February 18 was Yoko Ono’s eightieth birthday—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 this February at the celebrated Schirn Kunsthalle; 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 and signed “Yoko and Sean” (her son, Sean Lennon).
But the anti-fracking campaign involves a lot more than billboards. Yoko organized Artists Against Fracking and signed up nearly 200 people, including Salman Rushdie, Jeff Koons, Alec Baldwin, Martha Stewart, David Geffen, Anne Hathaway, Jimmy Fallon and even Lady Gaga, with her 34 million Twitter followers. In Albany in February, Yoko delivered an anti-fracking petition to Governor Cuomo with more than 50,000 signatures. In January she led a bus tour with Sean and Susan Sarandon to Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the local water supply has been contaminated by fracking. And now she is running a new TV ad.
Yoko explained the problem with fracking concisely on the Times letters page 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 in February, when Cuomo announced a delay in the decision on fracking for more study of its health effects. The 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, evokes 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, when she and John Lennon put up billboards in Times Square in 1969, and then 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 Awards ceremony, she told an audience of activists, artists and some diplomats that 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 Ecuadorean Embassy in London, accepted the award via two of his legal counselors: Baltasar Garzón Real of Spain—the prosecutor who pursued Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile for crimes against humanity—and Michael Ratner, the legendary president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who delivered Assange’s acceptance speech to an audience that included Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, John Waters and Daniel Ellsberg.
Earlier, in 2012, Yoko honored Russia’s feminist punk band Pussy Riot, two of whose members have been in jail since criticizing Vladimir Putin. She also paid tribute to Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American activist crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes. Then there are the retrospectives of her career as an artist, a career that began before the Beatles and continues to this day. From the beginning Yoko has mixed conceptual and performance art. Her work is playful, sometimes painful, and includes films as well as those “instructions” that require the viewer’s participation.
One of my favorite recent discoveries was her piece in the highly regarded land art group show, “Ends of the Earth,” last year in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I had never thought of Yoko doing work related to people like Robert Smithson, of Spiral Jetty fame. But the land art show opened with Yoko’s Sky TV from 1966: an old TV set broadcasts a live feed of the sky above the museum from a video camera on the roof. It’s surprising and delightful, and “real” in a 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 1981. 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 Yoko: for those who were still wondering whether she broke up the Beatles, Paul McCartney declared officially that she did not. When John met Yoko in 1966, 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 one about their wedding, which begins “Standing on the dock in Southampton,” to the 1971 Imagine album, where he sings “In the middle of the night I call your name,” to 1980’s Double Fantasy, with “Even after all these years/ I miss you when you’re not here.” To celebrate her eightieth birthday, Yoko played a live concert in Berlin at the legendary Volksbühne, the “People’s Theater,” with the current Plastic Ono Band, headed by Sean.
Contributing editor Jon Wiener blogs regularly at TheNation.com.