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Yoko Ono's works on show in Leipzig

Heike Mund als
April 3, 2019

She is arguably the most hated woman in music history. Yet Yoko Ono is not only John Lennon's widow, she also stands alone as an artist. Her works spanning five decades are now on show in Leipzig.

Ausstellung "YOKO ONO. PEACE is POWER" im MdbK
Image: Yoko Ono/Greg Kadel

Yoko Ono has over 2,000 square meters (around 21,500 square feet) and three floors of exhibition space in the Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts at her disposal. "Yoko Ono. Peace is Power" is the most extensive retrospective of the Japanese-American artist's work in Germany to date. As curator, Ono's long-time friend and confidante Jon Hendricks has been on site to ensure that everything is set up in the spirit of the eccentric artist.

On display are smaller objects, space-filling installations and sculptures by the 86-year-old Ono. With this one-woman show, the museum is showcasing Ono's entire artistic oeuvre since the 1960s. All sorts of media, including films, video works and her solo albums, are included in the exhibition, with rarely shown drawings also on display in Leipzig.
'Give Peace a Chance'

Ausstellung "YOKO ONO. PEACE is POWER" im MdbK
"Keys to Open the Skies" in the Leipzig exhibitionImage: Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono became famous in 1969 through her spectacular marriage to the Beatles' John Lennon. To this day, fans and music critics blame her for the split in the legendary band. Yet Yoko Ono was not merely the woman at Lennon's side, but an independent performance artist from an early age on — long before she met the famous Beatle.

Parts of the long lost film of the couple's legendary "Bed-in for Peace" in an Amsterdam hotel in March 1969 have just been discovered in a private archive. After their wedding, the couple famously spent a week in bed — inviting in the press and giving countless interviews in the name of "world peace." This was in the midst of the Vietnam War. The pictures went around the globe at that time, with the two repeating the week-long bed-in in Montreal in May.

Yoko Ono John Lenon Bed Peace 1969
John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their "bed-in" in 1969Image: Getty Images/Central Press

Privileged childhood in Japan

Yoko Ono was born on February 18, 1933 in Tokyo in the stately home of her grandparents. The family maintained good relations with the Japanese royal family. Money was not a concern of the family. Yoko — the name means "child of the sea" — grew up in a palatial-like home with 30 servants. She had little contact with her parents. Her father worked as a banker in California, with Ono not meeting him until the age of two when her mother moved with her children to the US.

As a child, Yoko witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which later led to her involvement as a peace activist. Only after the end of the Second World War did her family return to Japan. There, she attended an elite school of the nobility, with the sons of Emperor Hirohito in the same class as Ono.

Her beginnings as a performance artist

As a young woman, she returned to the US and began studying at Sarah Lawrence College, just north of New York City. She was interested in philosophy, art and music composition, but she didn't last long in a college setting. She quit her studies in 1959 and immersed herself into the art scene of the Big Apple.

As an artist, she began working in experimental film and music, and became involved in the Fluxus movement, with its interdisciplinary community of artists, composers and poets who performed around the world in impromptu "happenings" in the 1960s and 70s. One of the leading figures in the movement was American composer John Cage, whom Ono accompanied on his tour of Japan in 1962.

From the beginning, Ono had considered herself to be an avant-garde performance artist who mixed genres in her work, often incorporating naked bodies as well as provocative acts. This was an integral part of her protest to "overcome social barriers that permanently marginalize women," she once wrote in a feminist pamphlet. In 1970, she shot a video titled Rape, in which a fly crawls over a naked woman's body for 23 minutes.

"YOKO ONO. PEACE is POWER" exhibition
"Helmets/Pieces of Sky" installation by Yoko OnoImage: Yoko Ono/Colin Davison

The woman between the Beatles

In 1966, Ono met the Beatles guitarist John Lennonin England. He was visiting her London exhibition and became mesmerized by this independent artist. They married three years later. The artist couple released several albums devoted to the subject of peace. The newly founded Plastic Ono Band landed a world hit with "Give Peace a Chance" in 1969.

After John Lennon had largely retired from public life, his wife Yoko took over the business and, as an assets managers, saw to financial matters following Lennon's assassination in 1980.

She is now considered one of the richest women in the US. It has also contributed to her reputation as a "dragon lady" and to her dubious fame as the "most hated woman in rock history," as the German daily taz called her in 1996. To this day, she has been accused of having profited enormously from the popularity of her dead husband.

Joint art works

After Lennon's death, Yoko Ono made her first public appearance as an artist again in 1995 —  in her home country of Japan. Various museums in Germany and Great Britain showed retrospectives of her work in 2008 and 2009. In 2009, the Venice Biennale honored the Japanese artist with the Golden Lion for her life's work. In 2012 she received the Oskar Kokoschka Award in Vienna.

Objects from her installation "We're all water" shown in Sydney in 201
Objects from her installation "We're all water" shown in Sydney in 2013Image: Yoko Ono/Alex Davies

For her "Yoko Ono. Peace is Power" exhibition in Leipzig, the Japanese artist has invited German artists to develop an object which she will then fill with water. This is part of her performative concept, with which she turns her exhibits into "joint works of art." She developed such a "water event" back in in 1971 for an exhibition in Syracuse, New York.

Whether Yoko Ono will personally come from New York to Leipzig for the opening remains to be seen. The exhibition at the Museum für Bildende Kunst in Leipzig will be on show through July 7.