Visionary is just the word to describe Yoko Ono. A pioneer in visual, performance and conceptual art and a renowned musician, Ono has always been forward-looking. Her avant-garde work has won her, at times, both praise and controversy–sometimes both simultaneously. Currently topping the dance charts in her sixth decade (and counting) as an artist, Ono answers The WILD’s questions about our changing world and her place in it.
One visionary aspect of your work was your strong statement in support of women’s rights at a time when female voices, particularly female artists’ voices, were silenced. Your feminist work remains resonant today. The performance, “Cut Piece” and the song, “What a Bastard the World Is” are favorites of mine, decades after they were created. What compelled you to speak for women’s rights through your art?
I am woman.
Obviously, the status of women has changed – how far do you think we’ve come toward your vision of gender equality?
I am not asking for equality. I don’t think it is practical to be equal with men. Their problems are immense and many of them are something we have already conquered for ourselves. I just want justice and fairness. That is not necessarily the same as wanting to be equal.
Your work is also well known for its peace advocacy. The conflicts keep changing, but peace certainly hasn’t come yet. Are you optimistic that it will?
We are very close to accomplishing it. First we have to have a large number of people on this planet to want peace. They are starting to.
I understand that another cause important to you is the search for alternative energy solutions. What are you particularly interested in?
We need different solutions for different regions. One alternative energy [source] will not solve the problem. We have to work on the situation by getting in there and making many, many small solutions. Have faith in what you are doing. Don’t try to take on the world. Just do what you can do, on an everyday level.
Do you believe art has the power to change the world?
Yes, it does. Art is your reflection. It is easier to send your reflection to the world than to send yourself to everywhere. Your reflection will communicate what you wish to communicate.
Has the role of art evolved since the social movements of the 1960s and beyond?
Definitely. We are now using art not just to give people beautiful pictures, but to carry our message to better the world we live in.
The biannual Lennon Ono Grant for Peace is awarded in Iceland, and the Imagine Peace Tower – the tower of light you created as a memorial to your late husband – is located there as well. Why Iceland?
Because it is a beautifully ecological country, and it is the most northern land as well. North in direction is wisdom and power of wisdom. I want the power of wisdom to stand firm in this northern country, and affect the other parts of the planet by sending its power.
You’re originally from Tokyo, have lived in New York since the 1960s, and travel frequently. Do you think of one place as home?
Not really. I love everywhere I have been, and everywhere I have not been. I am in love with this planet.
The whole world was devastated by the recent tragedies in Japan, and as a Japanese woman, you must feel this personally. What has your response been?
It was very hard for me to get the terrible news. WHY, WHY, WHY? I asked. But we must not ask why, and just do what we can do to help. That’s what I am doing now…as much as I can.
I know gay rights, which are at a particularly critical moment around the world right now, are something you believe in. In 2004, you released “Every Man Has a Man Who Loves Him/ Every Woman Has a Woman Who Loves Her,” a re-imagining of your song “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him” in support of gay marriage. Why are gay rights particularly important to you?
Because I believe in justice.
Being visionary often means not being accepted, and a lot of your work has been controversial. How has your status as an artist, and your acceptance by the world at large, changed over the years?
It seems that more people are tolerant of my work. It is parallel to how tolerant people are to other [old] prejudices such as racism, sexism, and ageism.
The work you made in the 1960’s continues to be influential to young people even today. Why do you think this is?
Young people today understand my work. I don’t know why. But I am very thankful.
Maybe the world has changed enough that young people today are comfortable with work that felt too forward-thinking 40 years ago. Or maybe the same issues keep coming up generation after generation, and the world is not so different after all. You’ve been active as an artist for decades – do you feel pressure to stay fresh and provocative?
I don’t feel the pressure to “stay” in any way. I just try to be true to myself in everything I do.
Speaking of staying fresh, an album of dance remixes by various artists of your song “Talking to the Universe” was recently released. Whose interpretations are particularly interesting on this album?
I am interested in each one of them. They have been done by very hip and talented remix artists.
You originally recorded “Talking to the Universe” in 1995. Do the lyrics mean the same thing to you now as they did then, or has the passage of time changed the way you view the song?
So far, it has not changed at all.
Many artists have reworked your original music, on this and previous albums. How does the intervention of other artists change the meaning of your work?
It doesn’t change the meaning of my work at all. The passing of time makes it stronger, if anything.
Thus far, you’ve had eight #1 Billboard Club Play hits, something you probably didn’t anticipate when you first began creating conceptual music. Has it come as a surprise to be the creator of hit dance music at this point in your career and your life?
It’s great! I am very thankful that it’s happening. I’m a happy dancer!
In addition to your dance music, your Twitter is very popular. What do you like about the Twitter medium?
It’s easy to be truthful.
Something else I admire about you is your fashion sense, particularly your hats. Where did your interest in statement- making hats come from?
My mom. I recently saw a film of me of when I was two to three years old. And I was already wearing a hat!
One of your most famous pieces is the Wish Tree, in which viewers are invited to write their wishes on a piece of paper and tie it to a tree. You’ve seen the wishes of countless people all over the world. What’s your WILD wish for the world’s future?
That we will live in a peaceful world and have lots of fun!