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Lions Roar : March 2014
DECADES BEFORE THE DARK and angry performance art/ No Wave scene of the late eighties and early nineties, Yoko Ono was creating radically unconventional conceptual art. Raised Buddhist and Christian in an upper-class family in Tokyo, Yoko was expected to be peaceful and pretty without any anger, with- out revolt. “I was like a domesticated animal being fed on infor- mation,” she told the Evening Standard in 1968. “I hated it.” Her goal as an artist was not to train her audience. She wanted to untrain them. When she showed up at an art gallery and stood there screaming and moaning with no context, no introduction, no band, no melody, who of the shocked attendees could have guessed she was a classically trained musician and opera singer? Yoko’s pieces are a kyosaku to the noggin. She’s not afraid of fear. She does not avoid lust or rage. She acknowledges and respects them. In “Revelations,” she sings, “Bless you for your anger. It’s a sign of rising energy. Bless you for your greed. It’s a sign of great capacity. Bless you for your jealousy. It’s a sign of empathy.” Many commenters on YouTube say about Yoko’s singing things like “She hurts my ears!” and from that they deduce she is insane. (I’m not exaggerating; go look!) In its natural state, though, pain is for teaching, not dom- inating us. It’s only when we’re forced to believe—or pretend to believe—what is not true, that pain hurts: when your abuser tells you This is love, when your forced-memorizing school tells you This is learning, when pyramid- scheme social structures tell you This is family order. Conceptual and perfor- mance art and unorthodox singing and experimental film and writing employ the pain of confusion, of shaking things up, to expose and fight the pain that is already there, accepted. In the moment of disarray, art, like Buddhism, says to you, “Is ‘That’s just how it is’ really how it is?” That question can turn walls to windows, just large enough to crawl out of. . . and then you can set off running. In 1985, when I was sixteen years old, having so far only lived with one parent or the other in small towns, and without even a visit to an art museum, I bought a twenty-five-cent used copy of a Yoko Ono record. When I lay the needle down on the spinning disc, a disjointed cacophony rose up and filled the room with angles and senselessness and the raw. All I had known before was Scooby Doo and Columbo on TV, songs by Bread and Anne Mur- ray on the radio, and assigned reading at school. None expressed the sort of preexistence struggle I heard in Ono’s voice. She sounded foreign, but also not cat- egorizable by foreignness. I thought, “Why on earth would anyone make music like this?!” That question led to others, ending with this one: “Why don’t I make music?” And then I did. That led to a ten-year career in studio and stage in six countries. In that first moment with her record, I wasn’t aware of what Ono was doing for me: opening everything up, unwrapping my tight little life. The Why not? deci- sions I was starting to make felt like my own thoughts spontaneously erupt- ing. And they were. Ono did not (and still does not) try to impose an ideology. She doesn’t try to make something, anything, in particular happen. She ILLUSTRATIONBYANDREWGLENCROSS Thanks to Yoko Everyone, it seemed, liked to tell LISA CARVER what she couldn’t do: it wasn’t proper, it wasn’t art, it wasn’t done. But Zen koans and Yoko Ono—now eighty— turned all that upside down.