Essays

There is a Wind that Never Dies

CONNIE KUHNS

I follow Yoko Ono on Twitter. She is my daily devotion, my addiction. She reassures me that Good things will come later and she urges me to Remember love. Her words would go nicely on a refrigerator magnet. I was not quite a woman when she arrived uninvited, a grey mist over a blonde sea. But as I aged, she became my mystery to solve, my road less travelled.

Her early instructional writings tell me to imagine the clouds dripping, to send the smell of the moon (to someone), to see the sky between a woman’s thighs. She once labelled polished beach stones and shards of glass as past and future mornings, to be sold at dawn from her roof top. She took a childhood game called “Telephone” and turned it into performance art. (When she introduced “Whisper Piece” at the Destruction in Art Symposium in London, in 1966, asking the audience to whisper the same word from ear to ear, many of the male artists asked that she be removed.)

Yoko is a woman with machismo, who was relentless in creating her own way through the exploratory art movements of the 1960s, straight into the heart of popular culture, celebrity, politics and feminism. She is a question mark and a contradiction. At almost eighty-seven years old, she still vibrates.

It has been fifty years since her marriage to the late John Lennon, a relationship that brought her into the public consciousness. It was a union that broke up two marriages, leaving two small children behind, and truthfully, helped bring about the end of the revolutionary Beatles. The couple’s public behaviour and the legal battles that followed destroyed friendships and families. It’s a saga of infidelity, drug busts and addiction; but also of transformation, collaboration and creation. Together they gave the world “Imagine,” and this year, on the anniversary of their honeymoon performances, known as the Bed-Ins for Peace, their life together is celebrated.

When John and Yoko met in London in 1966, she was already an experienced entrepreneur and performance artist, and an early interpreter of what was known as Concept Art. Born in 1933, in Japan, a descendant of Samurai warriors, Yoko was an older woman.

From her loft in New York City, in 1960, she had organized a series of performances with her friend, the composer La Monte Young. In this environment artists were encouraged to move outside the boundaries of historical and conventional creation. Her first husband, the classical pianist and composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, whom she married in 1957, had introduced her to the composer John Cage, the dancer Merce Cunningham and others, which placed her directly in the evolving art scene. From her associations, especially with the enterprising George Maciunas, the Fluxus art movement was identified and named. Simply put, art was no longer in the eye of the beholder to be passively viewed. It was art which would be created in the mind of the artist and completed only by participation. Art was anything. Art could be nothing. Her self-published book Grapefruit: A Book of Instruction and Drawings, in 1964, was Yoko’s contribution to this mind game.

Her instruction poems, including the earlier reference to dripping clouds, ask the reader to imagine, to “Draw a map to get lost” (Map Piece), to “Put your shadows together until they become one” (Shadow Piece), or to “Stir inside of your brains with a penis. Mix well. Take a walk” (Walk Piece). She made five hundred copies. Re-issued in 1970 with an introduction by John Lennon, and again in subsequent years (most recently in 2000 and still very much in print), it is easy to see how her work at the time may have been misunderstood for its intangible nature. Not so now.



The sky never ceased to be there for us.
Twitter: April 22, 2019

In 2013, the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt presented the exhibition Yoko Ono: Half-a-Wind Show. She was eighty years old. This was the first major retrospective of her work in Europe, although at any given time, her art is being shown somewhere in the world. There are no fewer than thirty solo and group shows either in galleries now or scheduled to be presented by 2020. The Schirn retrospective featured more than two hundred objects, installations, photographs, drawings, and films, as well as a special room dedicated to her music. The exhibition traveled to Denmark and Austria before moving to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 2014.

The collected volume of her work, amassed in one place, as well as the documentation of her growth, her innovations and her contributions to the avant-garde art movements, as illustrated in the gallery’s publication is (to use appropriate terminology) mind-blowing. Her brilliance is everywhere, wrapped in her humour, her boldness, her sexuality, and perhaps even her disrespect. It is often repeated that John Lennon referred to her as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everyone knows her name but no one actually knows what she does.” In the 200-page catalogue for the Half-a-Wind Show, she is referred to as pioneering and “mythic.”

Yoko was one of just a handful of women in the early 1960s who were expressing themselves outside acceptable boundaries. (Her sisters included the late Carolee Schneemann, who famously filmed herself and her husband having sex, partly from the point of view of their cat, and the late Shigeko Kubota, who was among the first artists to use video in her work. Kubota strapped a paint brush to her underwear and, squatting down, painted a picture resembling Japanese lettering, henceforth known as Vagina Painting.)

Yoko’s early films, most co-produced with John Lennon, used nudity both to shock and to un-shock. Bottoms and Up Your Legs Forever were easy enough, as friends and strangers lined up to be filmed. But her film Fly was more difficult to orchestrate as it involved following a fly as it crawled over the body of a naked woman. Collecting flies from piles of garbage and restaurant kitchens around the Bowery and then gassing them with carbon dioxide eventually produced the desired results.

Freedom, a one-minute short of a woman trying to unhook the front clasp of her bra can send multiple messages. The film Self-Portrait, a 42-minute single shot of Lennon’s penis getting an erection, is its own statement between lovers, as is a film of his smile. More controversial was her film Rape. Although meant as a condemnation of the paparazzi but interpreted years later as an exposé on “male visual lust,” Yoko sent a two-person camera crew to follow a random woman around the streets of London for three days, filming her without her permission, and finally chasing her right into her home. The woman had been set up by her sister without her knowledge.

“Feminist” is a label that has been mostly applied by others. How else to explain her behaviour and her impact? Her performance of Cut Piece, first staged in Kyoto and Tokyo in 1964, and later at the Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965, featured Yoko sitting motionless on the stage, fully clothed, “wearing the best suit I had,” with a pair of shears nearby. Audience members were invited to cut off a piece of her clothing until there was nothing left, or until Yoko decided she was finished. She restaged this piece in Paris in 2003, sitting on a chair, as she was at that point seventy years old and sitting on the floor was difficult. Her vulnerability and the potential for harm or humiliation make Cut Piece radical in any era.



During Cut Piece, I felt whole when I was sitting.
Twitter: February 14, 2019

Yoko’s essay “The Feminization of Society,” which was first included in the liner notes of her album “Approximately Infinite Universe” in 1971 and then published in the New York Times, certainly contributed to her status as a feminist seer. Yet for angry and dogmatic times, Yoko’s analysis is very unstructured and free-flowing. She touches on the subject of child care, “We definitely need more positive participation by men in the care of our children,” and lesbianism “as a means of expressing rebellion toward the existing society through sexual freedom,” but asks “How about liberating ourselves from our various mind trips such as ignorance, greed, masochism, fear of God and social conventions?” and she suggests the reader harness “the patience and natural wisdom of a pregnant woman.”

As if she were looking ahead, Yoko writes, “We can of course, aim to play the same game that men have played for centuries, and inch by inch, take over all the best jobs and eventually conquer the whole world, leaving an extremely bitter male stud-cum-slave class moaning and groaning underneath us. This is alright for an afternoon dream, but in reality, it would obviously be a drag.”

Another version of this essay was published in 2018 on The Drop, the online music component of Refinery29, a young women’s lifestyle website. It was in conjunction with an interview by Courtney E. Smith and a music video of Yoko’s reworking of some of her earlier songs in the newly released collection “Warzone.” In the interview, Ms. Smith asks Yoko, “What influence has watching the Women’s March and seeing women get more involved in American politics, running in record numbers in 2018, had on your work or your hopefulness for a female revolution?”

Yoko answers, “I don’t think that revolution is necessary, I prefer the word ‘evolution.’ ” This response is consistent with her approach in interviews for decades. No matter how pointed the question, whether about politics or difficult and private events in her life, she always takes the less direct road, a pacifist’s trip to understanding. Imagine no ideology.



Remember many feminists have followed the ways of men and hurt their health by drinking, smoking and pursuing more money and power by intense competition. Think of your health and think of being you, instead of having an intense competition.
Twitter: July 23, 2018

When John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980, Yoko released the album Season of Glass within six months of his death. The cover photograph was of John’s bloodied glasses on a window ledge beside a glass of water, half empty and half full. Their son Sean, who was five years old at the time and whose voice can be heard telling a story on the recording, said decades later this act of his mother’s showed him how to turn struggle into art. Yoko had never been a silent partner, nor was she a silent widow.

Yoko and John collaborated on ten albums during their twelve-year relationship. (Two more were released posthumously.) But their work can be bookmarked by two albums: Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, where they appeared naked on the cover, front and back, and Double Fantasy, released right before John’s death. Two Virgins (recorded while on acid during their first night together, in the house John shared with his wife Cynthia and their son, Julian, while Cynthia was away) was immediately censored for its graphic photos and highly criticized for its content. There was nothing on the twenty-eight-minute album, condensed from over fourteen hours of tape recordings, that actually resembled music. But more than their nudity and their nerve, Two Virgins was a shocking redefinition of who John Lennon was becoming under her influence.

Their final album together, Double Fantasy, released on November 17, 1980, three weeks before his death, was their love song, or their swan song, depending on which account one wants to believe; they were each, allegedly, reconsidering their future together. In an interview with Chrissy Iley writing for the Telegraph in 2012, Yoko said, “I was very aware that we were ruining each other’s careers and I was hated and John was hated because of me.”

Double Fantasy is a conversation between long-time partners, alternating songs. It is highly autobiographical and details problems they’ve had during their years together. John sings “I’m Losing You.” Yoko sings “I’m Moving On.” They both sing about their love for their son. But Yoko’s contributions were still jarring in contrast to John’s traditional song structure. Their son, Sean, has remastered his mother’s music as a gift to her. He has said that “the albums need to be understood within the context of the avant-garde world.”

Double Fantasy was a great joy for John and me,” Yoko wrote in Rolling Stone in 2010. “John knew what I was up against and protected me to the end… But there was a strong feeling that this record should have been just John, and I was an extra thing that they had to put up with.” Double Fantasy received the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1981.

It’s significant that during these tumultuous years, John Lennon, in a very public way, acknowledged his jealousy and his violent temper. (Both his first wife, Cynthia Lennon, and his lover May Pang wrote of violent episodes in their respective memoirs.) According to a named source in a Lennon biography written by Albert Goldman in 1988, a beating may have contributed to the loss of John and Yoko’s son, John Ono Lennon II, who died in 1969, in utero, at five months. Other sources attribute this loss to the stress of a recent drug bust. The couple immortalized his unrealized life on their album Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions by recording five minutes and thirty seconds of the baby’s heartbeat, followed by two minutes of silence. John continued to speak openly in interviews and on talk shows about his treatment of women until the end of his life.



Don't fight against the monster, fight yourself, your ignorance.
Twitter: September 27, 2018

It was during Yoko’s hospital stay that she sent her cameraman Nick Knowland to film Rape. Of this, Yoko wrote (in part) “Violence is a sad wind that, if channeled carefully, could bring seeds, chairs and all things pleasant to us… Nick is a gentleman who prefers eating clouds and floating pies to shooting Rape. Nevertheless, it was shot.”

In 1972, John and Yoko wrote and recorded “Woman is…,” released on their album Some Time in New York City. The full title (redacted here) was taken from a comment Yoko had made in an interview with Nova magazine in 1969. The song received very limited airplay as most radio stations refused to play it because of the use of the racial epithet. The couple was allowed to sing it on the The Dick Cavett Show only after Cavett was forced by the network (ABC) to make a pre-taped apology. However, the National Organization of Women awarded Yoko and John with a “Positive Image of Women” award in 1972 for the song and its flip side, Yoko’s “Sisters, O Sisters.”

Their most triumphant song was “Imagine,” honored in 2017 by the National Music Publishers Association as Song of the Century. After decades of trying to get the songwriting credit that John Lennon said she deserved, Yoko was acknowledged as co-writer. John had been inspired by her 1964 book Grapefruit and had used her words and sentiments to write his lyrics. He blamed his chauvinism for not crediting her at the time. Their son, Sean, accepted with Yoko. Patti Smith stood at the podium and sang “Imagine,” breaking down once, accompanied by her daughter on piano.



I love all words, even so-called bad ones, since they have been created by us, human beings, for some emotional necessity. You can use the word YES negatively, too. Our word games are very complex.
Twitter: April 5, 2019

In the fall of 2018 Yoko curated a major tome, ImagineJohnYoko, documenting in detail the making of the album Imagine at their home in 1971. Included are photographs, postcards, video stills, handwritten notes and first-person accounts by everyone involved in this album who is still alive. Co-producer Phil Spector presumably wrote from prison. However, Yoko speaks for May Pang, who was their assistant on many films and recordings, and later, at Yoko’s invitation according to Pang, John’s lover and protector during one of their separations. The release of this book coincides with the documentary Above Us Only Sky, where Yoko is clearly regarded by all participants as muse, mentor, and now crone.

Yoko received the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2009, just one of several important and deserved acknowledgments of her oeuvre. But in the spring of 2019, Yoko Ono was honoured for something very specific. As part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Fluxus Festival, more than 75 women, including a 14-piece music ensemble, a 25-person choir, 9 dancers, and 12 guest artists paid tribute to Yoko Ono and her music, at a sold-out event. With few exceptions, all stage crew, musicians and performers were women.

Breathewatchlistentouch: The Work and Music of Yoko Ono was produced by Girlschool, a group of women-identified artists founded by violinist Anna Bulbrook, from the LA band Airborne Toxic Event. It was an emotional night as performers as diverse as the lead singer of the band Garbage, Shirley Manson, Marisol Hernandez from the band La Santa Cecilia, the songwriter Miya Folick and the violinist Sudan Archives reimagined Yoko’s music. Electronic music artist and activist Madame Gandhi read from Yoko’s written works, and then under the musical direction of Shruti Kumar, she invited the audience to scream as part of Yoko’s “Voice Piece for Soprano.” The choreographer Nina McNeely prepared two dance pieces.

Yoko had been trained in her youth in opera—German lieder and French chanson—but her recordings and performances more often included screaming, wailing, high-pitched fluttering and deep guttural sounds, more in keeping with female throat singing, or a vocal interpretation of gagaku, a Japanese instrumental music known for its minimalism, both unfamiliar to most fans of rock music. It could be unlistenable and her message was often lost. When she released Warzone in 2018, at age eighty-five, she re-recorded many of her earlier works, but with stripped-down, cleaner production. It was now apparent, especially sung with her older woman’s voice, weary and childlike, how mindful and passionate her songs actually were. Yoko had remained committed to her music, recording dozens of songs and continuing to perform decades after John’s death, but it was a younger generation of musicians, influenced by club music, punk and noise, that finally understood her. Experimental musicians remixed her songs. She performed in a band with her son, Sean. At the age of eighty, she collaborated with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Yoko’s current catalogue lists at least forty singles and almost two dozen albums.

As part of the LA tribute, musicians were given permission to reinterpret Yoko’s music, and they did so to much acclaim. Although it was not known if Yoko would be able to attend she was brought in, as the lights went down, in a wheelchair. The final performer of the night, the singer St. Vincent, led the house in singing “Imagine” to her.

“Who influenced John Lennon to be focused on peace?” the event programmer Anna Bulbrook asked the journalist Jessica Gelt in an interview with the LA Times. “Yoko Ono has literally changed the world, and she’s had to do it from a position of being publicly overlooked and spurned.” In the film Above Us Only Sky, assistant Dan Richter says, “I love John, but [Yoko] was speaking through him. I don’t think the world’s got that quite yet. The language that you see from the time they got together forward is Yoko’s language. She taught him this language.”



You must work on what you love to work on. In my case it was music and art. Work is sacred. It saves you from sad thoughts. I have been wronged by the whole world. But I'm still here. Lies, ultimately, cannot destroy you, unless you join the liars.
Twitter: June 25, 2018

As the city of Montreal marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Bed-In for Peace, which took place at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel on May 26, 1969, the Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain in old Montreal opened LIBERTÉ CONQUÉRANTE/GROWING FREEDOM: The instructions of Yoko Ono and the art of John and Yoko. The exhibition filled two buildings, one focussing on Yoko’s individual participation works, for example “Mend Piece,” where attendees glue broken pottery back together in any shape (mending the world) while the other building highlighted her work with John, in particular the Montreal Bed-In.

The eight days they spent at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel launched a new public approach for the couple. Their message was so simple as to be naïve. Imagine peace. Celebrities and politicians visited, including the prime minister of Canada. John and Yoko made endless telephone calls to world leaders and gave dozens of press interviews from their bed. They spoke to the leaders and participants of the People’s Park protests in Berkeley, pleading for non-violent action, and it was from this room that they made their recording of “Give Peace a Chance.” It was a spectacle. (There had been a previous Bed-in in Amsterdam right after their wedding, but they ended up at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal because John was denied entry to the US because of his drug arrests).

“Some people took us seriously and were attacking us,” Yoko told Peter Watts in the April 2019 edition of UnCut magazine, “but actually, it was a big clown thing. And through clowning we communicated the idea of world peace as being very important.” The Fondation Phi recorded the personal stories of many of the individuals who made it in to Room 1742.

Significantly, GROWING FREEDOM featured Yoko’s exhibit Arising which records a different kind of story. “Women of all ages, from all countries of the world: you are invited to send a testament of harm done to you for being a woman.” Yoko asked that each woman write in her own language, sign only her first name, and include a photograph of her eyes. It is particularly sad that Arising was mounted in Montreal, as on December 6, 1989, at École Polytechnique, fourteen female engineering students were separated from their male classmates and killed. Fourteen other students—ten women and four men—were also shot, but survived.

In any gallery where Arising is staged, the walls are covered with the print-outs of women’s testimonies, eyes and words. As the walls fill up, the older stories are archived. Arising premiered as part of the Venice Biennale in 2013, and has been shown around the world, including in Germany, England, Norway, Japan and Peru. Women continue to contribute. I submitted mine.

The year before Arising was seen for the first time, Yoko opened “Remember Us” as part of the exhibit Our Beautiful Daughters at the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi, India. In coffin-like boxes filled with charcoal, she displayed headless, dismembered, naked female body parts made of silicone. At the far end of the room were bowls of ashes, a final nod to the horror of sati. Each evening Rajasthani women covered the bodies with shrouds, woven with their own hands in their tradition. On the walls, “I am Uncursed” and “Uncurse Yourself” were written in dozens of languages.



Use your skills to heal what was destroyed in the past.
Twitter: March 6, 2019

Concurrent with this remarkable life, Yoko’s detractors still had much to work with. Even her biggest supporters had difficulty with how Julian Lennon, John’s son with his first wife, was denied any inheritance and had to buy back at auction sites any personal items of his father’s which were meant for him. And as Yoko is the first and last word regarding how John Lennon is to be memorialized, Cynthia Lennon was prevented from organizing her own tributes, including one at the Brandenburg Gates. Bad publicity also followed Yoko into the pages of the New York Times in 2006, when her chauffeur and bodyguard of ten years was charged with extortion and grand larceny. On the twenty-sixth anniversary of John’s death, the chauffeur confronted Yoko with a letter detailing his demands, including $2 million to keep quiet about her personal affairs. He claimed to have photographs taken with hidden cameras and “thousands of hours of recordings.” In his letter, he accused her of “sexual harassment” at the same time writing that he had been her lover. His plans included writing a tell-all book for release in his native Turkey, and on the internet in Iran. Even more disturbing, in conversations with Yoko’s lawyers, he said he had people “on standby” to kill her and her son Sean if he didn’t get the money. The matter was ended quickly when after sixty days in jail, he reached a plea agreement and was handed over to immigration. The NYT printed paragraphs from his salacious and demented letter, the publication of which only served to humiliate Yoko and compromise her privacy, even though she was the victim. In one story, the NYT referred to the case as a “melodrama.” Yoko was seventy-three at the time. In 2017, dozens of items were recovered in Berlin that had been stolen by the chauffeur and an accomplice, including three of John’s diaries.

Yoko will always remain Mrs. Lennon, even after taking a lover within months of John’s death. (She and Sam Havadtoy lived together for twenty years.) The writer and performance artist Lisa Carver said it best when she wrote in 2012 in her book Reaching Out with No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono, “Yoko does not believe in arbitrary walls, or gates, or time frames for locking and unlocking, or any rules at all. Yoko’s no hypocrite… Yoko’s beliefs are in her body, and her body is in her beliefs.” John’s death brought about a reconciliation between Yoko and her long-lost daughter, now grown. Kyoko had been raised by her father, Yoko’s second husband, Anthony Cox; their whereabouts were unknown for decades. That loss had been another price Yoko paid.



If you are still alive, you must have had the experience of surrendering.
Twitter: April 17, 2019

Yoko’s belief in peace and unification between people has been her primary message for decades. She has supported initiatives to end hunger and spoken about autism. Her tweets often ask that women and men listen compassionately to each other. She stays away from labels, insisting that she is a “citizen of the world.”

She established the Lennon-Ono Grant for Peace, and Yoko encourages others to participate by “imagining peace,” her mantra, and by contributing artistically to her projects through her website imaginepeace.com. (She also sells merchandise.) Recipients of the Grant for Peace, who are given a substantial amount of money for their causes, are as diverse as the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Doctors Without Borders, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner and The Wounded Warrior Fund at Walter Reed National Military Center.

On what would have been John’s birthday, October 9, 2007, she unveiled the Imagine Peace Tower on Viðey Island, outside Reykjavik Harbour in Iceland. The tower is lit between sunset and midnight, on days of special significance to the couple and during Winter Solstice. Anyone can send their “wishes” to be stored in capsules and buried surrounding the tower. More recently, she published two more volumes of instructions, and in October 2018 she designed “Sky,” the mural at the newly reopened 72nd Street subway stop outside her home in New York City near Strawberry Fields in Central Park. Its theme: imagine peace.

In a tweet from May 2019, just months after her eighty-sixth birthday, she wrote, “It’s okay to have a rest from being creative,” but her force remains strong. Among her latest works is “Add Color Painting (Refugee Boat) (1960/2019).” In a room with just an empty boat, participants are asked to colour everything.



I'm always listening to the voice of my soul. Are you?
Twitter: October 7, 2018

A few years ago, I saw Yoko Ono in New York City. We were heading up Central Park East when she appeared. She was walking quickly while having an animated conversation with a friend. As she passed, I held my breath. I imagined a refraction of light bouncing off each one of us, shimmering and beautiful. The street life halted. As instructed, we began a game of Telephone, our own “Whisper Piece,” as her name, “Yoko Ono,” was whispered from ear to ear.

* There is a Wind that Never Dies is a line taken from her essay: “To the Wesleyan People,” January 23, 1966

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CONNIE KUHNS

Connie Kuhns has a forty-year history as an essayist, journalist, photographer and broadcaster. Her essay “Strange Women,” (Geist 95), about women in Vancouver’s early punk scene, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award;  “Last Day in Cheyenne” (Geist 84) was named a “Notable Essay of 2012” in The Best American Essay series and a finalist for a Western Magazine Award;  and other essays have been finalists in publications ranging from the LA Review to Prism International to the New York Times Modern Love column, and the Southampton Review Frank McCourt Memoir Prize.  

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