Yoko Ono on How to Change the World, Her Most Controversial Work, and John Lennon’s 75th Birthday

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Photo: Theo Wargo/WireImage

What do you ask Yoko Ono? Before speaking with her over the phone recently, we sketched out a few conversation-starters knowing that — as is the case with most celebrities who have seen it all, heard it all, and done it all over the last half-century — many would be met with detached amusement. Surprisingly, this was not the case. Yoko Ono is quite warm over the phone, and even though our interview jumped chaotically from her pet project (just a little thing called world peace) to the modern-day resonance of her declaration that “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” she delivered her answers with genuine enthusiasm and élan.

October 9 marks what would have been John Lennon's 75th birthday, and Ono's celebrating with two events in Central Park. The first, on October 4, sees Ono headlining China’s second U.S. edition of its Modern Sky Festival alongside the latest (albeit secret) iteration of her ever-changing avant-garde outfit, the Yoko Ono Plastic Band. For the second event, on October 6, Ono hopes to gather 7,000 to 10,000 people in the East Meadow to help her create the world’s largest human peace-sign as a tribute to Lennon around noon. We spoke with her about both of these endeavors. 

What should we expect from this particular lineup of the Yoko Ono Plastic Band?
When you come, you'll see. Each time it's different. We have some incredibly good musicians for this show. Always, actually, but this time it's different people than we've had. I'm very lucky. Originally, I was trying to communicate the idea of some other planet or something. I kicked out all of the human elements on the stage and just had plastic stands, and inside the plastic stands there was music. Those plastic stands were a band. 

You're also celebrating John Lennon's birthday in Central Park.
Yes, we are going to make a big peace sign with people. A human peace-sign. We need a little bit more than 5,000 people. [Ed. note: The current world record, set in Ithaca, New York, in 2009, is 5,814.] I would really like people to consider coming to this one. I'm going to be there, too, of course. It's going to be a sort of conceptual peace-sign performance in honor of John.

We’re not living in a very peaceful time. Do you see parallels between now and when you first started creating political art?
Well, you know, I don't look back. To compare, that's ridiculous. At the time, that was at the time. That was then. Now I think that there are more people. The whole world is like activists because we all have to do something, and we're suddenly realizing we can't leave it to our governments. Each government has — and they make an effort, of course — but there is a lot of red tape. I think that the people can do it, and can make change happen.

You've been a big proponent of anti-fracking measures. What are some of the other important issues of our time?
The most important thing is that each one of us will do exactly what we can do. That's all we can do. I have my way of doing things, and sometimes things come to me and I feel like I can do this one thing. Sometimes I just think up something. Anyway, either way, it's something that I feel that I can do, and that's what I do. I think everyone should do that instead of thinking, Well, I can't do an incredible thing that other people are doing. No, what
you do is the most incredible thing.

Do you still think there’s a place for avant-garde music in contemporary culture?
Well, I don't know. It just goes in and out, in a way. Up and down. I think that at this time, a lot of people already know about avant-garde, and many of them do love avant-garde art and music, and they are making it themselves. It's a very interesting society now because classical music is there, too. Jazz is there, too. Rock is there, too. There are so many incredible music forms that we have here now. That's very different from the days when we only had classical music.

What are you listening to these days?
I listen to my own music. I'm going to go to the studio to make [new music] soon, but I don't have the time now. I didn't have the time when I was doing MoMA. Now MoMA is over, but then I have a few things I have to do. I think I have to wait until sometime next year.

Are you happy with how the MoMA show turned out, and how people responded to it?
Yes, I think I was very lucky to have that. And I really appreciate the fact that they picked me to do the show. It was great.

Your first unofficial show there, in 1971, “Museum of Modern [F]art,” famously challenged the museum's lack of women artists. Do you think that gender disparity has gotten any better?
I don't know. It depends on how you look at it. Unless you have exactly half-half with men and women, you might not think that the women have enough. But, I think that instead of thinking about it like that and getting angrier and angrier, I think that we should just relax and see where it goes. The fact that I was able to go on and on despite the fact that I was not very popular, I think one of the reasons I go on is because I'm a relaxed person, as far as my work is concerned.

What do you feel is your most controversial work? 
Well, in my case, it's really difficult to pick one thing because for about 50 years, I have been attacked for being controversial every day.

"Woman Is the Nigger of the World" is pretty controversial. Do you still consider that sentiment to be true?
Oh yeah, that was very controversial. What John and I were really trying to say was, "Okay, women are not treated well." That's what it meant, you know? And it's a very interesting thing. I wrote a song called "Woman Power" [in 1973], and I thought for the show [in Central Park] I should play it. And then I looked at the lyrics, and all the things that I said originally — "We'll teach you how to cook, we'll teach you how to knit" — that were very confrontational to guys, have happened since then. Everything that I said happened already, so we don't have to try to "teach" you anything. It's a very different time. I made another version of the song, which is the one I'll be singing [at Modern Sky].

How is the new song different?
Well, it's still called “Woman Power,” but the thing is, what we had to tell the male species then was that it wasn't going well with them. But now, my new version is not so confrontational. Now it’s about getting together. We are getting together, and it's a really beautiful thing.