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January 5, 2009

Yoko Ono to speak at Stanford

John Lennon once called her "the world's most famous unknown artist: Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does."

Avant-garde artist, musician and activist Yoko Ono, Lennon's widow, will be visiting campus Jan. 14 to give a lecture, "Passages for Light," at 7 p.m. in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. The lecture is open and free to Stanford students, faculty and staff with a current Stanford ID.

An interactive installation of Ono's Wish Tree will be on the Stanford campus at a time and place to be announced. A component of many of her exhibitions, Wish Tree invites participants to write their wishes on pieces of paper and hang them on the branches of a tree. The wishes are buried at the foot of Imagine Peace Tower, an installation located off the coast of Reykjavík, Iceland, consisting of a column of light projected 30 meters into the sky.

A panel discussion on Ono's body of work, featuring Stanford faculty, will be held at noon Jan. 12 in the Oak Room at Tresidder Union. Panelists for "Yoko Ono: Then and Now" will be Mark Gonnerman, director of Stanford's Aurora Forum; Pamela Lee, professor of art and art history; and Peggy Phelan, the Ann O'Day Maples Professor in the Arts. The event will be moderated by history Professor Gordon H. Chang.

The events are sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts in collaboration with Chang and the Asian American Art Project.

Roots in America and Japan

Ono was born in Tokyo to an upper-crust family of Japanese bankers in 1933. (Her father was descended from a long line of samurai warrior-scholars; her maternal grandfather had been ennobled in 1915.) Her father's transfer to San Francisco and later New York meant that Ono was reared bilingually, and has roots in America as well as Japan.

"The first time I visited America was when I was two-and-a-half years old, and that was also the first time I met my father," she said in the Soho News. "I remember the Golden Gate Bridge, it was beautiful."

Returning to Japan in 1937 as anti-Japanese sentiment was on the rise after the invasion of China, she attended the Gakushuin Academy, open only to members of the imperial family or the House of Peers. The emperor's two sons attended, and after the war the younger son became a friend, perhaps her first fan. After a period in New York, where she attended a public school on Long Island, her father was transferred to Hanoi. Yoko returned with her mother and siblings to Tokyo.

She survived the bombing of Tokyo and the great fire raid of 1945 in the Ono family bunker. After the all-night air raid of March 9-10, which killed 100,000 people and reduced 17 square miles of the city to ashes, the family left for the countryside. Her father was incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp in China.

Ono's family was destitute and hungry, forced to barter and beg for food while pulling their belongings in a wheelbarrow. Ono and her brother were resented by their peers for their former wealth and status. She credits these traumas for her steely defiance and "outsider" role.

In 1952, she was the first woman to be accepted into the philosophy program of the exclusive Gakushuin University and, following her family's relocation to New York, attended Sarah Lawrence College.

However, the devastation of war, and the social disintegration and degradations of life in occupied Japan, spawned a whole generation of pacifists. Ono came of age in the postwar years, when cutting-edge artists blended a cerebral anti-intellectualism, Zen, Western existentialism and war-weary pacifism with some distinctive elements of their own.

"Yoko Ono was the prophetess who, with the help of John Lennon, brought the amalgam to a West at long last ready to reconsider its own values," said Murray Sayle, writing for the Japan Policy Research Institute in 2000.

'Instructional art'

With composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, whom she married in 1956, she began to create "instructional art"—for example, Painting to Be Stepped On, in which an empty canvas on the ground or street is stepped on by passersby. With La Monte Young, recognized as the first minimalist performer, the couple staged a six-month series of musical "loft events" that got the attention of the blasé New York art world. At one, Ono set a painting on fire; fortunately, her mentor and colleague, American composer John Cage, had advised her to treat the paper with a flame retardant.

Her later appearance at Carnegie Recital Hall, with a performance in which someone was assigned to flush a wired-for-sound toilet, was not favorably reviewed in the New York Times and the Village Voice. In Japan, she toured with Cage to mixed reviews.

In addition to Cage, her early work in the 1960s drew upon her involvement with artists such as Merce Cunningham, Ornette Coleman and Andy Warhol.

After the collapse of her marriage and a suicide attempt, Ono was committed by her family to a mental institution. A fiery marriage with film producer Anthony Cox, who was instrumental in getting her released, led to the birth of her daughter, Kyoko Chan Cox, in 1963. Cox abducted the 8-year-old following a divorce and custody battle. Cox went into hiding with the child; mother and daughter were not reunited until 1994.

In 1965, again at Carnegie Recital Hall, Ono performed Cut Piece, an interactive performance during which she sat on the stage with a pair of scissors and allowed audience members to come onstage and cut pieces of her clothing. Ono herself claimed to have performed Cut Piece in the name of "peace, and against ageism, racism and sexism."

The performance, which is available online, became legendary. In one case, the audience became so violent about getting a piece of her clothing that she had to be protected by security.

In London, her work received critical praise (the Financial Times called it "uplifting")—the kind of attention that eventually drew Lennon to the Indica Gallery, where Ono had an exhibition in 1966. Their affair and subsequent marriage led to her becoming one of the most widely vilified celebrities of the pop and rock scene. She was credited as being the woman who broke up the Beatles.

Her music has influenced many artists, including Meredith Monk and Lene Lovich, and inspired such musical genres as punk and new wave. Her conceptual and performance art, as well as her filmmaking, is considered original and groundbreaking.

Yes Yoko Ono, a 40-year retrospective of Ono's work, received the prestigious 2001 International Association of Art Critics USA Award for Best Museum Show Originating in New York City.

In 2003, the 70-year-old icon reprised Cut Piece in Paris. By allowing strangers to approach her with scissors, Ono told CBS News that she hoped to show that this is "a time where we need to trust each other."

"Following the political changes through the year after 9/11, I felt terribly vulnerable—like the most delicate wind could bring me tears," Ono wrote in a presentation for the show. "Cut Piece is my hope for world peace."

Tickets for "Passages for Light" will be limited to two per Stanford ID and available through the Stanford Ticket Office in Tresidder Union beginning Jan. 7. Tickets must be picked up in person.

Editor Note:

This event is not open to the public outside the Stanford community, but the news media are invited to attend. Please contact Ben Schroeter at (650) 213-6981 or for more information.



Cynthia Haven, News Service: (650) 724-6184,

Ben Schroeter, SiCa: (650) 213-6981,

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