(Photo by Tom Haller. Copyright Yoko Ono.)
February 18 is Yoko Ono’s 80th birthday—it’s a day to celebrate her art, music and activism. She’s done more in the last year than most of us do in a decade: campaigned against fracking and honored Julian Assange; mounted a major retrospective of her art in London last summer at the prestigious Serpentine Gallery, and another, bigger one in Frankfurt in February at the celebrated Kunsthalle Schirn; and made music with the Plastic Ono Band.
The anti-fracking campaign has been her biggest political undertaking in several years. First there were the billboards and full-page ads in The New York Times (and also The Nation): “Imagine There’s No Fracking”—addressed to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, signed “Yoko and Sean” (her son, Sean Ono Lennon).
But the anti-fracking campaign involves a lot more than billboards. She organized Artists Against Fracking, and signed up more than 200 people, including Salman Rushdie, Jeff Koons, Alec Baldwin, Martha Stewart, David Geffen, Anne Hathaway, Jimmy Fallon—and Lady Gaga, with her 34 million Twitter followers. In Albany in January she delivered an anti-fracking petition to Governor Cuomo with more than 50,000 signatures. Also in January she and Sean and Susan Sarandon led a bus tour of Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the local water supply has been contaminated by fracking. And now she is running a new TV ad.
She explained the problem with fracking concisely in The New York Times letters column in December: “Evidence shows that there is no amount of regulation that can make fracking safe.… 6 percent of the wells leak immediately and 60 percent leak over time, poisoning drinking water and putting the powerful greenhouse gas methane into our atmosphere… We need to develop truly clean energy, not dirty water created by fracking.”
And the campaign had a victory last week, when Governor Cuomo announced a delay in the decision on fracking for more study of health effects. The New York Times story quoted Donald Trump as spokesman for the pro-fracking forces, and Yoko as the voice of the opposition.
“Imagine There’s No Fracking” of course recalls a certain song that begins “Imagine there’s no heaven,” which in turn was based on Yoko’s 1964 book Grapefruit, with its conceptual art “instructions”: “imagine one thousand suns in the sky…” The anti-fracking billboards also recall her antiwar activism in the 1960s, when she and Lennon put up billboards in Times Square in 1969, and then in cities all over the world: “War is Over: If You Want It.”
On another front, she honored Julian Assange at a public event in Manhattan on February 3. At her annual Courage Award ceremony, she told an audience of activists, artists and some diplomats that “Julian Assange took a courageous step by rightfully returning what belongs to the public domain. For that reason, I believe we need to stand behind him.” Assange, who has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, accepted the award via two of his legal counselors: Baltasar Garzón Real of Spain—he’s the prosecutor who pursued Pinochet for crimes against humanity—and Michael Ratner, the legendary President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who delivered Assange’s acceptance speech to the audience that included Laurie Anderson, John Waters, Lou Reed and Daniel Ellsberg.
Earlier in 2012 Yoko honored Russia’s feminist punk band Pussy Riot, two of whom are currently in jail after criticizing Vladimir Putin. She also paid tribute to Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while she was protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes.
Then there are the retrospectives of her career as an artist, a career which began before the Beatles and continues today, fifty years later. From the beginning she has mixed conceptual art and performance art. Her work has been playful and sometimes painful, and includes films as well as those “instructions” that require the viewer’s participation.
One of my favorite recent discoveries was a piece in the highly-regarded land art group show, “Ends of the Earth,” last year in LA at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I had never thought of Yoko doing work related to people like Robert Smithson of Spiral Jetty. But the land art show opened with Yoko’s Sky TV from 1966: an old TV set broadcasts a live feed, from a video camera on the roof, of the sky above the museum. It’s surprising and delightful, and “real” in way that’s different from everything else in the museum. It’s also a pioneering work of video art. (Sky TV is a permanent installation in New York City at the Asia Society.)
And we have her music—especially the unforgettable “Walking on Thin Ice” from December, 1980. The “Thin Ice” video is part of the Frankfurt retrospective, along with Sky TV.
One more thing that made this past year a good one: for those who were still wondering whether Yoko broke up the Beatles, Paul McCartney declared officially that she did not. When John met Yoko in 1968, he explained, “part of her attraction was her avant garde side.… She showed him another way to be, which was very attractive to him. So it was time for John to leave”—but “he was definitely going to leave, one way or another." The story was headline news.
And of course we have Lennon’s wonderful songs about her: from the 1969 song about their wedding, that begins “Standing on the dock in Southhampton,” to Lennon on the 1971 Imagine album, singing “In the middle of the night I call your name…” to 1980’s Double Fantasy, and “Even after all these years/I miss you when you’re not here…”
To celebrate her 80th birthday she’s playing a live concert in Berlin at the legendary Volksbuhne, the “People’s Theater,” with the current Plastic Ono Band, headed by Sean.
Happy Birthday, Yoko!