MUSIC The simplest, most singular words and images have always been Yoko Ono's most potent artistic tools — depth charges designed for maximum impact, unexpected wit, and subtly change-inducing effect. And though words like "empowerment" feel too tapped-out to draw from the same power source as Ono-connected words like "yes" (the title of the retrospective that opened a new generation's eyes to the woman too long associated with her late husband John Lennon), it's outright empowering to see the septuagenarian Ono continuing to harness the same intuitive courage that led her to create 1960s performance art works like Cut Piece (1964).
Exhibit one: A Hole (2009) — a plate of glass pierced with a bullet hole, beneath which are the instructions "A HOLE GO TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GLASS AND SEE THROUGH THE HOLE" — on display in December at Gallery 360 in Tokyo. Playing off the image of holes that recurs in her work — and nodding to the title phrase's femme-y glory and, er, half-assed curse — Ono entreats us to look at gun violence from both the shooter's and the victim's perspectives, while clearly harking to Lennon's shooting death.
It's a startling window — or portal, much like the tunnel to the Dakota where Lennon was killed — leading back to one of the darkest periods of Ono's life. "There are so many windows like that in the world now," Ono says by phone, surprisingly girlish-sounding on the edge of 77 and her Feb. 18 birthday, and off-the-cuff ("We can wing it — come on!" she urges, when I bring up that her people asked to see my questions). "One is the shot, one is the hole that you see when you're shooting, and the other is the hole that you see when you're shot!"
Ono's mind is clearly on her February NYC Plastic Ono Band shows, which will include original members and big-wiggies like Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann, as well as wildly disparate successors such as Scissor Sisters and Kim Gordon. (Plastic Ono Band's plastic lineup includes son Sean Lennon, Cornelius, and Yuka Honda when it tops Noise Pop on Feb. 23.) But the thought of A Hole is obviously still charged for her.
At first she didn't recognize it as a piece triggered by Lennon's killing. "At the time there were four shots — that was for my husband. Then, I think — I don't know if it was intentional or not — but the idea was to first get John and then get me, too. So when I was going around the door [at the Dakota at the time of Lennon's shooting], I saw the glass made a hole, and a hole toward me. But luckily, the angle of the bullet didn't come at me.
"It's amazing, you know," she continues with a sigh. "For the longest time I was creating canvases with a hole to see the sky. Then suddenly I didn't want to do another hole to see the sky. I thought, 'OK, why don't I do a glass with a hole-way — and I didn't connect it with John's death at all. I was just thinking about all the holes that are made by shooting people in the world now. There are so many wars. Then I realized it might be coming from that experience."
Few can face their most horrific moments and darkest fears and make art from them — and amid a decade-shift of such uncertainty, the time is now to look to Ono's bravery under the burn of the spotlight. In response to the sexism, violence, and hatred she's encountered, she continues to ply her own unique, unabashed voice, influenced by Kabuki and traditional Japanese music. Her page-size ads announcing "War Is Over! / If You Want It" appear even now in weeklies like this one. She still makes music and art in the face of the boos and hisses she's caught from backward Beatles fans who think of her as the "ugly Jap" who broke up the band of lovable mop-tops.