Friday, February 20, 2009

Yoko Ono: More than just Mrs. John Lennon

by Chris MaGee

I bet you're wondering why I would be devoting space on the J-Film Pow-Wow blog to Yoko Ono, but once again I have to reiterate that the Pow-Wow is about exposing people to the full range of Japanese cinema, from mainstream hits like "Hula Girls" to pinku eiga and right through to experimental films and when you speak about the latter you have to mention Yoko Ono. There are a few things that people seem to forget when her name comes up: that she's actually Japanese and that she's more than some weird woman who dangled off John Lennon's arm. Ono was an important avant-garde artist and filmmaker before she ever met John Lennon and besides her own detour into pop music in the late 70s and early 80s and the tragic fallout after her husband's murder she has continued her artistic career.

Here's some background information on Ono that I'm sure many of you didn't know: She was born in Tokyo in 1933 into a wealthy banking family with hereditary ties to the Imperial household. As a youngster she bounced back and forth from Tokyo to America where her father had been transferred to work, but on the eve of WW2 she returned to Japan and was enrolled in the exclusive Gakushūin (Peers School), an institution founded in Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration designed to educate members of the Imperial family and those connected to its court.

Like so many Japanese Ono suffered through the unspeakable hardship during the Allied bombing of Japan during the war and even her families wealth didn't make the post-war years that much easier. It was at the age of 19 when Ono's entire family went to live in Scarsdale , New York that her life radically changed. Studying music at Sarah Lawrence College Ono felt stifled not only by the college's finishing school environment, but also by the expectations of being the daughter of the Japanese elite. It was the discovery of the radical music of composers like Webern, Schönberg and John Cage that provided the key to Ono's artistic and personal development and an entry into the world of the New York avant-garde.

In those days it seemed like anything was possible in the underground art scene. Under the influence of Cage and the Dada movement of of the ealy 20th-century a loose group of visual artists, filmmakers and composers formed around Lithuanian artist George Maciunas who dubbed their playful and perplexing work Fluxus. It was into this world that Ono arrived and ended up flourishing with her Manhattan loft becoming the epicenter for the Fluxus movements "happenings" categorized by simple, but absurd exercises like this one taken from Ono's 1964 book "Grapefruit", "Hammer a nail in the center of a piece of glass. Send a fragment to an arbitrary address." Despite the initial strangeness of her output the influence of traditional Japanese philosophy and culture lie at the heart of many of her works. George Maciunas called her one woman performances "neo-Haiku theater" while Art Historian Ken Friedman dubs them "Zen vaudeville". Just last year I attended her exhibit called "Wish Tree" at Toronto's Nuit Blanche in which visitors wrote wishes on a white tag and tied it to a tree with a string, a process that directly echoes the tying of omikuji (paper fortunes) to trees and fences at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples across Japan.

Amongst the "happenings" and famously dissonant music, though, Ono manged to produce 16 experimental films from 1964 to 1972, and that's the reason behind what I realize is a bit of a lengthy essay. Below are three of those 16 films, the first two of which, "Fluxus Film No. 14: One (Match)" and "Film No. 4: Bottoms" were made before John Lennon ever came into the picture, and the last, "Fly #2" was made with his assistance.

Hopefully the next time you hear "Be My Yoko Ono" by the Barenaked Ladies you'll think of her as that experimental Japanese artist and filmmaker as opposed to that wife of John Lennon.

Fluxus Film No. 14: One (Match) (1966)

Film No. 4: Bottoms (1967)

Fly #2 (1970)

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