So tonight I saw Yoko Ono in concert here at the Transatlantyk Festival in Poland where she’s receiving an award.
I have friends who love her and see great value in her performance art. Her music has always left me cold, but I was eager to see her live. I departed the show feeling hers is an aesthetic I just don’t understand, though I appreciate her messages of unity and peace. While we were waiting for her to come on, an endless loop of her 1966 film, “No. 4 (Bottoms),” which is entirely composed of close-ups of supposedly famous persons’ bums, played. I didn’t recognize any of them. The man sitting beside me, who was much closer to Yoko’s age of 80 than mine, started shifting uncomfortably after the 15-minute mark.
Then, after a 20-minute film with images of her life —pre, with, and post-John Lennon— Yoko came out, sang something a capella, apologized that something had gone wrong and said she needed to do it again. I couldn’t tell any difference between the two. For the next number, as she was for most of the night, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore accompanied her on electric guitar. It was 20-minute event—I can’t really call it a song, as it consisted mainly of her caterwauling, with his guitar punctuating the spaces in between. That woman has some lungs on her, I will say that. And for 80, her energy is amazing.
From a remove, I understand that there was a feral fearlessness to her performance, but there also seemed to be a great deal of self indulgence. Maybe my Westernized ears just aren’t geared to the dissonance and odd patterns that she clings to. I don’t know.
Many of the numbers were accompanied by videos, some of them quite compelling. Probably the one most of us in the audience still have on our minds was from “Fly,” her 1971 film (with an accompanying soundtrack) the features a fly alighting and traveling over much of (presumably) her body, including her feet, her breasts and into and out of her private parts. The fly then defecates on her leg.
Buzzfeed or some other outlet had a very funny piece a few weeks ago by a former art student about how so much performance art/modern art is really rubbish and that’s what kept running through my head. I can’t find it now, but will add it here if I do. Most of the time I was watching and listening to Ono, I felt like a a dog with her head cocked quizzically to the side with a perpetual thought balloon of "Huh?" overhead.
I don’t know if Ono’s music is rubbish or is just operating on such a different plane that it doesn’t reach me at all. I will add that those of us who stayed until the end, and I’d say that about 15% of the people had more than they could take way before then, found plenty to discuss about her performance, so maybe that makes it a success.
For the final piece, Ono and Moore both strapped on electric guitars, let loose with some painful earsplitting feedback and very, very slowly walked toward each other until they tightly embraced with the two electric guitars smashed against each other. You can imagine the lovely sound that made.
Fast forward a few hours and a few cocktails later, I came back to the hotel with composer Jan Kaczmarek, Transatlantyk’s founder, and some other folks. Who should be pulling up at the exact same time but Ono. Kaczmarek greets her and we all say hello. We get into the elevator and I’m right beside Yoko Ono, who is really tiny in person if you didn’t already know that. And she looks really wonderful for someone who is 80. We start talking about all the energy she expended during her show, but all I can think about is that I’ve seen her lady business up close. Thankfully, it was a short ride.
So in honor of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, I’m giving to one of the charities they supported, WhyHunger. Maybe I can just admire her for the causes she espouses and her other good works and leave her music for those who have a far deeper appreciation of it than I.
Aug. 7: WhyHunger
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