Arts

Inside Yoko Ono's surprisingly long and rich history of art, music and activism in Canada

Ono is currently showing work at galleries in both Toronto and Vancouver, continuing a long tradition.

Ono is currently showing work at galleries in both Toronto and Vancouver, continuing a long tradition

John Lennon, centre left, and Yoko Ono are flanked by journalists in Room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal in 1969. ((Jacques Bourdon/Le Journal de Montreal/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts))

Yoko Ono is currently showing her interactive installation The Riverbed at Toronto's Gardiner Museum and her instructional work MEND PIECE at Vancouver's Rennie Museum, continuing a long history of association Ono has with Canada. So CBC Arts asked Toronto-based artist, writer and curator Dave Dyment to offer up a brief history of Ono's Canadian roots.​

Despite an ongoing revaluation of her work as an artist, activist and musician, Yoko Ono is still most associated with the distinctive sound of her singing voice, which was first introduced to a wider audience on a record called Live Peace in Toronto 1969, released in December of that year.

The cover of Live Peace in Toronto 1969. (Apple)

The performance was recorded at Varsity Stadium as part of a 12-hour music festival called "the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival," which also featured performances by Bo Diddley, Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Doors. Ono and John Lennon were the surprise, last-minute guests. Their makeshift band — which included Eric Clapton and Yes drummer Alan White — rehearsed for the first time on the airplane from London to Toronto. Having never played together before, the group performed three 1950s classics, a lone Beatles track and two recent singles before Lennon announced, "And now Yoko's going to do her thing...all over you".

The primal screams that followed were perhaps too much for the audience amassed to see classic rockers like Little Richard, who recalled beer bottles being thrown at the stage during Ono's set. Screaming, screeching, caterwauling, warbling and other pejoratives were used to describe her singing in the press.

Now, decades later, Ono is credited for inspiring the work of countless musicians and has collaborated with the likes of Lady Gaga, Sonic Youth, Iggy Pop, The Beastie Boys, Peaches, Anohni, tUnE-yArDs, RZA and The Flaming Lips.

Peace

Side A of Live Peace in Toronto closed with a spirited version of the song "Give Peace a Chance," which Lennon and Ono had recently written (and recorded) in a Montreal hotel room during the couple's Bed-In Protest for Peace. After spending their honeymoon in bed at the Amsterdam Hilton, hosting an extended press conference to promote peace, the couple wanted to bring the event to America. Unable to gain entry due to a cannabis conviction the year prior, they decided to broadcast across the border from Canada.

When John Lennon and Yoko Ono checked in at Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1969, it was, in part, due to heat and marijuana. 11:42

The Toronto concert gave Lennon the confidence to finally disband the Beatles, something for which Ono is often blamed. A myriad of other factors — the death of manager Brian Epstein, the decision to stop touring, the failure of the Magical Mystery Tour film and various business quagmires — actually precipitated the group's demise, but Ono's name has become synonymous with, and shorthand for, the misogynistic notion of a meddling and disruptive wife.

For many years, this misconception overshadowed her pioneering contributions to conceptual art, performance art, artists' books, experimental music and cinema and numerous other sub-genres of contemporary art. It's difficult to imagine Jenny Holzer's artworks on the Jumbotron in Times Square, for example, without the precedent of Lennon and Ono's "War is Over [If You Want It]" billboards.

Ono and Lennon's WAR IS OVER!, 1969. Billboard Installed in Times Square, New York. (Courtesy LENONO PHOTO ARCHIVE, New York/Art Gallery of Ontario)

Protest

The advertising campaign-as-artwork-as-protest featured the phrase "War is Over" in bold black type, followed by the parenthetical "If You Want It," suggesting our personal complicity. The message was signed "Happy Xmas, John and Yoko" and appeared on massive billboards in major cities around the world, including Berlin, Athens, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Trinidad and Toronto. Toronto is reportedly the only city in which the message also appeared as skywriting — a kind of Christmas card in the sky.

The couple's peace activism would bring them back to Canada only months later. They held a press conference at the Ontario Science Centre to announce a Peace Council to be set up in Toronto, as well as a major Peace Festival to rival Woodstock (with other Beatles possibly performing, alongside a dream line up that included Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley). They stayed at the Streetsville farmhouse of Ronnie Hawkins, where three additional phone lines had to be installed to accommodate their press endeavours, resulting in a $9,000 phone bill. They also took the train to Ottawa to meet with then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who Ono described as "more beautiful than we expected."

John & Yoko visit the Prime Minister (poor audio) 1:31

Performance

However, the proposed Toronto Peace Festival never materialized, and Ono would not perform in the country again for another 27 years when her Rising tour brought her to Lee's Palace for a sold-out intimate performance in 1996. A "comeback" album of sorts, Rising saw the beginning of a long collaboration with her son Sean Lennon, then only 21.

Ono's Canadian roots go back even further: one of her earliest performance works, A Grapefruit in the World of Park, was performed in Montreal, in August 1961. The work was part of the Semaine Internationale de Musique Actuelle, a week-long festival of new music and performance organized by Canadian composer Pierre Mercure. Other participants included John Cage, Edgar Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Toshi Ichiyanagi, Ono's first husband.

Journalist Ritchie Yorke interviews John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto in 1969. (Ritchie Yorke Project Archives)

She returned to Toronto in 2001, when the Art Gallery of Ontario hosted the first ever large-scale multimedia retrospective of her work in North America. The exhibition "YES YOKO ONO" featured 150 sculptures, installations, drawings, photographs and other media, illustrating the breadth of her prolific output. It also included video and photo documentation of performance works, such as Cut Piece, where the artist knelt on the stage beside a pair of scissors, inviting audience members to come and cut a piece of her clothing and take it away with them.

"YES YOKO ONO" also included examples of Ono's work within Fluxus, a loose-knit collective of artists that can be viewed as one of the first international art movements, and the first to include women playing key roles. In the lobby of the AGO, a Wish Tree — now perhaps the artist's signature interactive work — conflates the score-based practices of Fluxus with a Japanese tradition. Viewers are invited to write and affix their wishes to the branches of the tree. 15 years later, the artist's largest iteration of the project featured 121 trees arranged in front of Edmonton's City Hall, as part of the city's inaugural Nuit Blanche. "Keep wishing," the instructions read, "until the branches are covered with wishes."

Yoko Ono's "Mend Piece," part of her exhibition The Riverbed, currently at Toronto's Gardiner Museum. (Christopher Burke/Courtesy Gardiner Museum)

Ono's work can currently be seen at Toronto's Gardiner Museum, in an exhibition titled Yoko Ono: The Riverbed, until June 3rd, and at the Rennie Museum in Vancouver, (Yoko Ono: Mend Piece) until April 15.

About the Author

Dave Dyment is Toronto-based artist, writer and curator. He is represented by MKG127 and his work can be seen at www.dave-dyment.com.

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