We Interviewed Yoko Ono on Her 80th Birthday

By Nadja Sayej | Feb 20 2013

Yoko Ono is probably one of the most active people her age. She just presented her 2013 Courage Award for the Arts to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, has stood behind Pussy Riot, and is campaigning with Jeff Koons and Lady Gaga for Artists Against Fracking.

On Monday, the Tokyo-born artist, activist, and counterculture icon celebrated her 80th birthday with an art show and two concerts in Germany. The focus is on her avant-garde stuff from the 60s and 70s. In other words, it would be a trip and a half on acid.
 
Yoko is probably best known as one of the pioneers of conceptual art and instruction-based art. Cut Piece remains her most popular piece (where she sat on a stage and people cut her dress off, one by one). There's also a lot of interactive art, like the Painting to Be Stepped On (where you can literally walk on the art) and the Danger Box with a hole for your hand and a warning sign ("The management will not guarantee that a hand when put in this hole will come out in the same condition as prior to entry”). 

For the past few days, I’ve been on the Yoko Ono press carousel. I took the bus from Berlin to Frankfurt. The entire posse of Yoko Ono extends far beyond the hippies who showed up at the press conference in Beatles T-shirts or long tie-dye skirts. The deepest of the most hardcore art scenesters were there, with everyone in black and black-rimmed glasses, quietly drinking coffee and smoking bitchsticks with their long, skinny fingers. Whereas Yoko may be an underground artist who married John Lennon to some, she is hailed as a cult figure to those who know the magazine Artforum. This is as elite as the art world gets.

Last Wednesday night, Yoko sat in the front row of a monastery as the Young German Philharmonic performed "Sky Piece to Jesus Christ," an experimental musical piece Yoko dedicated to John Cage. The classical musicians were wrapped in gauze until they couldn’t play their instruments. (They were escorted off stage by Yoko herself, as they couldn’t find the backstage with bandages around their heads.) 

In the midst of all this, I chatted with Yoko about art, politics, and her biggest birthday wish.

VICE: Yoko! What are you doing for your 80th birthday?
Yoko Ono: It’s a very special birthday for me, I feel like I haven’t done enough for 80 years old. After 80, I wish I will do the things I haven’t done yet.
 
Why is art important to you?
Art has become more and more important because politicians have become less and less interesting. They have to accommodate some kind of idea, and they can’t say what they want to. Even a speech is written for them, and then they read it. That position is extremely weak. It’s extremely dangerous for us. An artist creates; artists are still creating. The artist’s position is completely opposite to that of a politician. We’re still free. We can still say what we want to say. You have to be daring to say it, but you can say it. You don’t lose your job if you say it. Whereas the politicians may lose their job if they say anything they want to. The people have the right to know, they hired the politicians. We can touch people.
 
True. What’s your favorite thing about being an artist?
It’s very important that we pursue truth and express truth in artwork. That’s the big choice. My husband John Lennon said, "Gimme some truth." He knew the situation was really bad. Even then it was bad. Now, it’s getting even worse.
 
Yoko, do you have any tips for young aspiring artists who are just starting out?
I want you to know, you are an artist. You have within you a creative person. That’s what an artist is. Artists understand that and bring out the truth in themselves. Some people write me in letters and say: “Yoko, I don’t have any money, how can I change the world?” Well, you change the world by being yourself. The fact that you are who you are is so important for us.
 
So you’re celebrating your birthday with this huge art show in Frankfurt. Go Germany!
There is a very prejudiced image of Germans. When Germans talk, it sounds like music. It’s so nice. They’re all visually appreciative people. A musical movement when they’re talking. You don’t think it’s possible with Germans. Some people only know Germans through Hollywood films. It’s so good to see there’s culture here.
 
You’re a pretty chill person, is your art the same?
My work is very, very quiet. I ask you to find something from it. What we know about the truth is the half. The other half is invisible, you still don’t know. It’s just there but it’s invisible. When you see something like Half-A-Room (1967), use the other half of your imagination and see the other half. Use your sensitivity. If you don’t have it, create it. Wake up your sensitivity. You’re the creator; you have to participate in my work each time by waking up your sensitivity.
 
Happy birthday, Yoko! Do you have any wishes left?
Well, I think things happen as they happen. Everything that happens is actually a blessing in disguise. You don’t have to wish for anything. Try to change your life and those around you. And be careful what you wish for.

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