Yoko Ono’s Meltdown
For the past 20 years, London’s Southbank Centre has invited legendary musicians, including David Bowie and Patti Smith, to guest curate the Meltdown festival, and this year, it is Yoko Ono’s turn. At 80, the grande dame of the post-war avant-garde has not softened one bit, and her selection of guests reflects her lifelong interest in musical innovation as well as her enduring political engagement, with two weekends of talks on activism.
By Virginie Sélavy
# Musical experiments
Although she has been much maligned by Beatles fans and the UK’s music press, Yoko Ono is now recognised as a seminal artist and musician. She was introduced to the post-war musical avant-garde in the late 1950s through her first husband, who studied under John Cage. In 1969, she married John Lennon, and it was the beginning of a fruitful personal and musical partnership. Her influence has been acknowledged by The B52’s and Sonic Youth and can be heard in many other alternative bands of the last 30 years.
# Radical cinema
It was Fluxus founder George Maciunas who introduced Yoko Ono to film. One day in 1966, he invited her to use his newly acquired high-speed camera and she made Film No.1 (MATCH). She explored her interest in the human body through works such as Bottoms (1966) and Fly (1970). She also facilitated the creation of one of the most jaw-dropping films of the 1970s: after seeing Alejandro Jodorowsky’s psychedelic Western El Topo, Ono and Lennon financed his third feature, the hallucinatory spiritual quest The Holy Mountain (1971).
# Political activism
Publicly opposed to the Vietnam War, Ono and Lennon famously spent their honeymoon in a week-long Bed-In for Peace in 1969 and shortly after recorded “Give Peace a Chance”. That same year, their joint musical venture The Plastic Ono Band released their first album, Live Peace in Toronto 1969. Throughout their careers they continued to campaign against war, sexism and political repression. In recent years, Ono has become an outspoken opponent of fracking, a natural gas drilling technique harmful to the environment.
# John Lennon
Although Yoko Ono was blamed for breaking up one of the most successful bands of all time, there had been tensions brewing in The Beatles, as each of the four band members began to explore individual interests in solo projects at the end of the 1960s. The intensifying musical divergences became evident on the White Album, and the band would disband two years later. Following the split, Lennon became increasingly politically engaged and musically adventurous, collaborating with Ono on a number of albums and films.
# New York City
Yoko Ono fell in with the New York art crowd in the late 1950s, befriending composers La Monte Young and John Cage, Fluxus founder George Maciunas, artist Nam June Paik and filmmaker Jonas Mekas. In the 1960s, she started organising artistic events in her Manhattan loft. Ono and Lennon moved back to New York in 1971, where they lived in an apartment in The Dakota Building, overlooking Central Park. It was outside The Dakota that John Lennon was shot dead by Mark David Chapman in 1980.
Although she has always been a staunch feminist, Yoko Ono has rarely spoken out explicitly against sexism in her art and music. Her pioneering creations have opened the way for other women in performance art, and her influence as a strong female icon can be traced in the provocative work and defiant attitude of artists and musicians such as Marina Abramović, Peaches, Kim Gordon and Siouxsie. Her Meltdown festival is notable for having an approximately equal number of male and female guests.
Born in Tokyo in 1933, Yoko Ono left Japan to join her family in the United States after the war. Positioned between two cultures from an early age, it is no wonder that Ono felt like a “spiritual hybrid”. This sentiment was reflected in the title of her 1964 book of instructions Grapefruit, which came from the idea that a grapefruit is a hybrid of orange and lemon (in fact it is a hybrid of pummelo and sweet orange). The films and albums she made with John Lennon were hybrids of another kind.