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June 27 2012

Artoon of the week: Yoko Ono

Cartoonist Peter Duggan imagines what might have been had Yoko Ono got her artistic way on the album cover for the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

June 23 2012

Art review

Baltic, Gateshead; Serpentine, London

The story is told of a Chinese peasant invited to the emperor's palace to be rewarded for his loyal service. Would he rather be paid in gold or rice? Seeing the emperor at his chessboard, the peasant chooses rice, requesting one grain for the first square, two for the second, four for the third, and so on. Laughing at the man's stupidity, the emperor agrees but is bankrupted by the 64th square as the multiplying reward now totals more than all the rice in China.

Billions of billions – how can one begin to imagine such numbers, in grains of rice or anything else? Mark Wallinger does not flinch from the task. Each work in this marvellous new show attempts to number the numberless, to make visible some unimaginably vast concept all the way from infinity to eternity: and each work makes a piercing metaphor, often humorous, out of failure.

Stretching out before the visitor to the Baltic is an immense checkerboard floor: 65,536 chessboards, to be precise, laid edge to edge. On each square of each board lies a solitary pebble. Grey, cream, the size of a pawn or perhaps a queen, each stone has some visual affinity with the chess set but each is naturally unique; and the same suddenly seems true of each square. No longer just a black or white box, each square becomes a little kingdom for the pebble it contains; and each pebble acquires its own status by the same token. Everything is made to count, separately and together.

The effect from floor level is generalised, a grey miasma stretching into the distance. But from the viewing gallery above, every square has its special graphic distinction. Mathematics is clearly central to the work – from the simple binary opposition of chessboards to the super-perfect numbers involved – but there is a beautiful order in the spectacle itself: the sheer dizzying quantity of it all held in check, piece by piece, a beach contained in a chessboard.

Just beyond, not incidentally, is the sea itself, twinkling and lapping in Wallinger's new film Construction Site, receiving its UK premiere.

Three workmen are building a scaffolding tower on the shingle, a comic proposition in itself. A pole appears from the right, followed ages later by the builder carrying it. A speedboat breezes through as if to mock this slow and Sisyphean labour. There are mishaps and forgotten buckets, and a seagull bursts into the picture just as an ideal symmetry of structure is achieved. Every moment is surprising, a series of sight gags sustained over more than an hour in a masterpiece of comic timing.

This structure looks like a gigantic drawing, or a freestanding frame. It is eventually in such exact alignment with the sea's horizon that the workmen on the top appear to be walking on water. This is not a cinematic trick – transparency is crucial to everything Wallinger makes – just a simple coincidence of different perspectives.

Space swithers between two and three dimensions, the men seem variously giants or midgets, the sea appears flat as a picture; and time becomes mysterious too. No sooner have they finished than the workmen return to dismantle the structure – unless, perhaps, it was the other way round? A palindrome emerges and repeats itself continually, like the tides, transforming boats and buckets into running gags forever.

Construction Site is a most original combination of contemplation piece and absurdist comedy. Every pun – verbal and visual – is deeply intended. Puns, palindromes, mirror images, anagrams and inversions: these are all pivotal to Wallinger's art, succinct devices for multiplying the nuances of meaning.

His work can be extraordinarily condensed, as in the colossal letter "I" adorning the outside of the Baltic on a banner. The simplest expression of the self, I says everything and nothing, describes everyone and no one. It amounts to a universal self-portrait (one sign fits all) while paradoxically denying the possibility of summing oneself up in an image or a word.

Inside, at the opposite extreme, a slideshow is flashing up photographs of the several thousand marks Wallinger has chalked on brick walls all over London in the past few years. "Mark", says the mark, speaking of its maker as well as itself, sending up the narcissism of tagging as well as the futility of trying to leave one's mark upon London. It is the pun simultaneously multiplied and reduced to the absurd.

It would be hard to overstate the subtlety of these two meditations on self-centredness, each stimulating new thoughts long after one leaves the gallery and both achieved with the simplest possible means. No sleight of hand; the separate elements of Wallinger's works are always exposed, one feels, as a matter of principle. That principle may be moral, aesthetic or intellectual but it is generally all three, as in the most powerful piece in this show.

Just outside the central gallery is a vertiginous stairwell that drops 13 landings, a plunge so abrupt you lose all sense of orientation. With the simple addition of a couple of mirrors, one above and one below, Wallinger extends this continuum to infinity. The bottomless hell below reflects the eternal heaven above, on and on in both directions. Which way is up? The viewer stares into this illusion, entirely aware of the mechanics, but overpowered by its vision of an endless fall and the impossible ascent to heaven.

A forest of iron helmets hangs upside down in the antechamber of Yoko Ono's Serpentine Gallery retrospective, conjuring the dead of two world wars. But in their upturned state, they are as reminiscent of cooking pots as dead soldiers; swords may still be beaten into ploughshares.

On either side two films are screening – an eye slowly blinking, a match gradually burning: pause, think, you might prevent disaster in a blink – and on the wall between them is Ono's famous Vietnam poster. "War Is Over" declares the faded headline; "If You Want It" whispers the tiny subtext. Hers may be a voice of perennial hope, but it is not without qualification.

This show breathes the true air of the 60s. It includes the early films of John and Yoko kissing, John breaking into an infectious slo-mo smile, Yoko suffering the clothes to be snipped from her body by strangers in Cut Piece. It has the glass labyrinth in which the wanderer becomes effectively blind and unable to find the way to the dark box at the centre, its hidden message as condensed as a haiku.

With its delicate calligraphy, translucent screens and fragile objects ceremonially presented on plinths, Ono's aesthetic appears strikingly Japanese. But her meanings are, of course, devoutly universal. For some, this will come across as sentimentality, as in her invitation to the public to smile on screen or leave a wish on a tree. But her sincerity is not in doubt.

Ono's gift is for the epigrammatic object or image; the blood-stained letter, the folded coat hanger doubling as forceps (death or birth), her footprints in step with John Lennon's on a sheet of paper, an overwhelming testimony of loss.

But most affecting of all is the remake of Cut Piece from 2003, when Ono was 70. The audience's reverence and obsession are now as much part of the performance as the artist's endurance. With every snip, they get closer to her fame while she remains resolutely dignified. The performance has turned into a life story. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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June 22 2012

Yoko Ono takeover: smiles of the week

As part of the artist's digital takeover, we asked you to send Yoko Ono your smiles. Here are a selection of the best grins from around the globe uploaded on Twitter this week

Check out are a selection of the best smiles from Yoko Ono's ongoing mass participation project #smilesfilm: © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Jenny Saville, Yoko Ono and Ai Weiwei – the week in art

Saville is out to show she's the feminist Freud, Ono divulges her hopes, book tips and snapshots, and Ai Weiwei is barred from his own court hearing – all in your weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Jenny Saville

Is this painter of pungent flesh a feminist Lucian Freud for the 21st century... or an overblown media phenomenon? Saville has a striking style, but critics have never agreed on the quality of her work. Big red blotches of pigment do not guarantee brilliance. Here is a chance to make up your mind about an artist who straddles fine art and pop culture.
· Modern Art Oxford, from 23 June until 16 September

Other exhibitions this week

Edvard Munch
One of the true giants of modern art brings a Scandinavian chill to the British summer.
· Tate Modern, London, from 28 June until 14 October

Diane Arbus
The extremes of pathos and mockery in this photographers' art epitomise the power of photography itself.
· Timothy Taylor gallery, London, from 26 June until 17 August

John Currin
Freaky paintings to amuse and appal.
· Sadie Coles HQ, London, until 18 August

Karla Black
Last chance to catch a show by this recent Turner nominee on her home turf.
· Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, until 24 June

Masterpiece of the week

Rembrandt, Girl at a Window

Is she a servant, a courtesan? The gold chain around her neck suggests sensuality and is typical of the way Rembrandt glorified women. Whoever she is and whatever relationship – if any – she may have had with the painter, this young woman lives forever in his art.
· Dulwich Picture Gallery

Image of the week

What we learned this week

That Ai Weiwei grows ever more convinced of the need to stand up to Chinese authorities – after he is barred from his own hearing

What Yoko Ono's top book tips are, what her personal photo albums look like – and how she answered your questions

That the Stirling prize shortlist this year is chock full of austerity chic

Who Turner shortlister Luke Fowler has taken as his latest film subject

How Chris Ofili has found collaborating with the Royal Ballet – backdrops, bunions and all

And finally

Have you uploaded anything to the Guardian Art and design Flickr page yet?

Or shared any of your art with us?

Do you follow us on Twitter?

Or on Facebook?

Have you seen our Tumblr?

Have you signed up for the Art Weekly newsletter? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 20 2012

Yoko Ono answers your questions

Last week, we invited readers to put questions to the artist, musician, film-maker and activist. Here's what she had to say

Last week, we asked you to put your questions to Yoko Ono. Here are her exclusive answers, as part of her week-long Guardian digital takeover.

RichieM1 asked:

I read somewhere a quote from John Lennon that described you as "the world's most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does."

For those people who this remains to be the case and/or still cannot detach you from the break up of the Beatles, how would you best describe what it is you do?

Peace and Love!

Yoko answers …

If anybody feels better by thinking of me as a negative force - bless them.

SeaSpleen asked:

What bands today are the most interesting to you – music is subjective, but, I'd like to know what you think. Who are some of the most innovative artists, sound and/or visual to you today, 2012?

Yoko answers …

All musicians are trying to do what they can do. Even the ones who don't know that they are trying can give us peace and love by their creation. The opposite will be to create weapons, violence and war.

SeaSpleen asked:

What, in your view are long-term ramifications of the '69 Bed-In over Amsterdam/Montreal?

Yoko answers …

I am eternally thankful for any positive effect we had through what we did.

tomcasagranda asked:


Hi - What was it like working with Ornette Coleman ?

Secondly, what happened to the Fluxus Movement ?

Thirdly, did you ever meet members of the B-52's, as they were huge fans of your music ?

Finally, I love Elvis Costello's cover of Walking On Thin Ice: do you have any favourite cover versions of Yoko Ono tunes?

Yoko answers …

1) Ornette was very gentle and let me do what I wanted.

2) Fluxus is still going!

3) Members of the B52s are very good friends now.

4) Elvis' cover is very, very hip. I love it. The others were all very good too. But Elvis' one shines brightest.

lesoy asked:

How has being Japanese influenced your work?

Yoko answers …

I learnt resilience and caring details.

semitone asked:

I'm interested in what you think of the state of art education at the moment. Do you think it is still important for artists to learn skills like drawing, painting and sculpture? Do you think tertiary art colleges have the balance right between teaching theory and concepts and teaching practical skills? And where do you think the next Lucian Freud – surely the greatest figurative painter of his generation – is going to come from, given that most "celebrity" artists working today are doing mainly conceptual art?

Yoko answers …

What will happen will happen. People will try something else if they are stuck in conceptual art. Art is action – so don't worry.

kleemo asked:

Yoko, after all those years, is 'Yes' still the answer?

And also, isn't Oh Yoko the loveliest song by John Lennon? (it's my favourite …)


Yoko answers …

Thank you, Joëlle. I also think Oh Yoko is a very lovely song.

The answer is still "YES." Do you want to say "NO" and sink together?

Shimo asked:

Ms. Ono,

Living in Japan, I know that here you are treated with a lot more respect. I have also been told that when you communicate in Japanese you speak in a very formal and measured fashion. As a language teacher I wondered whether you would agree that perhaps the difference in public perception of you in the English/Japanese speaking cultures stems in part from the way that you speak, and differences in what you say in the two languages. Would you even agree that you are perceived differently?

Yoko answers …

I am perceived differently in each country, I suppose. But that is alright. They should perceive me in the way they want to.

Tessmadaboutmusic asked:

Hi Yoko,

Have you ever thought of exhibiting in Dublin? I'd love to see your work

Yoko answers …

Well, let's see …

ghostoftomjoad asked:

Who was the first artist who interested/inspired you and why?

Yoko answers …


pomodo asked:

As an artist, and someone who has spent a fair amount of time in Japan, I've always recognised a certain – for lack of a better term – Japanese-ness, or zen sensibility, to your work that also seemed a comfortable fit within the Fluxus project. Certainly other associated artists – John cage or Nam June Pik, for example – had been influenced by eastern thought in their conceptual approach to their practices; yet, generally, they were working within the context of a largely western art world or audience. I guess I'm wondering if you ever feel the work is received differently in Japan, where it may resonate with people on this kind of deeper cultural level, vs western audiences, where it comes through the filter of Fluxus, neo-Dada, or 20th-century "conceptual art."

Yoko answers …

I like the different way the work is perceived. More power to the difference. Let's not try to unify it.

prosepixie asked:

You've inspired generations around the world, and whatever else people say you have made an indelible mark on cultural history. What's the key to being happy?

PS I think you are a brave person for doing this. Thanks for inviting us to ask questions.

Yoko answers …

Sometimes I am happy and sometimes not. I am after all a human being, you know. And I am glad that we are sometimes happy and sometimes not. You get your wisdom working by having different emotions.

MiddleClassHero asked:

Dear Yoko

As an artist, what is your opinion of the current art world? Do you think that there is a lack of great art being produced, or just that the great artists aren't getting the attention they deserve?

Yoko answers …

Great Art is Great because it inspired you greatly. If it didn't, no matter what the critics, the museums and the galleries say, it's not great art for you.

maryjolene asked:

I love the piece SKY TV 1966, where the sky outside the gallery is filmed and simultaneously shown on a small TV/monitor within the gallery. How important is the scale of the TV screen in relation to the idea?

Yoko answers …

It was the TV I was inspired to bring in to the room, when my low rent apartment did not have any windows. I like to stick to the size of that TV as much as possible.

Writing on Facebook, Kiyomi Louet says:

I want to ask her how she thinks we can solve deprivation and poverty in developed countries

Yoko answers …

I think things will change for the better if we start to be kind and thoughtful to each other. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Delve into Yoko Ono's personal photo archive

As part of her digital takeover, Yoko Ono talks us through her own stash of photographs

Exclusive Yoko Ono and Sonic Youth video: 'An ideal piece of noise music'

As part of Yoko Ono's digital takeover, here's a 14-minute collaboration with Youth members Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore titled Mulberry

Yoko Ono has teamed up with Sonic Youth members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon on a new experimental album called YOKOKIMTHURSTON, out later this year. Here's an exclusive look at their 14-minute track Mulberry.

Ono says of the collaboration: "Mulberry is an ideal piece of noise music. As it is freeform, we are able to bring out maximum energy to wake up the world. I did it a few times with Thurston. But Kim's involvement gave a new dimension to it. We soon got the idea of doing an album together, and we have – called YOKOKIMTHURSTON."

• Buy Early in the Morning out now via, iTunes or Amazon. Profits from the track go to Ashinaga Tōhoku Rainbow House, a shelter in Japan for victims of the March 2011 tsunami.

See all the latest from Yoko Ono's digital takeover here. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 19 2012

Come Fly with me: Yoko Ono invites you to enter a caption competition

Yoko Ono wants to know what this fly is doing. It's a still from her filmwork Fly, which she made with John Lennon in 1970. The writer of Ono's favourite caption will receive a signed copy of her book Grapefruit

Be a part of Yoko Ono's #smilesfilm artwork

The artist wants the smiles of all the world's people for her mass participation project. Here's how to add yours

"My ultimate goal in film-making is to make a film which includes a smiling face snap of every single human being in the world." Yoko Ono, 1967

#smilesfilm is a worldwide participatory artwork by Yoko Ono that shows her longstanding vision of the power of mass participation.

First conceived in 1967 as a way of connecting people around the world, Ono's updated 21st-century project invites people to upload images of their smiles to Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #smilesfilm.

Smiles are collated by the #smilesfilm website and app, which are watchable globally and locally – both on a world map and as a film. As Ono puts it: "People from cities and countries around the world can freely upload their smiles by mobile phone and computer to the world and its people. Each time we add our smiles to #smilesfilm, we are creating our future, together. Give us your smile! I love you!"

How to contribute to #smilesfilm

1. Take or upload a picture on Instagram (@smilesfilm) or Twitter.

2. Add the hashtag #smilesfilm to the text or tweet.

3. Add your geotag location to appear on the map.

4. That's it! Don't forget to smile!

• #smilesfilm is being shown at London's Serpentine Gallery as part of Yoko Ono's show To the Light, which runs from 21 June until 9 September. See Adrian Searle's verdict here. See more from Yoko Ono's Guardian digital takeover here.

• As the final part of Yoko Ono's digital takeover, the artist will be picking some of her favourite smiles for a Guardian gallery on Friday 22 June. Come back to on Friday to see if your gnashers made the cut. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 18 2012

The Yoko Ono labyrinth

A see-through maze, naked buttocks filmed mid-stroll, an all-white chess set … Adrian Searle likes Yoko Ono most when she's not trying to be meaningful

Thwunk! I walk straight into one of the clear walls of Amaze, an exhibit in Yoko Ono's new show at the Serpentine gallery in London. Turning and turning inside this little labyrinth of Perspex and aluminium, backtracking and feeling my way towards the centre, I do it again, the noise reverberating through the gallery and in my head. When I do reach the centre, I find a square column, waist high, grey, and half-full of water. I look down at my own dazed reflection.

First made in 1971, Amaze is the centrepiece of this exhibition of early and late Ono work, from her 1960s fluxus art to more recent and sometimes unwise indulgences. In the first room, upturned soldiers' helmets dangle like hanging baskets from fishing line strung from the ceiling. Each is filled with jigsaw pieces, depicting fragments of the sky; on the floor sit three large conical mounds of earth, labelled Country A, Country B and Country C; behind them is a worn 1969 War Is Over (If You Want It) poster, for ever associated with the heady days of John and Yoko. These elements have been brought together as a single installation called Pieces of Sky. Were it not by Ono, we wouldn't linger. War is bad, the message seems to be, so consider the sky or take up gardening. Later, I come across a live feed of the London sky from a camera on the roof. The show is called Yoko Ono: To the Light. Those who have suffered near-death experiences often complain of a bright light – and a voice telling them to go towards it. This is a mistake.

Don't go there. I always liked the idea of Yoko Ono. I liked her screams on her early records. Now all I hear is the sudden mew of a Cambodian hawk in a work called A Hawk/Cambodia, and the monotonous heartbeat Ono has piped into the gallery as her show's "soundtrack", along with the echoing "boing" as another visitor walks into that Perspex wall.

Ono's work invites all kinds of readings, especially inappropriate ones. The harder she tries to be meaningful, the easier it is to resist. The bronze shoes, mangled coathanger and keepsake box in A Family Album, all drooling and spattered with painted blood, are obvious and trite, whatever they are meant to suggest (family secrets, murderous desires and abortions come to mind). Other dangerous objects – a long needle erect on a plinth called Forget It, a crystal sphere titled Pointedness – have a mild surreal bite, but it is not sustained.

"Take all the anger out of the room," begins one of her framed instruction pieces. (I was once told the same thing by a marriage guidance counsellor.) There's a lot to read here: little framed anecdotes and apercues, instructions and bald statements. "This is the ceiling," says a note on the floor. No, it isn't. Anyway, Italian artist Piero Manzoni (Ono's exact contemporary, both born in 1933) once inverted the world more effectively with his Socle du Monde or The Base of the World, an upside-down plinth that stood on this very floor. Manzoni's Serpentine exhibition was a great monographic exhibition. Ono's isn't.

When she was part of the lively international rag-tag group of composers, conceptualists, dancers and artists who met, and sometimes showed, in her New York loft in the 1960s, Ono was a vital conduit of ideas and inspiration. The story of this period – and of Ono's life and relationships with John Cage, fluxus founder George Maciunas, and dancer Trisha Brown among others – would make for a far more profitable and engaging exhibition. Fluxus was full of humour, asides, wild performances and genuine experiment. It was, as art historian Kristine Stiles has noted, multicultural and multiracial, with more women than most avant-gardes before it.

Ono's art is better seen in the context of dialogue, as part of an artistic community, rather than her own somewhat dubious uniqueness. But this would probably not be alluring enough for the Serpentine's summer show this Olympic year. Much of the work she is known for – like 1967's Film No 4 (Bottoms), which follows the naked buttocks of male and female friends as they walked on the spot in her loft (she made a second version in London) – has the innocent charm of period pieces, even if Bottoms was rated X by the British censors.

In #smilesfilm, Ono has revisited her 1968 film Smile, which focused on the face of Lennon. People across the world can now upload their smiles to a website, while gallery visitors can also have theirs digitally recorded. The results, shown on a huge screen, include the Serpentine's directors: there's Hans-Ulrich Obrist grinning gamely, and Julia Peyton-Jones making a face. You'll not catch me baring my tombstone teeth for any project linked to the London 2012 festival.

At best, and a long time ago, Ono's art was far tougher and genuinely painful. "Bandage any part of your body," says her 1962 Conversation Piece. "If people ask about it, make a story and tell. If people do not ask about it, draw their attention to it and tell. If people forget about it, remind them of it and keep telling. Do not talk about anything else."

Her 1965 performance work Cut Piece – recorded in film here and shown opposite a second re-enactment in Paris in 2003 – invited audience members to mount the stage and cut off her clothes with a large pair of scissors. She sat impassively as they reduced her clothing to shreds. The original performance had enormous strength and tension. It was a play on power and self-objectification, in much the same way as Marina Abramović would later take to extremes.

Fly, made with Lennon in 1970, follows a fly as it journeys across a woman's naked body, wandering through her hair, round her ear and over her breast, stomach and pubis. At the end the camera pulls back, revealing not one but a number of flies, both destroying the artifice of this being a single fly's intimate meanderings and calling up the idea of death and forbearance – a body covered in flies. It demands concentration and, like much else here, looks like an animated illustration. No Ono work since has had this much charge; the film would be shown to greater effect were it installed and aired alone.

A little flashing light in the Serpentine's cupola winks on and off, day and night, sending out a message across Kensington Gardens in the artist's own, private code. "I love you," I'm told the signal reads. Love me? She doesn't even know me. Please do not presume to love me, I want to flash back, in my own special code that would alarm the families playing with the infant-sized chess pieces on the board outside the gallery. This is Play It By Trust and the pieces and squares are all white.

Real chess players don't need a board to visualise the game. They can do it in their heads. Much of Ono's art is like this, too. You read her early instruction pieces and imagine enacting them. Other works invite you to exercise your own creativity. In one room a couple of tables have been set up and you are asked: "Where do you go from here?" You can fold up your response and slip it into a glass. "To the pub," I thought to reply; or, "To kill myself." But that would be to rain on Ono's parade.

In one 1966 film, the artist blinks. Blink and you'll miss it. This is more fun. On another screen a match is struck, flares and dies, over several slow-mo minutes. Innumerable artists have continued to work in this vein, often to even lesser effect. But there was a genuine innocence to early Ono, inevitably and irreparably lost to her several kinds of fame. Would she deserve a Serpentine solo exhibition in 2012 if she were not Yoko Ono? Would her cries for universal peace have any more clout? Thwunk! There goes another one, walking into a wall. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Yoko Ono at London's Serpentine: 'I was helped by the angels'

As a major retrospective of her work opens, Yoko Ono talks us through the installation, the gallery and the art

June 16 2012

When Sam Taylor-Wood met Yoko Ono

Sam Taylor-Wood befriended Yoko Ono during the making of Nowhere Boy, her acclaimed film about John Lennon's early years. But they have much more in common. Here, on the eve of a Yoko retrospective, the two artists talk about creativity, world peace – and what it's like to be the older woman…

Before the opening of Yoko Ono's major solo retrospective at the Serpentine this week, she does something unusual: she summons another artist, who on the face of it has nothing to do with her show, to come and join her. But then nothing about Yoko Ono is usual. And when she explains she would like to have Sam Taylor-Wood by her side, you don't question it. You wait to see what will happen. Yoko likes to do things her way. And, unlike most of us, she knows what her way is. It is an overcast morning as she steps into the Serpentine Gallery looking like – well, looking like herself. The first accommodation on meeting such a colossal celebrity is to remind oneself one has never met her before. In a sense, she could not be less "colossal". This legendary but diminutive woman cuts a dash in her regulation black suit offset by a trilby of dove-grey felt. "Yoko's hair is never a problem," confides the makeup artist she has in tow, "she always wears a hat." And I observe they have brought a reserve selection of trilbies.

Sam Taylor-Wood arrives a minute later, known to Yoko not so much as a Turner prize-nominated artist as because of Nowhere Boy, the film she directed about the adolescent John Lennon. Sam has a last-minute glamour: she wears a blue and white striped top, as if at any moment she might be thinking of setting sail. She has extracted herself from a house with four children – including a baby. "I shouldn't be talking about my children as if I wanted sympathy," she laughs. You can see how at home with herself she is – and warm. It is easy to understand why she has so many famous (and otherwise) friends: Elton John, David Beckham, Kate Moss and, now, Yoko Ono.

Yoko is eager to show us her work but some exhibits have yet to arrive, others are still bubble-wrapped. This does not deter her. And the tour of what is not there makes one aware of how vividly each piece exists in her mind's eye. She speaks in a soft, precise, Japanese little girl's voice. She giggles and sighs. I am struck by her sweetness and animation. John Lennon once called her "the world's most famous unknown artist". I suspect there has always been a need to make her voice heard. Eight months away from her 80th birthday, her unchanging youthfulness is astonishing. And, as a peace activist, she has not changed either. When I ask whether she seriously thinks world peace a realistic goal, she answers with determination: "At this point, it is a luxury for us to have negative thoughts – we can't." Optimism is her vocation, as the exhibition's title, To the Light, makes clear.

We stare through the bubble wrap at a hybrid photograph of three men: her father, John Lennon and her son, Sean. Whose face dominates? "My father's," she says with something between a sigh and a giggle. I can only see John Lennon. She shows us high-heeled shoes in which blood is pooling – part of her sequence Family Album (1993) about what it is to be a woman. She leads us towards an elegant, perplexing Perspex maze. Difficult to plan? "Yes," she says, with satisfaction. She shows us two sets of footprints – hers and John's. Hers are tiny besides his. "Goodness," I exclaim, looking at her neat black feet. "What size shoes do you take?" She brushes the question away like a fly – the answer, in every sense, beneath her. The last room, as though to test what the maze has taught us, asks: "Where do you want to go from here?"

We want to go upstairs. And what I am about to find out is that these women have more affinities than you would have thought possible – in life and art. I am already, in fantasy, curating a double bill of a show in which Sam's Crying Men – of famous actors weeping – is placed next to Yoko's Smiles in which not-so-famous people, from all over the world, smile. And – even more tempting – I would love to see Sam's beautiful film of fruit as it decays alongside Yoko Ono's study of a wizened apple. And had it been possible, one might even have explored a connection– if only because of the intimacy of the ideas – between Sam's film commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery of David Beckham asleep and John and Yoko's famous Bed-In for peace.

I am aware, too, of a deeper overlap in the lives of the two women. They are survivors. Somehow, Yoko has lived through Lennon's assassination (on 8 December 1980). Sam has coped with cancer (colonic and breast). Each woman has experienced painful separation. Forty-five-year-old Sam's father then mother left her when she was a child. Yoko's daughter Kyoko was abducted by her second husband, American art promoter Tony Cox, when she was eight and Yoko did not see her again until Kyoko was 31. Yoko also had to weather the disapproval of conservative, aristocratic parents when she first got together with Lennon. They put out a press release saying: "We are not proud of Yoko Ono." On a more trivial level, there is the older woman tag they have had to live with – Yoko was seven years older than John; Sam Taylor-Wood is more than twice the age of 22-year-old Aaron Johnson, who played John Lennon in her film and is father to two of Sam's four daughters. There is going to be so much to talk about.

But the conversation begins with a present Sam has brought for Yoko, wrapped in bright tissue paper: a Japanese tea cup and "salty caramel" chocolates from Cocomaya in Bayswater. Sam has persuaded the shop to sell her the cup that was not for sale. How did she pull that off? "I can be persuasive," she says, and one sees this is true. "I love chocolate," exults Yoko. The teacup, Sam explains, reminds her of the last time they saw each other at Yoko's home, in New York, overlooking Central Park. Yoko pours tea into her cup ("I like strong green tea") and I ask how they first met and we begin:

STW I met Yoko before she knew who I was – at an exhibition in Islington.

KK But you met properly through the film?

YO Let me tell you how I met Sam, because it is important people understand about how these things happen. She was probably in a difficult situation like I was in when I made the Yes painting in 1966 [you had to walk up a ladder, with a magnifying glass, to find the word "Yes"]. I was in a totally difficult situation in my life and I thought: what I need is a Yes, and so I put the word on the ceiling. I never thought it was about to change my whole life by 180 degrees.

STW Amazing how positive a word can be.

YO It was that Yes painting that brought John into the gallery. He saw it and said great. Because the thing is that, unbeknown to everyone, John was going through some hard times too and feeling alone. I was feeling totally alone too.

KK And are you saying that Sam needed a yes too?

YO Yes. She had so much talent and incredible energy. She wanted me to give her the rights to use John's anthem Mother in her film. I thought, I'd like to see that film and was flabbergasted by it because it was so beautiful. But I must have a very strong prejudice about Englishwomen because I thought, how can a woman make this thing? It was a very bad way of reacting. And then I saw her and she is not a teenager but looked like a teenager and I thought, what is she doing? This is a miracle. I was impressed. Since then, I have got to know her way of life and it is incredible. Did you know there is a very old idea in China that a woman can keep on having a child every four years? And if she keeps on doing it, she can go on for ever – until she is 80 or 90?

KK You'd have a lot of children.

STW I am happy with four.

YO No [laughs], but the idea to remember is that women have the power. I am not trying to have a baby myself but people might say: she is 80, she does not have to do anything any more. And yet we can do anything we want. We have such freedom with our bodies.


KK Yoko's Smiles and Sam's Crying Men share emotional directness. How important is it?

STW Emotional directness is imperative. It is so exciting to see [work from Yoko's retrospective] To the Light, which is so emotionally direct. To see the footprints of John and Yoko walking up the room made me well up. And I think something as simple, beautiful and elegant is what has been lost somewhere. I have not seen anything like it for a while and I need to see it. In the current climate, people want to feel more.

YO I think Sam has been a little bit lonely. You see, when you become very famous, other people talk to you and they are not really friends. What you need to share is not what they want to hear from you… although you try to be truthful.

STW I think so.


KK Sam's film of David Beckham asleep; Yoko's Cut Piece (1964), where she allowed people to snip off her clothes until she was naked involved trusting and being trusted. Another affinity?

YO I trust myself. You need that to survive. And how we are surviving is like almost drowning in a tsunami, a big wave. To come out of that, you have to trust yourself.

STW Although I had met Yoko socially, we did not have a relationship where I could talk to her about Nowhere Boy. So I wrote to tell her about it and asked: Is there anything you want to say to me? Her response was to trust. No interference at all. And she said something so simple to me that it makes me cry. You said [to Yoko]: "John loved Aunt Mimi and Aunt Mimi loved John and that is all that you have to think about when you make this film." That was my guiding light through the film. And there was trust between us.

YO I really think John would have loved the film.

KK The emotional centre of it seems to be a line where John says about his mother: "There is no point hating someone you love."

YO That is beautiful. It is very difficult for us to know we love somebody because it is an insecure position to be in. But in the end, it is important to be honest about your love because life is not that long…


KK John was separated from his mother; Sam's mother left her when she was small. Yoko's daughter was abducted.

YO With my daughter, the thing that was done was done. I can't be too hooked on that. But now I am very happy she is around because we have a good dialogue.

STW Relationships can go wrong very simply, very quickly, and when you have children you become more aware of relationships around you. I had to repair the relationship with my mother. I couldn't afford to be angry or feel anything apart from: I need you back in my life. And it is not easy.

YO No, it is not easy.

STW I remember Yoko saying that if you hold on to anger and hate, it physically affects you. And if you think on a global scale about Yoko's messages of peace and her peace tower in Iceland, it is all about projection of hope and love. You have to do it on a grassroots level to be able to do it on a global level.

KK But, realistically, are you serious – what chance do we hopeless human beings have of achieving peace?

YO The reason we will make it is because we are people who have a tremendous talent to conquer negativity. I really think we will do it. The reason I had to learn about this was when John passed away. I would see the mirror in the morning and I looked terrible. And I would think: oh my God, I can't be looking like this for Sean even. So then I thought, why don't I just smile? And when I smiled at the mirror, it was phoney but I kept doing it and, finally, the smile started to come from my body and was very good. But also the funny thing is that, in the 60s, I had this vision of everyone in the world smiling together. People might have thought it was a kooky idea. But we are doing it now [in Smile film, part of the retrospective]. It is amazing, isn't it? It will be very good for healing.


YO May I say something I really want printed? Countries have lost their culture because what they wanted was money. Money became the running theme in every country and culture was sacrificed. With the Olympics coming to England, we can show people what life is about. It will be so good for this country – which I have always felt was a very spiritual country – because of John mainly, but even before John too. There is too much focus on billionaires when this is a country of poets. Let us go back to that! What we need is spiritual energy.

KK And yet you both have tremendous physical energy and use your bodies in your work. I was interested that Yoko once said this was narcissism. Did you really mean that?

YO What is wrong with narcissism? We need to take care of ourselves.

STW I love the idea that Yoko can be a trailblazer of narcissism. I find that I put my body in my work when I am at a particularly difficult or joyous point because I want to feel that moment.

YO I was evacuated during the war and it was very hard because I did not have much to eat. My mother would visit from Tokyo for a day or two and what she said was: "You are a good writer. Why don't you write about this? It could be like Gone With the Wind, but more interesting." From then on, I was always writing in my mind. It is important never to be totally involved – so a part of me is always in a corner from where I am watching myself.


KK How are you seen as artists?

YO Women artists are still treated differently from men.

STW I had a difficult scenario recently with an American gallerist. He said: "I'd like to show your work, but I don't know, now that you have four children, whether you are as strong an artist any more."

YO Oh my God – I can't believe it.

STW I was so struck by what he said, I found myself being defensive. He then listed all these men artists and said: "How can you compete?" I said: "But they have children too."

YO And what did he say?

STW And he said: "Of course they do, but does it affect their work in the way it will probably affect yours?"

YO No! You are not competing against anybody. When I was 21 and we had a university party, I remember a guy saying: "You are pretty now but in 40 years you are going to look like a fat Spanish woman."

KK How wrong he was! What do you both think of the New York art scene compared with London?

STW I feel the art world in New York has a stronger following than Britain. If you go to a New York art district on a Saturday morning, it will be so busy with families and openings – art is much more ingrained in the culture.

YO I don't know, it goes up and down. I think London, from the US point of view, is really happening now.


KK Both of you have been defined by men – Yoko on a mind-boggling scale. Is it fair to define anyone through their sexual relationships?

STW It is – in a way. I am happily defined by my relationship with Aaron. It is a big part of who I am and I can't allow people to come at me and attack.

YO In my relationship with John, it is complicated. I would like to think of John as independent and not just my partner because he was an incredible guy and with his independence and creativity, he will do a lot of good for the world. And he has. What I am doing is different from John. Together, we created an incredible, powerful image, but it would not have been unless we had been independent of one another. And we were.


KK You have both experienced tremendous loss in your life – how far does adversity feed your art?

STW Art is my way of controlling it, not allowing it to take over my life. Sometimes, I get afraid it has defined me, that sense of grief, loss and illness. But actually, it is about allowing myself to take hold and say: this is part of who I am, but not only who I am.

YO I say in a British way that everything is a "blessing in disguise", though sometimes I wish the disguise was less thick.

KK How often do you think of yourselves in terms of your ages?

YO I don't. Only the outside world makes me think about it.

STW I was about to say exactly the same thing. It is not something I get up and think about.

KK I don't know if Yoko got a hard time for being seven years older than John – but I suppose that was always a mere nothing compared to the 20 years or so between Sam and Aaron?

YO She topped me!

STW I am not ever aware of it in my relationship. I don't think about it. I never think: if only I were 25….

YO We don't want to be 25 again, do we? [laughs].


KK How often do either of you find yourselves wishing you could be anonymous?

YO: Celebrity helps me communicate my work, so I don't think that.

STW Anonymity would be a fantastic umbrella. I don't like intrusion.

KK What matters most to you?

STW The simplest things: love, trust and…

YO The first word that came to me is health; spiritual, mental and physical. But also without love and trust, you will not have health. When people ask me what the most important thing is in life, I answer: just breathe.

STW And that is amazing because that feels like the essence of so much of your work. When you look at something like the films, there is such humour and simplicity. But I want to tell you how I saw Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band perform in LA. It is one of the most extraordinary things I have seen. I wrote her a fan letter afterwards. It was almost shamanistic.

YO [laughs] Maybe!

STW You are very upfront with your emotions. And I was surprised because I had thought: she must be fed up with being defined by John sometimes. But you ran films of him and he is still very much with you and a part of your work.

YO Yes… always together.

STW And I felt proud of you for being there and still integrating John into your life and also having Sean on stage. I watched him looking at you with loving pride. You have helped me to define myself. People want to know: are you a film-maker now or an artist? I just say: "It is me and I am a creative person." Yoko makes music, films, sculptures. Sometimes you can't be defined as one thing.

YO Don't censor yourself!

STW And I feel that having my children is as creative as – and more challenging than – making a film.


KK Did it change your art?

YO No, although I was not prepared to have my daughter and I was amazed: is this what women go through? We were never told. But from her, I learned to be grounded, which is good.

STW I felt giving birth was the most creative act of all my creative acts – literally creation!

YO We are goddesses, creating the human race!

STW We are – and it is as powerful as anything you could ever do. Being a mother is part of my work and world.

KK Tell me this then: why be an artist at all?

YO Because that is who I am. I didn't try to be – but I was always an artist.

STW I tried not to be, but I couldn't be anything else. I tried many other things but I didn't know what being an artist meant other than being myself.

YO Yes. It is exactly the same with me.

As she stands up, Sam says the conversation has been "inspiring". Yoko is still sparking – ready to talk all day now, it seems – but the conversation is almost over. I have one last question as a post-script: would they have got on if they had met as children?

They were, they agree, isolated little girls. Yoko has "no idea" but wonders whether they might have "pushed" each other around. She remembers: "I was always very much myself" and, looking at Sam, asks: "Were you?" Sam replies: "I was fiercely independent but I really wanted friends." And Yoko starts to laugh: "How good it would have been to have an intelligent friend."

Yoko Ono: To the Light is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 from 19 June to 9 September © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 15 2012

Cy Twombly's late works alongside Turner and Monet

A threefold show of sensuality and symphonic emotion at Tate Liverpool, plus openings of work by Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol – all in your quality weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the Week: Turner, Monet, Twombly

The death of Cy Twombly in 2011 deprived the world of a mighty painter. Colour in art is the language of feeling. Twombly spoke that language with a langorous drawl.

Born in Lexington, Virginia, his sensibility seems steeped in the melancholy of the American south. That poetic quality was sharpened in New York and matured in Italy. As a young man, together with his close friend Robert Rauschenberg, he confronted the Abstract Expressionist style that flourished in 1950s New York with intimate, earthy references to real life. The result was a richly allusive way of painting which flourished after he settled in Rome and immersed himself in the history of the Eternal City.

This exhibition takes very late works by Twombly and compares them with the late paintings of JMW Turner and Claude Monet. This is a tough test for Twombly's reputation. Will his art truly stand up to these masters?

Monet's late works are overwhelming. His waterlilies hang suspended in time and space, in paintings that melt into abstraction. Turner too became precociously abstract with age. So this is an exhibition about the nature of abstraction – about where it meets the stuff of life.

I expect Twombly to be right at home in this company. The exhibition anyway ought to be an incendiary nocturne of sensuality and symphonic emotion.
· Tate Liverpool, from 22 June

Also opening

Yoko Ono
One of the most original and daring artists of the 1960s, whose performances break barriers between artist and onlooker.
• Serpentine Gallery, London, from 19 June

Bruce Nauman
A founder of the postmodern in art. Nauman is represented here by his work Days, a meditation on time, comparable with the works of composer Steve Reich.
• ICA, London, from 19 June

Andy Warhol
Is there really more that is new and exciting to reclaim in the art of Andy Warhol, or is he perhaps due some dead time?
• Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from 20 June

Dead Standing Things
Still life under Dutch influence makes for a fresh glimpse of British art in this special display.
• Tate Britain

Masterpiece of the Week

Charles Collins, Lobster on a Delft Dish, 1738

This gorgeous still life with its shiny red lobster takes us to the precise, keen-eyed, and passionately materialistic world of the 18th century Enlightenment and is a gem of the Tate collection.

Image of the week

Five things we learned this week

Art doesn't have to be visible to be wonderful

There's a greyhound with a painted pink leg on the loose in Kassel, Germany

Renzo Piano's Shard is "not about priapismo"

Tracey Emin would have liked to be taught by Louise Bourgeois

How Rachel Whiteread battled with the elements while making her Whitechapel frieze

And finally

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