Yoko Ono and Her Sixteen-Track Voice

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Yoko (the Japanese word for "ocean child") Ono ("small field") was born in 1933 and stands five feet two, weighs ninety-five pounds, more or less. "It is nice to keep oneself small," she once wrote, "like a grain of rice, instead of expanding. Make yourself dispensable, like paper. See little, hear little, and think little."

Her life in Japan as the daughter of a patrician family – a banker father, a beautiful hostess mother – which was dispossessed after the war, her education at a school that was the aristocratic equivalent of Eton which was attended also by Crown Prince Akihito and the late brilliant novelist Mishima who had committed hari-kari ("I knew him," Yoko says, "and he was as popular as Mick Jagger in Japan"), her Gone with the Wind life during the war when she was selling jewels for food from farmers in the country – and her relationships with her two previous husbands – Tochi Ichiyanagi and Antony Cox, all have been recounted in several magazines, most recently in Esquire, in which she is quoted as saying: "I saw that nothing was permanent. You don't want to possess anything that is dear to you because you might lose it. So I became extremely disinterested in anything material, or in any relationship, in fact. I just kept everything sort of far away."

She seems to like the color yellow ("If the butterflies in your stomach die, send yellow death announcements to your friends"), snow ("Send snow sounds to a person you like"; "Walk in the snow without making footprints"; "Find a hand in the snow" – "Three More Snow Pieces for Nam June Paik"), and wind ("Make a hole. Leave it in the Wind" – "Painting for the Wind"). The biography she once wrote describes one self image:

born: Bird Year
early childhood: collected skys
adolescence: collected sea-weeds
late adolescence: gave birth to a grapefruit, collected snails, clouds, garbage cans etc.
Have graduated many schools specializing in these subjects.

"I dropped out in my third year at Sarah Lawrence," Yoko narrates, "and I started living in New York around 86th and Amsterdam where all the trucks go all the time. I came from a place like Scarsdale, and my new life was very exciting for me, because I was living next to a meat market and I felt as if I had a house with a delicatessen in it. The only thing is that I couldn't figure out how to present my work because I didn't know how to communicate with people. And I didn't know how to explain to people how shy I was. When people visited I wanted to be in a big sort of box with little holes where nobody could see me, but I could see through the holes. So later, that developed into my Bag Piece where you can be inside, and see outside, but they can't see you.

"When I was going to Sarah Lawrence, I was mainly staying in the music library and listening to Schoenberg and Webern; they thrilled me, really. And I was writing some serial works at that time. But I was lazy writing out a whole score. And further I was doing the Match Piece in those days, just lighting the match and watching until it disappeared. And I even thought that maybe there was something in me that was going to go crazy, like a pyromaniac. See, I was writing poetry and music and painting, and none of that satisfied me; I knew that the medium was wrong. Whenever I wrote a poem, they said it was too long, it was like a short story; a novel was like a short story, and a short story was like a poem. I felt that I was like a misfit in every medium.

"I just stayed in Scarsdale at my parents' home, and I was going crazy because I could not communicate with them very well. I was lighting matches, afraid of becoming a pyromaniac. But then I thought that there might be some people who needed something more than painting, poetry, and music, something I called an 'additional act' that you needed in life. And I was doing all that just to prevent myself from going mad, really. And when I had this apartment in New York, what happened was that instead of drying my face with a towel, I used my best cocktail dress. And then I was imagining myself all the time as a kite, holding on to a kite, and when I was sleeping, I'd lose my string, go off floating. That's the time I thought: I'll go crazy. So I just imagined myself holding on to a kite, and the kite was me.

"People asked me what I was doing. I didn't know how to explain that actually I was just holding the string, making sure that I wouldn't let go. This was a trait I had when I was a little girl, too, when my mother asked me what I was doing all by myself, and I would say: I'm breathing, and I was really counting my breathings, and thinking: 'My God, if I don't count them, would I not breathe?' That later became my Breathing Piece. And those events that I was doing in New York were very much connected with necessity."

This sense of disappearing, flying away, flames going out, suggests what David Cooper writes about in his brilliant and disturbing The Death of the Family, the effort not to see oneself anymore, "to see through oneself as a person limited to relative being . . . Few people can sustain this nonrelative self-regard for more than one minute or two without feeling that they are going mad in the sense of disappearing. That is why people use mirrors in order not to see their selves with the possibility of seeing through, but to see fragmentary manifestations like their hair, eye make-up, and so on. If one did not effect their evasive fragmentation of the mirror image, one would be left with the experience of knowing that seeing oneself means seeing through oneself. There can be nothing more terrifying than that."

"Draw a line with yourself," Yoko writes in her Line Piece. "Go on drawing until you disappear." Many of these "pieces" are printed in Grapefruit (Simon and Shuster) – compositions of "Music, Painting, Event, Poetry, and Object" – in which the idea of dismembering and disrobing is seminal. Thus in one of her Events, Yoko asks each participant to cut off a piece of her dress until she is naked. And one remembers John and Yoko naked on the cover of Two Virgins and in their two Self-Portrait films. Yoko once wrote: "People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it's like in the stone." The point is that the act of taking off one's clothes is merely a metaphor for the uncovering of the self.

And what does it mean to be "naked"? The American sociologist Erving Goffman writes: "The self is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented." And Yoko finally existed in her "scene" by means of a fantastic humor, by transforming her obsessions, memories, and ideas into her special art, and thus realizing herself in her work. "Grapefruit was like a cure for myself without knowing it. It was like saying, 'Please accept me, I am mad.' Those instructions are like that – a real need to do something to act out your madness. As long as you are behaving properly, you don't realize your madness and you go crazy." She was accepted also by someone who once sang: "I am he as you are he as you are me as we are all together."

Yoko once wrote: "After unblocking one's mind, by dispensing with visual, auditory and kinetic perceptions, what will come out of us? Would there be anything? I wonder. And my Events are mostly spent in wonderment."

Before they are anything else, Yoko's poems, events, films, and music exemplify a wonderment which, in some accepted way, suggests childlike awe, a way of seeing things as if you were entering a strange street, invisible until now, for the first time; or as if, for example, you were watching a Western – the sheriff, rustlers, corral fights – through the eyes of one of the horses. More than that, wonderment implies intensity of perception resulting in one's identification with what is seen, not as the "utterly other," but as the utterly same. Thus the inescapable modality of the visible becomes the numinous. And eventually, through hyperesthesia, the perceived object or person disintegrates, for when you see something at this level of clarity, it disappears, and you find yourself asking, what really is there? ("Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "You might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same as 'I eat what I see'."

David Cooper writes: "To commence the unuse of the word 'neurosis,' let us regard it as a way of being that is made to seem childish by one's fear of others about one's becoming childlike . . . The fear is the fear of madness, of being childlike or even being before-one's-origins, so that any act may cohere others against oneself to suppress spontaneous gesture that has socially conceptive, archaic resonances."

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