And so this is Christmas—or near enough, anyway—and what have you done? Maybe you’ve spent an afternoon trimming your tree. Maybe you’ve baked some cookies to share. And maybe you’ve listened to the radio; and there’s Yoko Ono’s voice, behind John Lennon’s. Though she’s been making art and music on her own for more than half a century, this is about the only time of year you stand a chance of hearing her—in the chorus of a holiday song, singing with her superstar husband.
Now, that may not be just, but it’s surely unsurprising. Lennon himself called Ono “the word’s most famous unknown artist.” Her association with him made her a household name, but only a tiny fraction of those who knew that name ever became familiar with her work. The forthcoming Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies, by Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky, aims to introduce a new generation of young readers to her life and art.
The notion of a children’s book about Yoko Ono may sound, to some people, like a punchline to an off-color joke. But it makes a certain sense. Ono’s best and most enduring work—her poems, performances and especially her conceptual pieces—are immediately accessible to kids. Indeed, they are predicated on a wide-eyed, childlike perspective. Belying the popular image of Ono as a stonefaced diva of the avant-garde, her approach has always been playful. Her greatest achievement as an artist has been in making herself—her perspective, her attitude, her point of view—into an artistic project. Her work constitutes a set of operating instructions for the universe.
Naturally, given the audience, the authors spend quite a bit of time on Ono’s own youth. It’s an enlightening read. Clearly, Ono’s imagination was shaped by her childhood experiences. Born in 1933, the first child of a well-to-do couple—father a rising bank executive, mother descended from one of the country’s most prestigious families—she grew up shuttling between Japan and America.
She was expected by her parents to be independent from a young age, and reared by a series of nannies. Ono’s parents were glamorous, rather distant figures. Art and music formed a common ground where they could relate, but even there the connections were difficult. Her father, Eisuke Ono, was a fine pianist, and had been an aspiring composer before taking up finance in accordance with his own father’s deathbed request. Eisuke approved of Yoko’s musical studies, but discouraged her interest in composition (which he viewed as men’s work), steering her instead towards vocal music and German lieder. Ono’s mother Isoko was herself a frustrated painter, and seized upon young Yoko’s projects as a way of fulfilling her own ambitions under the guise of “helping” her daughter. It is no wonder that Ono turned away from classical music and traditional visual art towards something that she could truly make her own.
Even her family’s wealth and privilege could not insulate them from the privations of World War II. It was Ono’s visionary capacity that helped her cope with scarcity and hunger. She would comfort her younger siblings, lying back watching the skies and imagining elaborate menus, their imaginings seeming so real that the pangs in their empty bellies were eased. She learned to look at the desolation around her and envision a better world, taking comfort in the elements of nature—the sky, the moon, the sound of birdsong—the things which endure despite the chaos and concerns of human life.
Born of her childhood, Ono’s art has remained essentially ludic. Her works usually invite participation. She describes her pieces as “unfinished” until the audience interacts with them, and even her most disturbing works are couched as games—like 1965’s Cut Piece, in which gallery patrons are invited to scissor Ono’s clothing to tatters as she sits unmoving, and the infamous 1969 film Rape (which, not surprisingly, does not merit a mention in this book), in which the subject is an unwilling participant, relentlessly stalked by a documentary camera crew until she breaks down in hysterical tears.
The confrontational aspects of Ono’s art will always be there—the vocal explosions, merging the disciplined technique of her classical training with the intensity of free jazz, and the stances of instinctive rebellion against good taste and academic approval adopted from her forebears in the Dada and Fluxus movements. But it is the more beneficent conceptual works that Beram and Boriss-Krimsky focus on here—the invitations to childlike play and ritual; mending broken crockery, lighting a match, leaving a trail of peas, making a wish; in short, envisioning the world as other than it is.
There’s a lot more to Ono’s story—a series of tumultuous relationships with lovers and husbands and children, the bliss and bitterness and ultimate tragedy of the Lennon years, the rebuilding and reemergence—but ultimately Collector of Skies is about the ways that an artist manages to remain a child, and how the qualities of childhood come out in her work; visionary, often prescient, always playful, often naïve, sometimes profound, sometimes both at once.
John Lennon, in his last years, regretted not listing Ono as co-writer of “Imagine.” The song, he said, was directly inspired by her approach to conceptual art—challenging the listener to engage in a thought experiment and, wherever possible, carry that experiment into the real world. In Collector of Skies, Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky invite us to consider a world in which Yoko Ono the artist can be considered in herself, not as half of a famous marriage, and recognized for her own merits.
Jack Feerick, Critic at Large for Popdose, invites you to dip your fingertips into hot candle wax—or to imagine doing it—and now you have no fingerprints, and cannot be told apart from anyone else.