Activism and Implications
“Poetry is not belief. It is not logic. It is action.”
Yoko Ono (b. 1933, Tokyo) is an activist for peace, human rights, and feminism. She and British musician John Lennon (b. 1940, Liverpool; d. 1980, New York) met at one of Ono's solo shows at London's Indica Gallery in 1966. They married three years later, and, capitalizing on their powerful media appeal, they used their marriage to actively campaign for peace. In the year 1969, from March 25 to 31, they staged Bed-In for Peace, during which the couple, dressed in pajamas and settled in bed, invited members of the press to discuss their message of nonviolence and opposition to war. This action culminated in the song “Give Peace a Chance,” which includes the lyrics "All we are saying/Is give peace a chance." This phrase, which became the international anthem of the peace movement, was coupled with the message "War is over! If you want it” 
In the early 1960s, women artists began using their bodies as a medium of expression, as an argument and a weapon for publicly claiming the rights they had historically been denied by a fundamentally male society.. Ono is involved in both the social and political dimensions of feminism. In 1970, she and Lennon had coauthored the song "Woman is the Nigger of the World," a joint declaration denouncing the oppression of women in the world. The next year she published an essay entitled "The Feminization of Society," expressing ideas that are still relevant today.
Ono's action pieces, initially staged in an art world dominated by men, usually incorporated "references to touching, rubbing, hiding, sleeping, dreaming, and screaming," actions related to her feminist imagery. In her 1970 film Fly, she explored the female body from an insect's point of view, presenting it as a mere fragment in the background and thereby addressing the passive role that women have been assigned in society.
Ono has consistently intervened in both public and private spaces throughout her life. Billboards, public buildings, cars, and merchandise have become her tools, helping her spread and broadcast ideas and images around the world. This strategy of using the media to reach a wide audience first became evident in late 1964, with proposals like Draw Circle Event and Hole Events. Posing as the fictional IsReal Gallery, she published advertisements asking readers to draw circles inside a rectangle or Hole to See the Sky postcard. She later materialized these actions in 1965 using different postcard formats.
The Internet has also proven to be an effective tool for the artist's purposes. Acorns: 100 Days with Yoko Ono (1996) can be seen as an evolved version of her actions and events of the 1960s. By means of poetic messages or instructions, she makes readers reconsider and reexamine their lives from different perspectives. In Acorns: 100 Days with Yoko Ono, the artist posted a poem/message online every day for a hundred days, and invited readers to post comments or responses.
Her latest installations draw audiences into settings conducive to meditation and reflection, questioning the interrelationship between human beings and their environment. She often uses elements taken from nature. Morning Beams (1996/2014) and River Bed (1996/2014) are two works made of nylon ropes and rocks that evoke the sunbeams and smooth pebbles we find in riverbeds. Through this installation, Ono invites us to meditate on the path of memory and to relive past moments and emotions. Our lives, the artworks suggest, are like rivers, a gentle stream at times and a raging torrent at others, and memory, like the stones, is slowly shaped by the flowing water and the passage of time.
Currently, Ono is engaged with sustainability issues. She and her son Sean Lennon (b. 1975, New York City) recently spearheaded a campaign to denounce the severe environmental damage and health risks associated with fracking, a method of extracting natural gas that involves injecting high-pressure water and chemical compounds into rock.
- Takiguchi (1931) quoted in Alexandra Munroe, “Spirit of YES: The Art and Life of Yoko Ono.” YES YOKO ONO, exh. cat., Japan Society Gallery, New York (Oct. 18, 2000–Feb. 14, 2001), p. 32.
- Munroe, “Spirit of YES: The Art and Life of Yoko Ono,” pp. 31–32.
- Ingrid Pfeiffer, “Bringing the World into Balance,” Yoko Ono. Half-A-Wind Show. Retrospective, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Mar. 14, 2014–Sept. 1, 2014), pp. 32–33.
- Munroe, “Spirit of YES: The Art and Life of Yoko Ono,” p. 28.
- Pablo J. Rico, “Seduction of the Gaze and Life Experience in the Work of Yoko Ono,” YES YOKO ONO, exh. cat., Japan Society Gallery, New York (Oct. 18, 2000–Feb. 14, 2001), pp. 265–66.
Show: Morning Beams (1996/2014) and River Bed (1996/2013)
Describe the elements of these pieces and how they are arranged in the gallery. What ideas or feelings does this work inspire when you look at it? What do they remind you of?
The nylon ropes represent sunbeams and the stones are identified with the riverbed. What connection do you see between the rocks and the beams of light? How are they similar? How are they different? Why do you think the artist chose these two materials?
Stone, despite being an inanimate material, can give us many clues about the life that has unfolded around it. In class, discuss how a stone can tell us about life and the passage of time.
Observe the silhouette formed by the group of stones. What does it remind you of? You can draw the outline on the chalkboard and discuss the different ideas that come up.
Ono occasionally allows visitors to rearrange the rocks, engaging in an exercise of reflection and memory. Each stone is understood as an expression of memories of good and bad moments. How would you rearrange the stones? Draw the students’ new designs on the chalkboard and discuss how these new arrangements would alter the meaning.
Ono is an active advocate of environmental issues and she uses her works to communicate the importance of caring for our planet. Have the class come up with a slogan or concept based on this work that reflects this concern for the environment.