If you haven’t heard of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, then I honestly don’t know where you were in the 70s.
We’ve been lucky enough to have the extraordinary Double Fantasy exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool for the last year. The free exhibition celebrates the lives and relationship of Ono and Lennon and their passions of art, music and activism. I have visited their world many times and, every time, I’ve felt something different.
As I walk around this big white room, I can’t help but notice the powerful connection between these two artists. The relationship between John and Yoko is almost Shakespearian at times, and I forget this is fact and not fairy tale. The love between them is heart-warming and heartbreaking, even through just photos and timelines. I feel the adoration and understanding of each other seeping out of screens showing interviews from the past. I hope to find someone, one day, who loves me and that I will love back in the way John and Yoko loved each other.
I greatly admire the work and life of John Lennon, but oddly it’s Yoko Ono that I feel is walking around this room with me. This exhibition offers a very honest recollection of events in her life, the good and the bad. It’s no secret that Yoko has had her fair share of lousy press. As I read about the struggles she went through as an individual and with John, it’s easy to not notice that, although her battles are seen as victories now, she didn’t know she was winning at the time.
Despite the struggles Yoko faced throughout this period, all I can see is positivity in her art. The recreation of the iconic Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting (1966), from Yoko’s original Unfinished Paintings and Objects exhibition, is something that I’m immediately drawn to. A piece where visitors were invited to climb a ladder and use a magnifying glass to read the word ‘YES’ written on the ceiling. The word ‘yes’ is better than the word ‘no’, isn’t it? I think so. You only get what you want when the answer’s ‘yes’. I think everyone should have to climb a ladder to get their ‘yes’. I’ve been here five minutes and I’m already enjoying the way Yoko is inviting me to think.
I like to imagine that everyone happens for a reason. I personally feel that the world needed John and Yoko to meet, and I genuinely wonder where we’d be if John hadn’t climbed Yoko’s ladder. Following the timeline of the couple’s lives, you see this deep connection between the pair rapidly unfold. Seeing ideas that they have given to each other or created together, almost as soon as they met. I see two unique artists, who needed not only each other’s views on the world, but each other’s acceptance of the people they were.
“I was just about at the vanishing point, and all my things were too conceptual. But John Lennon came in and said, ‘All right, I understand you’. And just by saying that, all those things which were supposed to vanish, stayed.” (Yoko, Rolling Stone, 1971)
One of the things I like best about Yoko Ono’s work is her view of the mundane, everyday things. Lined up on a wall, are pages from her book Grapefruit, first published in 1964. I watch a young couple finish intently reading them before I take my turn. I watch their faces smile, frown and concentrate. The boy turns to the girl and reads out a page: “City Piece for Simone Morris: Walk all over the city with an empty baby carriage.” The girl replies, “That reminds me of my sister.” As the couple potter over to observe a wall plastered with a gigantic picture of John and Yoko naked, I read through Grapefruit and wonder if she’s completed these instructions herself, or if the people she’s written them for have. I find myself swimming in thoughts that aren’t mine or necessarily for me. I find myself being invited to have fun, be childish, to grieve and to do things that may not make sense. I find myself being invited to explore things I won’t understand until I get there, or may never understand. I wonder if Yoko feels the need to share so much of her madness with the world for her own needs: I know I do. I can’t help but wonder if it was Yoko’s need to share this that made hers and John’s work so honest and special.
Yoko Ono’s strength is inspiring. Despite many sad losses, she never stopped creating or campaigning for world peace. After the death of John Lennon, she continued to protest about gun control. It seems to me that this tragedy may have highlighted the importance of her work.
On 4th July, I went to Manchester to take part in Yoko Ono’s new piece – Bells For Peace – as part of the opening for the Manchester International Festival. The event consisted of ringing bells for peace, to send a message to the world. A quote from Ono immediately comes to mind at the thought of this event: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream we dream together is reality.” The event was incredibly moving, involving the people of Manchester and all over the world, sending a message out to the world. 4,000 hand-made bells and four large historic bells – one of which no one seems to know how it got there – were handed out and distributed through Cathedral Gardens. This piece is something that anyone could join in with, wherever they were in the world.
I arrive in our neighbouring city and am greeted by the bells from Manchester Victoria station car park almost straight away. I arrive slightly late, accompanied by me singing bowl, me Ma and her witch’s bell. As I walk through a sea of sound, I feel the stress of traffic and road works fade away. As I watch angels and the general public sing and parade, I am approached by a man I later learned was Lord Chester; a lovely local vinyl DJ who’s been around the block a few times and appears to know bloody everyone. I find myself being called over by Lord Chester and engage in one of most joyous conversations I’ve ever had the pleasure of having. We discussed world peace, unity and had our photo taken. He told me that “although it may be stereotypical, ‘love is all we need’. Just look around”. As the bells of Manchester ring and ding, I am drawn to the Wish Trees, something that is also part of the Double Fantasy exhibition. I have written a few wishes on the trees here in Liverpool, but as I write my wish down in Manchester, we all agree that we’re all wishing for world peace. I am grateful to Yoko Ono for creating this moment of solidarity.
The day after ringing bells for peace, I find myself back at the exhibition looking at the photo I saw the young couple staring at.
Give Peace A Chance was one of the iconic couple’s longest shared passions and campaigns. As a woman currently in art and music, I wonder how challenging it might have been for Ono to stand up at that time about something so political and public. They kicked off the campaign with their very public honeymoon, a piece of art, a Bed-In For Peace, which ended up as a unique version of the sit-in phenomenon, largely linked to anti-war protests. I love the idea of using their status in this way to highlight their peace campaign. We’re used to seeing scantily dressed humans on the dancefloor now, but it was very different back then; trust me. The humour and devotion of the couple radiates through quotes and quilts. Alongside releasing the famous Imagine and other politically themed songs written by the crowning couple, I learn that they sent acorns to world leaders to plant for world peace, which I just think is really lovely, isn’t it?
The truth is, I think you can idolise Yoko Ono and John Lennon until the cows come home – and I think you should. As individuals, and together, their adoration for the world and for themselves is something we should all aim to reflect. As a woman in art, music and activism (did I mention I’m a woman in art, music and activism?), I find Yoko’s work truly encouraging. From her first exhibition in 1961 to her current productions in 2019, her work is as relevant and thought stimulating as ever. From her expression of real love and loss, to her dedication to world peace: I aspire to be as fearless as Yoko Ono, and I hope you will, too.
Double Fantasy – John And Yoko runs at the Museum of Liverpool until 3rd November, and is free. Beija Flo plays Future Yard on Saturday 24th August.