Yoko Ono reflects on her life, work and public perception

L.A. Cicero ono and chang

History Professor Gordon H. Chang moderated a question-and-answer session with Ono after her talk.


At her Jan. 14 lecture in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Yoko Ono presented images of her art as well as footage from her childhood, such as scenes from a home movie of her father playing golf.

L.A. Cicero yoko audience

Audience members at Yoko Ono’s lecture Jan. 14 were invited to take home pieces of a ceramic vase that was smashed prior to the event. Ono invited everyone to return in 10 years to reassemble the vase.

Tickets vanished within a few hours.

Clearly, the appearance of Yoko Ono caught the attention of Stanford's busy campus, even at the beginning of a new term and a new year.

By the time the avant-garde artist and peace activist spoke Wednesday night, the "wish trees" set up as part of her visit—one small lemon tree at Tresidder Union and another outside the Stanford Bookstore—were already fluttering with the scribbled hopes of many in the Stanford community: "I wish to go to an American university," said one. "Keep on giving peace a chance! Never give up!" said another.

The trees were scheduled for removal on Jan. 16, and the wishes will join a half-million others that are buried at the foot of Imagine Peace Tower, a column of light projected 30 meters into the sky off the coast of Reykjavík, Iceland.

"She's one of the most original and creative artists of our times," said history Professor Gordon Chang, who introduced Ono before her talk, titled "Passages for Light." The event was sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts in collaboration with Chang and the Asian American Art Project at Stanford.

Citing her work as a writer, artist, performer, activist, composer, musician and filmmaker, Chang said that "in each area, she has broken boundaries, expanded horizons."

Ono was once one of the most hated women in the world; now the effervescent and indefatigable 75-year-old activist is a celebrated icon. Although she has a dizzying schedule of exhibitions (a major retrospective opened in London last month), performances and speaking engagements, the New York-based Ono found a few minutes to talk to the Stanford News Service about her life and art.

You've been a celebrity for so many years. People must approach you with so many expectations and preconceptions.

[laughs] That's for sure.

How do you handle it?

I don't feel I'm handling it. "Handling" it is not the word I think of. I'm just going through it.

I understand you just took your first trip to China.

Yeah. I did that. That was great. I just didn't know what to expect, but the strange thing is that they knew about my work so well, and I said, "I've never been here, so what's the deal?" And they said, "We all look on the Internet." It's really a global village now.

You've taken a great interest in the global village. I understand that you're on Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter—you're more plugged in than most of us.

I think it's something we should all be doing. The more we do, the more we will be united. It's a "being on the same page" kind of thing. We're all on the same page; we're all in the same boat.

You've had a background in Japan and America going back all your life, really. How do you think the two cultures have influenced your art and your work?

I don't know. I just leave it to the critics. For me, I'm just doing what I can do, and what I feel like doing.

Yet many have commented on a Zen-like quality in your work.

I was very interested in Buddhism at one time, when I was in high school. But in Japan, they comment that my work is very Western, too.

I found a video recording on the Internet of

Cut Piece

, in which you let members of the audience cut away pieces of your clothes with scissors. It's unexpectedly powerful.

Which one?

This was one from Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965.

After I did that one, I went to London—swinging London, at the time—and the minute I put the scissors in front of me, 20 people came up on the stage and made me totally naked. Oops! It depends on the audience really; it's a dialogue between me and the audience.

It seemed to draw violence out of the audience, like a poison.

It always draws something out of people. I mean, that's why we're doing this.

You said about your Paris 2003 performance of Cut Piece that it was intended to fight sexism and racism.

Yeah. But also, I wanted to show that we have to trust each other. If I'm going to say that, I have to do it myself. I have to trust people myself. Now it's a very different situation in society. I did think that, really, it could be a bit dangerous. But then I thought, we have to trust each other.

You've gone from one of the most reviled public figures—the one that was blamed for breaking up the Beatles—to a celebrated international icon. How did you weather the storms?

I think that I was very lucky. I went through the most horrible situation where I could have been killed. There were people who really wanted me dead. I don't know how I survived that. You can't advise people. It's such a severe situation when people go through it, I don't know what they can do. All we can do is do our best, whatever that is—our best to survive.

Of course, when you burst on the world stage with John Lennon in the 1960s, World War II was only two decades in the past, and the women's movement had not yet been launched.

Exactly. [laughs]

Do you feel sexism and racism played a role in your treatment?

Definitely. It was very upfront, very clear. I think maybe I was used as an example of something—to make people understand what one goes through. Maybe in that sense it was beneficial—beneficial to society, maybe.

I remember those early clips of you. When you were silent, you were seen as a sort of black spider, sitting in the background. When you spoke, you were seen as domineering.

I think that in some ways most women do go through that. You can't really stand up for yourself, because then people say, "How dare you!" and if you're silent, then they will think there's something really creepy about it.

What do you hope to accomplish with the

Imagine Peace Tower

and the wish trees?

It's growing, and it is doing what I hoped that it would do. Many, many wishes are being made and they are being sent to the Imagine Peace Tower. There's an incredible power of people's wishes that are concentrated in the Imagine Peace Tower. Also, light has the same vibration as love. The light that's in the Imagine Peace Tower—which is the Imagine Peace Tower—I think many people are enjoying it, somehow, feeling part of it.

What would you say to critics who say these works are too—

I know. People say it is too simplistic, or whatever. Some people say, "Oh well, maybe when you get older you want to do something simple." I thought that was ageist. My work was always minimal. Minimalism—I believed in that. It was always very simple. I think it is as simple as breathing. Breathing is very important. I don't feel that that's bad. I was very surprised myself that the wish tree has become so important in people's lives. I'm very honored that I was used for that, instead of some very complex, highfalutin work. Sometimes something simple gives more to people.