The One and Ono

Yoko Ono has been given a lifetime achievement award at the Venice Biennale but does she deserve it?

In In the News by William Andrews 2009-03-06

The artist arguably more famous for being the wife of John Lennon has often courted controversy for her work and now it has been announced that she will receive a Golden Lion at a ceremony in June. Also honored is John Baldessari, the veteran conceptual artist.

”These Golden Lion career awards celebrate two artists whose avant-garde work has opened new possibilities of poetic, conceptual and social expression for artists all over the world,” said the exhibition’s director, Daniel Birnbaum. ”Yoko Ono and John Baldessari have given form to our comprehension of art and its relationship with the world we live in. Their work has revolutionized the language of art and will remain a source of inspiration for generations to come.”

Whether Ono deserves such an accolade I leave up to readers to decide. Certainly, her fame (or infamy for some) has overshadowed her art, not least in the UK, but perhaps enough time has finally gone by to reflect on Ono as an artist separate from her other persona, that of celebrity and widow.

However, Ono is no stranger to commercialism. In 2007 her art was used on the labels of a vintage wine range. And she has notoriously controlled the John Lennon estate with a tight whip, making her an easy target of fans’ venom.

On the other hand, Ono was a member of the important Fluxus movement, whose achievements were shown to new audiences last year at the Yokohama Triennale (which also included a screening ofo recreation of Ono’s extraordinary performance art work ‘Cut Piece’, exploring the nature of ego and audience). John Lennon once was said to describe her as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.”

Ono has become such a part of western consciousness due to her association with a certain music group that one forgets her country of origin. But isn’t that internationalism part of her artistic approach, her achievement, and even her appeal? She has explored areas and genres that go far beyond any “Japanese” sensibility, though ironically the representation of her as the woman who broke up the Beatles has ingrained in some people’s minds stereotypes of Asian girls as femme fatales.

Musician, artist, celebrity, activist, provocateur: she goes by many names but does her output by its very prolific nature prohibit real assessment of her worth? Clearly, the Venice Biennale does not think so.

William Andrews

William Andrews. William Andrews came to Japan in 2004. He first lived in Osaka, where he was a translator for Kansai Art Beat. Arriving in Tokyo in 2008, he now works as an writer, editor and translator. He writes a blog about Japanese radicalism and counterculture ( and one about Tokyo contemporary theatre ( He is the author of Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima. » See other writings


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