That was how the Associated Press began its article on the wedding between avant-garde artist Yoko Ono and the singer-songwriter John Lennon on this day 45 years ago: March 20, 1969.
The fact that the phrase “Japanese mistress” was used in a newspaper article is startling, especially considering that in 1969, the 34-year-old Ono was already an established artist, sculptor and filmmaker. Reading that sentence this week, I also couldn’t help but think of the coverage of the sudden death of fashion designer L’Wren Scott, who allegedly committed suicide on Monday, and how her identity was swiftly erased to the point that she was merely referred to as “Mick Jagger’s girlfriend.” How little things have changed in 45 years.
While most of the world met Yoko Ono at around the same time John Lennon did–on that famous day in 1966 in the Indica Gallery when the Beatle climbed a ladder to view her famous “Ceiling Painting“–Ono had been making a name for herself in the London and New York art scenes for years before that, experimenting with the themes of feminism and identity.
Grapefruit, Ono’s 1964 debut book, was designed to be something of an instruction manual for life with pointers like “Step in all the puddles in the city” and “Listen to the sound of the earth turning.” (As an aside, her Twitter account can, in many ways, be looked at as a modern-day extension of Grapefruit. A recent tweet encouraged followers to “Imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky. Let it swim from the West to the East…”)
For her 1965 work titled “Cut Piece,” Ono sat in the center of a gallery floor while gallery visitors approached to cut away pieces of the black outfit she was wearing. Last year, The Guardian named the performance one of the most shocking performance art pieces of all time, noting that it “started politely but became more and more threatening as her clothes were reduced to rags and she kneeled in her underwear.”
The aggression of the gallery visitors is palpable in this clip of “Cut Piece.” I flinched several times after the 7:00 mark as we see a man cut away Ono’s bra. For her part, the artist does her best to maintain a netural expression throughout:
Ono’s lifelong fascination with sexuality, the human body, and taboos were all readily apparent in the 1966 film No. 4, better known as “Bottoms.” Co-directed by Ono and her then-husband Anthony Cox, the film consisted of closeups of the posteriors of various people as they walked around the couple’s Manhattan apartment. The film was an instant hit among New York’s arthouse crowd and Ono would go on to make an 80-minute version of the film that featured the anatomy of over 300 people.
Needless to say, the British Board of Film Censors was less than thrilled about the film and banned it because it was thought to be obscene and “not suitable for public exhibition.” Because there’s nothing like a ban to boost interest in a work of art, demand to see the film grew. For her part, Ono professed that she couldn’t understand why anyone would ban No. 4, telling a reporter, “It’s quite harmless. There’s no murder or violence in it. Why shouldn’t it be given a certificate?”
As you can probably imagine, this clip from the film is extremely NSFW. Ono was apparently fascinated by the fact that from this angle it is practically impossible to determine the gender of the participants:
Ono and Cox eventually got No. 4’s ban overturned after a peaceful outdoor demonstration that included handing out roses to passersby and a meeting with the head of the censor board.
Yoko Ono would of course reach an entirely different level of celebrity after her relationship with Lennon began. And many people–die-hard Beatles fans in particular–were not prepared to see a Beatle attach himself to a Japanese conceptual artist. While we are now used to seeing the old footage of fainting girls and screaming Beatles fans, the reality of living in the Beatlemania bubble was much more complicated (and, as we saw with Lennon’s murder, much more tragic.)
He married a woman “eight years older” was the official running joke. “Dragon Lady” was the other. The unofficial one went from Jap to Chink to Bitch.
By concentrating on the media’s coverage of her relationship, Ono glosses over the most vicious culprits: ordinary fans and Lennon’s own family. As Jacqueline Edmondson notes in her biography of Lennon, the fans that would congregate outside Abbey Road studios would scream slurs like “chink” and “yellow” as she walked past. A young girl waiting outside Abbey Road once pushed a bouquet of yellow roses into Ono’s hands, thorns first, in an attempt to cut her hands. And Lennon’s beloved Aunt Mimi openly disdained her, and greeted her nephew with the question “Who’s the poisoned dwarf?” after first being introduced to her.
The artist at the center of it all insisted that she was unaffected by it all, later telling Playboy’s David Schiff, “When all that hate energy was focused on me, it was transformed into a fantastic energy. It was supporting me. If you are centered and you can transform all of this energy that comes in, it will help you. If you believe it’s going to kill you, it will kill you.”
As for Lennon’s thoughts on all of this, he wrote the following in his book Skywriting by Word of Mouth:
“Having been brought up in the genteel poverty of a lower-middle class environment, I should have not been surprised by the outpouring of race-hatred and anti-female to which we were subjected in that bastion of democracy, Great Britain.”
John Lennon, of course, was far from an ideal husband or father, particularly to his first wife and son Julian, who he abandoned for years after his divorce. Cynthia Lennon has written about his verbal and physical abuse and how he’d bully her into doing LSD, even though it made her ill.
Despite all of this, and despite their own often-troubled relationship, Ono and Lennon’s mutual respect for each other’s talent was clear throughout their time together. “John protected me and he did love my work, and there weren’t very [many] people then who loved my work,” Ono said in an interview last year.
Happy anniversary, Yoko.
Lakshmi Gandhi is a freelance journalist and an editor at The Aerogram, where she writes about all things South Asian. You can find her on Twitter at @LakshmiGandhi.