Wachtel On The Arts - Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono at the Schirn Kunsthalle Gallery in Frankfurt. (AP Photo/dpa, Arne Dedert)

Yoko Ono at the Schirn Kunsthalle Gallery in Frankfurt. (AP Photo/dpa, Arne Dedert)


A controversial, iconic figure, Yoko Ono is today regarded as a multi-media innovator. At 80, she remains an adventurous and committed conceptual artist and musician, celebrated internationally. In a rare conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, she talks about her traditional, privileged upbringing in Japan, harshly interrupted by World War II, and the spirit of creative experimentation that informs her work in all its variety.

wachtel-ono-eleanor.jpgJohn Lennon once described Yoko Ono as the world's "most famous unknown artist.  Everybody knows her name," he said, "but nobody knows what she does."

Yoko Ono has done a lot.  A pioneering conceptual artist and musician, a dedicated peace advocate, she's been pushing boundaries since the early 1960s.  In fact, it was through her work that John Lennon first fell in love with her.  He attended an opening at a London gallery where he climbed a ladder to read, with a magnifying glass, the word "yes" taped to the ceiling.  Thus began the relationship and creative collaboration that made her a world famous celebrity.  

Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo in 1933, into an aristocratic family, half Buddhist and half Protestant.  From an early age, she was exposed to both Eastern and Western influences.  Her father's international banking career meant several moves for the family between Japan and the United States. Her privileged background included an elite education and rigorous musical training, but at the same time, she faced personal challenges that helped shape her independent spirit.

As the first female student to enter the philosophy program at the prestigious Gakashuin University, she was hungry for ideas and absorbed in metaphysical questions. In the late 1950s, she moved to the U.S., joining her family in Scarsdale, New York.

But soon she dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College to escape to New York City, where she became involved with the avant-garde collective called Fluxus, and innovators such as the musician John Cage.  Yoko Ono initiated New York's first "loft concerts," and she also began exhibiting her ground-breaking, interactive artwork - challenging traditional aesthetic values.

It wasn't until that fateful meeting with John Lennon that she became a household name.  Today her own work is widely recognized.  She was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2009.  Last summer, London's Serpentine Gallery mounted a major retrospective during the Cultural Olympiad.  And just a couple of months ago, her largest ever retrospective, called Half-a-Wind Show, opened at the Schirn Kunsthalle Gallery in Frankfurt.  At the same time, she's released three albums in the past five years, including her latest music for dance clubs.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Yoko Ono just after her 80th birthday at the end of February, at the CBC's New York studio.

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