM

It is fundamentally unfair that most people know Yoko Ono as "the woman who broke up The Beatles". This is the problem of getting married to a famous husband. That Yoko Ono is a woman likely also contributed to the overshadowing of her accomplishments.

Maybe you don't care for Ono because you think she fundamentally altered John Lennon. But let's look beyond her husband and note what Ono contributed as an artist in her own right.

Yoko Ono's art was mainly experimental, aiming to deconstruct the traditional understanding of the world around us. Her work usually involves the audience as well.

Consider the piece 'Ceiling Painting', which John Lennon recalled is what drew him to her as an artist. A ladder was set up in a gallery, leading up to a painting. The painting looks like a blank piece of white canvas from afar, but a magnifying glass hangs from it with a chain. John climbed the ladder and looked through the spyglass to find, in tiny letters, the word 'YES'.

"So it was positive," John said. "I felt relieved. It's a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn't say NO or F--- YOU or something."

Or consider the vocal composition "Voice Piece for Soprano", which calls on the audience to scream against anything they want, with options to scream 'against the wind', 'against the wall', and 'against the sky'. Interestingly, her first art gallery also came with a bunch of instructions that the audience could practice anytime they wanted.

Another notable performance piece was titled 'Cut Piece', the audience could cut off bits of the performer's dress and take it along with them. Though it may seem explicit and intentionally provocative, it was actually an invitation to strip away the outward identity of the self to reveal what lies within. The body became the centre of the piece.

All of these art pieces invited the audience to become a direct part of the art, a participatory member in its creation.

Another similar performance was 'Bag Piece'. In it, two individuals get inside an opaque piece of cloth and perform random, spontaneous physical activity. The idea was to detach the self from ideas of race, sex, religion, and all forms of social identity and recognise movement as a manifestation of the self.

Ono deconstructed the notion of sexuality as well. In the 1966 film, 'Number Four,' she merged footage of naked bottoms in motion. The images included both male and female models, but the close angle of the shots makes them impossible to differentiate. The piece suggested that the idea of nudity as sexual is only true as long as there is a context, while also taking aim at ideas of shame regarding the nude body.

My personal favourite piece of hers is 'White Chess Set'. It consists of a chess set on a table with two chairs on either side. The chessboard has all the pieces arranged correctly, but every part of the piece - the chair, the table, the complete chessboard, and even all the chess pieces - is white. Because of this, both the player and their opponent are essentially indistinguishable - a brilliant attempt to present everyone as equally human in the same frame. It also means that as there are no distinctions between oneself and one's opponent. Killing each other is as absurd as a white knight with a white queen.

Yoko Ono was a complicated, multi-dimensional multimedia artist. The hybridity of the Japanese and American identities within her merged into her interest in abstract art. She was also a singer and songwriter in her own right, as well as a notable activist for peace.

Whether she contributed to the implosion of The Beatles shouldn't have had such a profound bearing on our understanding and evaluation of her as an artist. After all, we always hear arguments about separating the art from the artist. This seems as appropriate a case as any.

This article is part of Stripe,'s special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.