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  multimedia pioneer

The following article, called "Multimedia Pioneer: An Interview with Yoko Ono" by Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky, appeared in the Ruminator Review, summer 2002 (#10). The Ruminator Review, an independent quarterly magazine on books, arts and culture, is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

For more information about the magazine, you can email them at: review@ruminator.com


Years ago, John Lennon said that everyone knew Yoko Ono's name but no one knew what she did. Now we do. In an article in The Nation (Dec.18, 2000), eminent philosopher Arthur Danto called Ono "one of the most original artists of the last half-century." A boundary-crossing, multimedia, avant-garde artist for the past four decades, Ono has created films, paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, photography, poetry, music, and performances. Having had rigorous musical training, including classical piano, German lieder and Italian opera, Ono broke out of tradition and into unchartered artistic territory. Her adventurous vocals and experimental approach to sound-mixing have contributed generously to progressive music like punk, art rock and free jazz. Still at the cutting edge, her 1971 song, Open Your Box was recently re-mixed, creating a sensation in today's hip dance clubs.

Ono has also maintained a high profile in the visual art world where she is currently being recognized as a pioneer of conceptual art, developed in the mid-1960s. Combining Asian thought, minimalism, chance and the investigation of everyday life, Ono's work developed as an unfinished, fluid process to be completed by the viewer. During the early 1960s , she was involved with the international, post-Dada group Fluxus, a loose configuration of multimedia artists breaking boundaries in the arts and bourgeois culture. Ono was living in lower Manhattan among artists such as John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Merce Cunningham, when, along with LaMonte Young, she presented a series of now legendary collaborative events in her downtown loft.

It was there that George Maciunas met Ono and became intrigued with her ideas of conceptual painting, audience participation and interpretive license. Maciunas later took the helm of Fluxus as it struggled to rethink the whole idea of art. Ono eventually distanced herself from the movement, but stayed close to some of the artists, including Maciunas.

Among Ono's most well-known early works are Instruction Paintings, which established the important concept that ideas are art and art is in the mind. Meant to be performed or just imagined, the poem-like verbal instructions encourage what Ono calls "an exploration of the invisible." For example, Cloud Piece, 1963: "Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in ." In 1964, the instructions were published in her book Grapefruit (since reprinted), now revered as a pivotal work in Conceptual Art.

Ono blazed the trail in performance art in the mid-1960s, using the medium as a vehicle for social change. In her landmark pre-feminist work, Cut Piece, performed and filmed at New York's Carnegie Hall, Ono sat passively on stage while, one at a time, audience members cut off her clothes with a pair of scissors. Showing no emotion, she was left practically naked forty minutes later.

From 1966-1982, Ono made experimental films, some of them produced with John Lennon. Among her most famous are Bottoms (1966) and Fly (1970), which explore the body, ephemerality and collective consciousness. Bottoms shows the naked buttocks of male and female Fluxus artists and friends, as they walk. Fly follows the movement of a common housefly as it travels across the motionless, nude body of a woman. Ono accompanies the fly's journey with an otherworldly soundtrack featuring primordial buzzing, whimpers and groans that could represent the fly or the psychic pain of the woman.

Half-A-Room, created in 1967, consists of objects such as a chair, bureau, rug, table, tea pot and hat, all cut in half, continuing Ono's investigation of metaphysical themes such as absence, presence, spirit, mind and matter.

Ono's retrospective, Yes Yoko Ono, which opened in New York in October, 2000 and will travel until 2003, recently won the International Association of Art Critics/USA Award for Best Show Originating in New York City. This year Ono was also named Woman of the Year and given a Lifetime Achievement Award by Ms. magazine, honoring her feminism and commitment to world peace.

The following conversation took place in Boston, shortly after Ono's show opened at MIT's List Visual Art Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Cut Piece, Carnegie Recital Hall 1965

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