Yoko Ono: Give peace a chance (again)

She describes herself as an artist, but to us Yoko Ono will always be John's weird widow. At 70, she's as rebellious as ever, but how can she hope to put the world to rights from a sumptuous Manhattan apartment? David Usborne enters her world
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The Independent Online

Yoko Ono admits that she has reasons to feel angry. The murder of her husband outside their apartment in the Dakota Building on the west side of Manhattan is one of them and, nearly a quarter of a century later, some of that anger is still with her. She gets worked up about how other people view her, attributing some of what they say to old-fashioned racism and sexism. But what bugs her most today? Negativism, she says.

Two weeks from her 71st birthday, Yoko talks a lot about the world, war and peace. Pinning her down on what she really means is not always easy. She accepts that she may suffer from unrealistic optimism. Some may call it sheer flakiness. A sit-down interview may be one way of fathoming this iconic and often controversial figure, and going beyond the inescapable headline of her life - that she married John Lennon.

Receiving the writer in the same apartment she and John moved into in the Dakota in 1973, she is charming and filled with energy. Shoes are removed and coffee is served in a room with views of a snow-clad Central Park. Everything in it is pale cream - cream carpet, cream walls, cream couch and cream grand piano. Yoko herself is in black - trousers, low-cut shirt and a simple black guitar plectrum on a chain around her neck. (No, it wasn't John's.) She is also guarded; suspicious, clearly, of journalists and any attempts they may make to pry into her privacy. No, she did not take a walk in the park today. Yes, there is an astonishing array of clothes in the room adjacent to this one. But don't write about that.

Alternatively, you can consider her work. She is busier now than at any time in her life, and the requests keep coming. Last year, her best-known composition, "Walking on Thin Ice" - completed just hours after John's death - resurfaced as a remix and made it to No 1 on the US dance chart. She has also revived Cut Piece, a theatre work she first performed nearly 40 years ago, in which audience members snip off her clothes with scissors until she is left in her undies. And then there is her art.

This week, the ICA in London will unveil a sprawling installation by Yoko, inspired by the violence that marked the 20th century. Called Odyssey of a Cockroach, it will take up three levels of an offsite gallery space in north London. It is made up of massive photographs, mostly taken by her, alongside a variety of sculptures and objects: a giant shoe; two steel mouse-traps, like cages, that you are invited to walk into; A massive dustbin filled with human body-parts made from plaster. (She calls it her "statue of the 20th century".) There is barbed wire atop a fence, and one shot of a dead man lying in a pool of fresh blood. Shoes, clothes and discarded books are strewn about the place. And, while some of the photos are of contemporary New York, references to the Holocaust and concentration camps are everywhere.

Isn't it all rather bleak for a self-confessed optimist? "Bleak is a very strange word," she says. "I think the 20th century was a violent century, and that violence was totally unnecessary. Once you start to understand that it was not out of necessity, we can learn to stop doing it. Until the 20th century, maybe the violence was justified. It was a matter of self-defence, protecting ourselves from other animals and other races of people who were trying to get us. But in the 20th century, when there was a sort of coming together of the world, especially with new forms of communication, we really didn't need to be violent. We have a choice now. We are not programmed to be violent by our DNA. We don't have to, and that's what this is about."

It is also about negativism. "I think that negative thinking is a luxury that we can't afford, that's what I'm saying. It's about pessimism too. Most people think that I am too optimistic, but my optimism is based on the thought that negative thinking is a luxury that we can't afford."

In the end, Odyssey of a Cockroach is another expression of a lifetime's proselytisation for peace, a journey she embarked on with Lennon shortly before his death. There are two audience-participation elements to the work. One involves a table, upon which appears to be a general's map. But, where normally the map would be marked with flags signifying the next targets for bombardment, visitors to the work will be invited instead to use little rubber stamps to print two words wherever they like. The words are "Imagine Peace". One wall of the installation will be set aside for the public to put up personal photographs attesting to violence or injustice in their own lives. "It might be a picture of a grandmother who died in a concentration camp," suggests the artist, "or of a daughter killed in a car crash."

For those people seeking more assurance in mankind's capability for hope, visitors will also be invited to look inside a dark tunnel that is also part of the installation. At its far end is a tiny picture - of a rainbow over rolling hills.

In what condition does Yoko find mankind, at the beginning of a new millennium? Curiously, Yoko does not take the cue to talk about the obvious - Iraq, American aggression or George Bush. Daily politics don't seem to grab her. Her thinking is far less temporal than that. The world, she suggests, is healing. People are generally more aware of what is at stake. Things military are less venerated. "In the 20th century it was great to be a general, great to be a soldier - the man who was equated with violence, who was able to be violent and kill people. That was the value, but now the value has totally changed. Very few people would think of wanting to be a soldier and feel that killing 2,000 people is heroic."

It is at this point that she ventures her hypothesis about the twin forces of peace and violence. "There are only two industries in the world, the peace industry and the war industry. And people in the war industry are there to make money by creating weapons and to kill people. The peace industry people are not doing that, and by just not doing that, you are part of the peace industry.

"The war industry people don't care about us. They are very intelligent in that way; they don't want to waste their energy in having a conversation with us. They are single-minded about what they are going to do. They will go away if we ignore them, if we don't focus on them, if we are active in what we do."

Which means, she suggests, that we should all be creating. If you spend your time going to watch films, that's OK, she says. Far better, however, that you make a film yourself. That will be your contribution.

"Things are better, we're going to make it better," she adds. "I am doing my share and you are doing it too, by just being you. Anybody who is in the peace industry - whether they are florists or just dog-walkers - they are all promoters of peace."

Yoko admits that she herself has changed. It came in part after the events of September 11, when she was in Manhattan. The shock served to arrest her artistic snobbery. Soon after the attacks, she went to an art show and saw how someone had painted a clown on velvet. There was a time when she would have laughed at it. Not any more. "I was so thankful to these painters. I thought, "Isn't it so sweet that he is painting a clown?' I thanked each artist behind those paintings, instead of criticising what they had done. I suddenly discovered that feeling in me, and I like it."

Yet, there is still the anger - a long-simmering fury, which, she insists, she has always managed to contain and channel. It is no secret, for instance, that Yoko has been held in deep suspicion by many of Lennon's fans, who have continued to blame her for detaching her husband from his bandmates and precipitating the break-up of The Beatles. Stories about her battles with the surviving band members continue to circulate with some venom.

"I was upset about many things. I was not immune to the fact that the whole world misunderstood me and kept attacking me. They did when I got married to John. The thing is, at the time, if I gave into it, and just got upset, then I would have made myself ill. I couldn't afford to do that. That is what I am saying about negative thinking, and that is what we can't afford." And the shooting of Lennon? "I am still not free of it," she answers, "but I have transformed that energy of anger - an incredible energy - into a passion for bettering the world.

"One of the reasons that I was able to think that way was because of my son. I had a five-year-old who was crying, so I couldn't afford just to be angry, I had to do something about it." Sean, now a recording artist, is in Los Angeles, she says, working on a new album. "I like that he is such a sweet person. A very politically correct person. I didn't teach him that, he learnt on his own."

As for the disagreements between her and the other Beatles after John's death, she admits that they arose, but mostly over business. The press loves to play it up, she says. "You like the idea of us being in the boxing ring. It is not exciting if we are just friends. You like this idea of animosity between us." If business arguments do break out, it is because she is trying to protect John's legacy. "That's the responsibility he gave to me. I am honoured to do it, because we were partners and we are still partners."

Another area of sensitivity is her continued occupation of the apartment in the Dakota buildings, outside which Lennon was shot. She seems irritated when asked why she has never left it. She suggests: "There is a slight racism there. 'Oh well, she is Japanese, but we couldn't do that. We couldn't stay in a place where our husband was killed. They don't bleed so much; we can cut their arms, but it doesn't hurt them so much. They are different.'"

This was the home she built with John and their child. It was right to remain in it, she argues. If John were alive today they would probably be sitting in this room right now, with its corner window looking on to the park and down the avenue of Central Park West. Although perhaps not for ever. "He wanted to retire in Cornwall. He said we would be sitting in rocking chairs together, waiting for a postcard to come from Sean."

But nothing seems to unbalance Yoko more today than the accident of having left her dressing-room door open for me to spy into. It is no ordinary walk-in wardrobe, but a room larger than the average Manhattan apartment. And it is brimful with outfits, many on hangers arranged on circular stands. Most of them are black.

Yoko admits that she hasn't thrown anything away since she and John arrived in New York from London in 1973. At the time, they ditched all their London clothes - an impetuous act that she has long regretted. But don't cast her as some kind of Imelda Marcos, she pleads. "You go to any Hollywood household, and all those ladies will have as many shoes, and in New York too," she protests. "Imelda was accused because she was Imelda, because she had dark skin. When she was accused, all the ladies in Hollywood were horrified, because all of them had bigger shoe closets than she did."

Yoko. Yoko. Stop with the negative thinking. No one is accusing you of anything. Keep your clothes, by all means, and forgive us for being mildly interested. You are famous and private, and these details will always grab our attention. But that doesn't mean we won't pay attention to your art as well. And take it seriously.

'Odyssey of a Cockroach', ICA East, 14 Wharf Rd, London N1, 5 February to 7 March (020-7930 3647; www.ica.org.uk)