Wednesday, July 5, 2017

No East or West in Dreams: Yoko Ono, Buddhism and the Avant-Garde

Fly (1971) was Yoko Ono's second album.

Welcome to the world of transformation and transcendental art. The art in multiple media produced by the 1960’s neo-dadaist movement known as Fluxus in general, and the art of Yoko Ono in particular, in addition to being challenging and thought-provoking, is also an exceptionally suitable vehicle for the subtle transmission of sophisticated Buddhist principles which can be found in both Zen and Dzogchen teachings. In many cases the artworks themselves are embodied meanings, crystallized manifestations of certain Buddhist perspectives on the interactive nature of reality.

Inspired profoundly by the brilliant breakthroughs of two twentieth-century conceptual masters, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, the art produced by Ono and this mere decade-long assembly of experimental mixed media artists and musicians is also an ideal pivot with which to appreciate the more pronounced (and more revealing) affinity which has long existed between Buddhist philosophy (especially as transmitted to the west by D.T. Suzuki in the post-war period) and the west’s most adventurous avant-garde (especially that practiced by visionary artists and musicians such as Duchamp, Maciunas, Cage, and the Fluxus group). And Yoko Ono. Perhaps especially Yoko Ono.

Possibly the most overlooked artist in history, or at least in that most historically interesting of centuries, the twentieth, her actual work has long been lost in the shadows of her myths and histories. To be transcendent is to fully accept transformation without knowing the consequences in advance. In that sense, Ono is a veritable poster girl for embracing and celebrating the Zen-transformative process, both in her life and in her art.

Painting to See in the Dark (Version 1) (Installation view), 1961, by George Maciunas.

Scorned by the official historians of the avant-garde, perhaps for becoming too famous and celebrated too quickly, occasionally reviled by the pop culture audience for the simple crime of being misunderstood, she was and is many people, with many histories. She embraced an alarming degree of diversity in the expression of her “self” in the presentation of that self in everyday life, and also demonstrated a fluid versatility and lack of concrete identity status which our culture is still not fully prepared to accept. There is, of course, a reason for the discomfort which certain beings, certain art forms, and even certain philosophies elicit in the west: the American culture, itself a conceptual construct which at first resists revolutionary urges but, ironically, eventually absorbs them, is still primarily designed and built to move in the opposite direction from Zen selflessness. In fact, the seminal notions of impermanence and emptiness often only occur in the west, if at all, through the conveyance of the experimental artists themselves.

Yoko Ono always found herself, first and foremost, at the intersection point of diverging realities, throughout her life experiencing an almost existential sense of the hybrid nature of things, the way things move in constant flux. She was already a hybrid as a westernized Japanese girl in Tokyo, a hybrid as the wife of one of Japan’s most avant-garde composers, a hybrid herself as the maker of ultra-hybrid artworks in the spirit of the age’s most forward-looking experimental artists, and she was a hybrid again as the life and creative work partner of one of the world’s truly great pop musicians. She would go on to merge east and west in a dramatic fashion, purge high and low cultures of their surface distinctions, practice a curious amalgam of Buddhism, fine art, music and business management, and, of course, make beautiful art objects which were often indistinguishable from everyday life.

Not to mention being a strident feminist when the world needed one, a soft-spoken but loud-hearted peace activist when the world imagined one, a recently arrived immigrant from a defeated nation in a nervous post-nuclear world, and finally, perhaps most disruptive of all, a female maker of often very obscure, but always tough and tender artworks which were part of an ever bewildering and expanding arena of simultaneous contemporary culture. This was an arena, male-dominated even to this day, in which anything was possible. Or so it seemed.  But it turned out to be true, after all.  Anything was possible, and all of us have inherited the cultural consequences.

Though as an arts journalist I had been following and writing about Ono’s unusual perspective (as an artist, feminist, pop culture icon and radical liver of life) for many years, it was that masterful 2003 survey of her complete body of work in multiple mediums (YES: Yoko Ono) at the Art Gallery of Ontario which provided the ideal point of departure for a more comprehensive appreciation of this truly remarkable aesthetic and social presence among us. And also that she was part of a select community of expatriate avant-garde artists in America who were significantly influenced by Zen Buddhism after the Second World War.

Cut Piece, Performance, 1964.

Yoko suddenly jumped onto the mainstream cultural stage, becoming that unique kind of global celebrity: the kind who is instantly recognizable and well-known the world over, but no one really knows why or for what. She was, and in many ways still is, what John Lennon once sarcastically referred to her as: “the most famous unknown artist in the world."

The reason was simple: her work was so far ahead of its time, so immediate and free of pretension or artifice, that it still seemed dramatically new, still passionately “today.” As a long-time practitioner of Zen myself, I was also struck by the manner in which these contemplative traditions informed and inspired her work, a gentle vehicle which could almost be summed up by the only slightly tongue-in-cheek slogan: Say Yes to Now!

She produced such a staggering amount of revolutionary thinking in painting, photography, sculpture, installation, film, video, performance, music, politics, agit-prop, fashion, Zen-inspired play, and life itself as a work of art, that our heads were spinning. As an art critic with specialized knowledge of her efforts, as well as the social, historical, and spiritual context that made them possible, I was ostensibly an official tour guide to art history, but I readily admit that I was feeling as much vertigo as everyone was experiencing. This very vertigo was the whole essence of her art, an attempt to re-balance the viewer and listener which only seems so wildly wonky because we ourselves have become so misaligned, so off-kilter, that her powerful but simple strategies always take us by surprise.

The hidden Buddhist side of avant-garde art has always elicited a pronounced, if invisible, dislocation in the mind of the viewer/listener. That is its purpose: to evoke an artful life. At a certain point in history, even viewers familiar with and accepting of severe modernist works were utterly astonished by the latest avant-garde experiments. Paradoxically, these new art objects were so drastically pure (and sometimes even immaterial) that they left viewers both utterly astonished and yet spiritually uplifted. That was, in fact, the objective of such works and the mandate of their makers: to provoke almost existential questions along the lines of “Where are we and how did we get here?” Where and how, indeed?

The AGO show was cleverly chronological, so it amounted to an ever-accumulating and accelerating avalanche of her humour, charm, philosophy and social activism, one that is possible to traverse both backwards and forwards with equal pleasure. As we went from the beginning to the end, then back to the beginning again, I found myself giving visitors who picked up on her Yoko “vibe” a crash course in twentieth-century experimental art and music, a course that placed her very funny ideas and elegant objects in an acceptable and accessible context.  Since as an arts writer my intention has always been to make occasionally obscure things come into sudden clarity and friendly focus, the occasion seemed doubly fortuitous.

The subtext for our appreciation of Ono is this: when did artists become what I like to refer to as “slaves to risk”? When did artists and musicians embark on an ever-widening contest of meaning, as if daring each other to go further and further towards and over the edge of what the public could recognize as art at all? The answer to that “when?” is the twentieth century itself. And all the best artists and musicians, including Ono herself, would readily agree that they are slaves to risk, that it fuels their every step forward, as they look over their shoulders at the ground breakers who came before them. Ono’s whole life story is the history of artistic and personal risk.

In the case of Yoko, her risk involves incorporating everyday objects and emotions into her work, making them in fact the entire basis for her enterprise, and making out of life itself an artifact to be viewed, experienced and appreciated. The catalogue from the AGO retrospective exhibition, which then traveled the world, incisively captures the context for appreciating the fragile art of ideas produced by Ono and her Buddhist-inspired Fluxus peers during the tumultuous '60s.  While we were all busy watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show, Yoko was busy exhibiting her idea-sculptures.

from Grapefruit.
It was a period best known for the dematerialization of art, a daunting agenda. Strolling through the show, I had the spooky feeling that I had stepped into a time machine devoted to mind expansion. Such art is itself an invitation to expand the mind to that unique point where it reveals its essential emptiness, or, as Ono herself puts it, “In my work I was searching for an emptiness that is not empty.” Most gratifying was the sense that Ono was finally getting the attention and recognition she so richly deserved. Looking into the always hopeful mirror of her enigmatic, poetic, sad, funny and inspiring objects, instructions and events (which, in true conceptual fashion, she never distinguished or separated from the life that lived them), we glimpse important parts of the hidden history of the twentieth century. But time machines work both ways and Ono’s work has always been just as much about the future, and it still is.

Her ethereal assortment of living dreams, especially those from the earliest Fluxus phase of her long career, still remain fresh and clean after nearly fifty years. She is, after all, among that select group of artists and musicians whose work is utterly immune to our nostalgia.  A retrospective of her work, like the career which spawned it, is also suitably haunted by the avuncular ghosts of her heroes, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, two great innovators of the century’s aesthetic, and, like her life story, the show moved vertiginously from the heroic to the comedic to the tragic, in the blink of an eye. Given the current spirit of today’s contemporary art, the most shocking part of Ono’s oeuvre is its complete absence of irony.

Some of Ono’s work is very small, so small you have to approach it intimately, almost as if to kiss it, in order to “get" it. Other pieces are so big (in principle) that they can barely be contained by the physical space of a museum building. One piece wasn’t even in the building at all. It comprised the entire filmed sky above, shown on closed-circuit television, in a reprise of Ono’s solo video work (and one of the earliest video works ever created), Sky TV (1966).

Her risks are well worth taking and well worth our attention. The contemporary art world today, and even popular culture itself, is what it is due to the risks that Ono and her contemporaries took back then. To understand today, you simply have to clearly grasp yesterday; and indeed, all of the yesterdays from the invention of the photographic camera onwards.

The Riverbed, Yoko Ono, installation view, 2016.

The art world now appears to be one enormous pressure cooker where contemporary artists are expected to follow in the footsteps of their revolutionary predecessors. The name of the game seems to be the shock of the new, and today’s artists are still enthusiastically playing. They have no choice, after all.

The real problem for younger artists today might be either knowing their art history and intentionally ignoring it to seek their own freedom, or knowing too little of it and finding themselves repeating it innocently, if not dumbly. Added to that is the threat of baffling the very public they are attempting to communicate with, and  how to cope with that bafflement; because remember, folks, being baffled never actually killed anybody.

There lies the stress that keeps artists awake at night, the best artists at any rate, the ones who realize the extremities which have already been reached by Ono, as they wait for their daily encounter with doubt and risk that greets them each morning in the cold light of their studios. That is the artist’s paradoxical problem. But as the long shadow cast by the great ghost of Marcel Duchamp tells us, directly from the mouth of one of art’s earliest bad- boy troublemakers nearly 90 years ago: “There is no solution to the problem because there is no problem.”  Surprisingly Zen-like.

Ono would later apply this notion through her classic series of “instruction paintings,” notations in language which describe actions you could perform, where the art was the instruction itself, not the thing you may or may not make at all. An example would be her 1962 “instruction” piece, “Painting to be constructed in your Head.”: “Hammer a nail in the centre of a piece of glass. Imagine sending the cracked portions to addresses chosen arbitrarily. Memo the addresses and the shapes of the cracked portions.”

The “instruction paintings” (which of course used ideas instead of paint) were later collected in her charming little 1964 book, Grapefruit. These seminal approaches revolutionized the art-making process in a manner so distinctive as to subvert the entire art market for precious commodities right up to this present day. Before there even existed a category now famously known as conceptual art, Ono was walking an aesthetic tightrope making Fluxus-inspired, feminist-oriented  “concept art,” only to be followed the next decade by the Big Guys, men like Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and Sol Lewitt, among others, who managed to turn even anti-art into a fetish commodity for their dealers to sell.

Ono, however, wasn’t into selling, not to mention selling out; she was into seeking and finding. And the influence on her of such master-seekers as George Maciunas, Nam June Paik and LaMonte Young for instance, was quite similar to the influence of Ives, Stravinsky and Varèse on another 60’s radical icon, Frank Zappa. The family tree of the avant-garde has many branches.

Then, suddenly and without warning, at the 1966 opening of one of her most intriguing exhibitions in London, she met an equally radical young musician (whom, unlike the rest of the planet Earth, she had never heard of) called John Lennon. Theirs is the story of east meeting west, of art erasing borders, of Zen assuming new and startling shapes, and in many ways, the story of the formation of the modern pop culture world we now inhabit.

Apple, 1966.
This complex and highly contradictory persona has been shaped by her collision as a hybrid outsider: steeped in Shinto, Noh drama and Zen Buddhism, a displaced alien raised and educated in the lap of near-imperial luxury, stirred together with classical western music and art, and melted into the anything-goes mentality of modern art and life in the America of the late twentieth century. She was inevitable.

We need to understand and appreciate her importance as a major figure of the avant-garde in her own right, in addition to clarifying why she has had such an impact on the self-image of the culture of our time itself. How did this daughter of a westernized and privileged Japanese family, married to three different but equally difficult male artists, transplanted to New York and plunged into the feverish social experiment known as the 1960s, become herself an emblem for social and cultural evolution, and how did the darker aspects of her celebrity permanently alter our society's vision of itself and its icons? And how did Buddhism shape the avant-garde?

She was born in Tokyo the year that Hitler assumed power in Germany; she grew up in a Japanese society increasingly bent on militarization and expansion; she entered puberty just as the most dreadful military weapon of all time was unleashed on two major cities in her homeland; she began practicing her art in a post-war world fueled by anxiety of the highest order; working with her then Japanese composer husband Ichiyanagi and in conjunction with the breathtakingly ethereal, internationally known art movement called Fluxus -- she moved to New York and in 1956 (ten years before meeting Lennon) met another advanced musician called John (but one somewhat less a household name than her later companion would be), and with Cage she found the kind of allegiance to "art being anything at all" which suited her sensibilities perfectly.

Her art works, concerts, films, events and mysterious pronouncements of that time, as well as the love affairs, her marriage to American Anthony Cox, and the subsequent custody battles, are now the stuff of pop-cultural legend. All before she even met the mischievous Lennon one day when he entered a gallery where she was exhibiting an apple on a pedestal and he rakishly took a bite out of it. She got back at him, of course, by subsequently taking a big bite out of him.

Her career is now in the twilight phase of international recognition:  she is approaching 85 years of age yet still she releases a techno-album, tossed like a hand grenade into the messy street of pop music, and her personal archive of art history continues to influence each new generation of artists, as well as to entertain and awaken a viewing and listening public, with thought-provoking work created from an exceedingly generous spirit.

This has been a brief examination of that unknown Ono, and also an appreciation of that well-known spirit, as shared and exemplified by her many peers in the avant-garde who were also inspired by a variety of eastern philosophies such as Buddhism in the making of their work. Their message was deceptively simple: be here now.

Imagine that.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.


  1. Enjoyed your piece very much
    Thanks for sharing Donald!

  2. Thank you Donald for this wonderful and in depth exploration of a truly brilliant woman. My inspiration since childhood. YES!