With all the Beatles brouhaha, it’s easy to forget that Yoko Ono was a boundary-pushing and successful conceptual artist long before a certain Mr Lennon entered the picture.
In fact, he met her thanks to her artwork; cheekily taking a bite from an apple that was actually one of her installation pieces.
Born in Tokyo, Ono studied philosophy before moving to New York in 1953 and soon become a key figure in the city’s avant-garde scene. In 1960, she opened her Chambers Street loft and presented a series of radical works with composer and artist La Monte Young.
One of her most famous works, Cut Piece, was first performed in 1964 and saw the artist sit alone on a stage in her best suit, with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience had been instructed that they could take turns approaching her and use the scissors to cut off a small piece of her clothing, which was theirs to keep.
Still from the film FLY directed by Yoko Ono and John Lennon © 1970 Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono, Painting to See the Skies (1961 summer), instruction piece from Grapefruit: A Book of Instruction and Drawings (2000 edition). © Yoko Ono
Over her long and prodigious career, Ono has long been fascinated with the sky. According to the Heong Gallery, which is hosting an exhibition of Yoko Ono’s work, this started with her exile from Tokyo during the World War II bombing raids; and the sky has since been used as a metaphor for peace, freedom, the unknowable and the eternal. “All my life, I have been in love with the sky,” Ono said in 1992.
Entitled Yoko Ono, Sky Pieces, the exhibition marks the artist’s return to Cambridge 50 years since her first visit and her debut public concert with John Lennon, the recording of which was released as Cambridge 1969.
Yoko Ono, Wish Tree for Louisiana (1996/2013), as part of “YOKO ONO: HALF A WIND SHOW – A RETROSPECTIVE”, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, 2013. Photo by Bjarke Orsted. Courtesy of Yoko Ono
Still from the film Apotheosis directed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono © 1970 Yoko Ono
The exhibition features more than 90 early, recent and new works, most of which are participatory and will evolve as the exhibition unfolds. The central piece of the exhibition will be a new configuration of Sky TV (1966/2019) in which a closed-circuit camera will record the sky, transmitting real-time views through a network of twenty-five television monitors into the gallery.
Among the participatory works are one that offers visitors the opportunity to scream against the sky in Voice Piece for Soprano (1961/2019). You can also “buy” her art (and the air) with the piece Air Dispenser (1971/2019), which sells capsules apparently filled with fresh air.
Yoko Ono, Blue Room Event, 1966/2008. Installation view, YOKO ONO: BETWEEN THE SKY AND MY HEAD, Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Bielefeld, Germany (August 24 — November 16, 2008). Photo: Stephan Crasneanscki © Yoko Ono
‘Yoko Ono John Lennon Cambridge 1969’. Historic plaque in the foyer of Lady Mitchell Hall, Cambridge University, unveiled 2 March 2019 by Gabriella Daris, John Dunbar, and Alan Bookbinder, The Master of Downing College. Given as a gift by Gabriella Daris to the University of Cambridge. Photo by Natalia Gonzalez-Acosta. © 2019 Gabriella Daris
Other works include a piece that aids visitors in reaching the sky itself, in the form of Skyladders (1992/2019). Works like this exemplify Ono’s sense of playfulness and optimism – her use of art as a tool for wider social connection and happiness – as does her ongoing series of Wish Trees on which visitors can “hang a wish on a tree branch in the hope that it will fly with the doves up into the sky at night,” in the words of the gallery.
Also included in the programme will be a performance of Sky Piece to Jesus Christ
(1965/2019), screenings of FLY (1970) and Apotheosis (1970), both co-directed with John Lennon; and a day-long symposium with the participation of international scholars, which will explore the many facets of Ono’s work to date.
Yoko Ono, 2018. Photo by Matthew Placek © Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono: Sky Pieces is on show at The Heong Gallery at Downing College, Cambridge, from
15 June – 6 October 2019.