SooJin Lee uses a Fluxus lens to consider Ono and Lennon’s playful use of the public gaze.
Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s love affair became a public issue in 1968, when they began to make appearances together and collaborate on art and music. As is well known, public opinion was largely negative and would eventually blame Ono for the Beatles’ breakup in 1970. As an art historian, I find particularly interesting the ways in which Ono and Lennon made joint public appearances and activities in the late 1960s, during the peak years of their notoriety, actively seeking exposure and attention, while presenting themselves in aesthetically and conceptually coherent ways that used the media to provoke and engage audience responses. Their playful use of the public gaze and their own reputations were part of their self-display performances, which I analyse here through a Fluxus lens. In particular by borrowing the Fluxus performance concept of “Event,” which I will interpret as a platform of experience and a medium for change, I will explain and examine the complexities and intermediate identities of the multifaceted events staged by Ono and Lennon. As this analysis will demonstrate, it is historically significant that Ono and Lennon staged such events during the very early years of both “performance art” and celebrity worship culture, with Ono being the former’s pioneer and Lennon the latter’s greatest contributor. Their “advanced” interdisciplinary practice explains why the duo’s performances have long existed outside the scope of art history.
Fluxus Events and Ono’s Bag Piece
In December 1968, Ono and Lennon participated in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus concert, organised by Mick Jagger, as musical partners.1 It was the first time Lennon would perform in public without the rest of the Beatles since the band’s formation in 1960. As if this was not outrageous enough, Ono appeared on stage in an unexpectedly aggressive manner. While the Dirty Mac—a superstar group created for this particular concert of Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell—was performing the Beatles track “Yer Blues” written by Lennon, Ono came up on the stage and, near a speaker, performed Bag Piece. She entered a large black bag, moved around inside it, changing the shape of the bag, and exited as the song ended. Having emerged from the bag, she then sang “Whole Lotta Yoko,” which consisted solely of her chanting and screaming without any discernible lyrics, in a jam with French violinist Ivry Gitlis.2 The fact that Ono performed Bag Piece out of her numerous other performance pieces draws special attention here, as she and Lennon would soon launch Bagism, which I argue is an extension of Bag Piece and a mass-media version of “Event,” an important part of her practice during her pre-Lennon years.
Before she met and started collaborating with Lennon, Ono’s artistic prominence was often associated with Fluxus—a group of musicians, writers, and visual artists that formed around some students of the avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-92), including George Brecht (1926–2008), Dick Higgins (1938–98), La Monte Young (b. 1935), and Jackson Mac Low (1922–2004), who also took Cage’s classes at the New School for Social Research (1957–59) that emphasised chance as a central component of composition. Fluxus had a loose membership and involved artists from a variety of national and career backgrounds, such as George Maciunas (1931-78), Nam June Paik (1932-2006), Alison Knowles (1933-), Shigeko Kubota (1937-2015), and Yoko Ono. Although they all had different philosophies about art, their common interest was to practice and promote a living art that would challenge and transcend the then prevalent modernist ideologies of, for example, divisions between art, music, and poetry; “art” and everyday life; creator and viewer; etc.
To distinguish Fluxus from other 1960s’ avant-garde art collectives’ practices and philosophies, the art historian Hannah Higgins points to Events and Fluxkits, which she describes as “generators of primary experiences” that “allow us to experience things for ourselves.”3 While Situationists believed that a situation, or “a moment of life,” can be “concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organisation,”4 Fluxus artists’ Event scores emphasised audience participation and the new experiences each participant gains from it. If Fluxkits usually consisted of small, simple objects selected and/or produced by artists, Events were composed of simple everyday acts, such as dripping water (George Brecht), making a salad (Alison Knowles), and lighting a match (Yoko Ono). Written by artists, Event scores or instructions give directions as abstract as “Exit” (Brecht’s Word Event, 1961) or “Keep laughing a week” (Ono’s Laugh Piece, 1961), and ask for the reader’s imagination and the performer’s creative interpretation.
Staged or performed, Events thus serve as platforms for participation and experiences. They temporarily draw attention and encourage participants to experience ordinary acts and things anew, or as something else entirely. Neither a finished art object nor a work in progress, an Event is close to what the Fluxus artist Dick Higgins has described as “intermedia,” referring to interdisciplinary creative activities occurring in the unnamed areas between conventional genres or categories of art.5 An Event can be understood as an interdisciplinary medium, a ground-breaking idea, which Fluxus artists invented and employed, seeking to blur and fuse traditional boundaries of art with daily life and media that were still strict and prevalent at the time.
Ono is known to have started writing Event scores in the mid-1950s. One of her earliest instructions is Lighting Piece (1955), which reads, “Light a match and watch till it goes out.”6 Ono initially staged it in 1961, during her first recital in New York at Carnegie Recital Hall, and then in 1962 during her first concert in Tokyo at Sogetsu Art Center, where her performances received complaints from the press because she did not allow photography. The artist insisted on total darkness in the spaces. She wanted her Lighting Piece performance to provide each audience member with “his/her unique experience by feeling an ‘atmosphere’ and a ‘flow of air’ in the darkness, or by seeing what one wishes to see by lighting matches, or by walking to grope for performers.”7 It exemplifies Ono’s wish to provide participants with possibilities for introspection and possibly self-development.
Ono once defined Event as a medium through which to “unblock one’s mind” and contribute to “a dealing with oneself,” and Event instruction as something like a “wish” or “hope” that “starts it [Event] moving.”8 For her, “unblocking one’s mind” involved “dispensing with visual, auditory, and kinetic perceptions,” as a sort of mediation-meets-meditation meant to bring about focus and change. She wanted her Events to affect and broaden the minds of participants, rather than simply please their senses. Bag Piece is a good example, in that it demonstrates her interest in encouraging people “to see” with—and through—their mind’s eye. Written in 1964, the Bag Piece instruction calls for two people to enter a large bag, take off their clothing, put it back on, and then exit the bag:9
After the curtain has gone up (or if there is no curtain, at a designated time after the announcer announced the piece) two performers walk onto the stage.
Performers may be two males, two females, or a mixed couple.
Performers carry a bag large enough for both to get inside of.
Bag made of non-transparent material.
Both performers get inside of bag.
Both remove all clothing while inside of bag.
Both put all clothing back on.
They come out of bag.
They exit with bag from stage.10
What kind of experience or contemplation does it offer here? From the performers’ points of view, they are instructed to take off their clothes while inside the non-transparent bag; and so whether or not the performers actually follow the instructions cannot be seen or known from outside the bag—whatever they do inside the bag is their secret. Ono has never explained why Bag Piece calls for two performers, but in the 1960s under the influence of the hippie movement, the piece itself may have easily evoked sex. In the youth culture at the time, “bagged” was a popular slang term used to mean having sex or getting caught doing something illicit.
Since the audience can only imagine or speculate about what’s happening by looking at the changing shape of the bag, Bag Piece thus hints at the fact that we can never fully see people or things by just looking at them; your perception or understanding of a person has more to do with you than who that person really is. Especially considering Ono’s struggle with racial and gender prejudices, Bag Piece can be interpreted as an Event that contains Ono’s wish to offer an un-spectacular visual and performing event/experience, through which the participants can experientially rethink what it means to see, and its relations with one’s identity, knowledge, and perception of the world.
Bed-In and Bagism
Given a close reading of Ono’s Bag Piece above, Ono and Lennon’s Bed-In and Bagism, their first two performance projects after their wedding, can be seen as scaled-up extensions of and spectacularised counterparts to the much unspectacular Bag Piece. Ono and Lennon married in March 1969. After having their wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, a British territory in the Iberian Peninsula, they flew to Amsterdam to have their “honeymoon,” which they had decided to turn into a media spectacle. It was a polysemic stage, an Event, as I would argue. Inside Amsterdam’s Hilton Hotel room 902, they staged their first Bed-In (March 25 to 31), a week-long event during which reporters from across the world were invited to observe and interview the newly-weds speaking of “love” and “peace” while sitting in bed.11 Ono and Lennon were wearing white sleepwear, holding white flower bouquet, and the bedsheets were also all white. Over the bed hung their slogans declaring “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace,” handwritten casually on pieces of paper.
Similar to Bag Piece, the Bed-In evidently associated itself with the counterculture movement of the time, in particular the hippie movement whose slogan was “Make Love, Not War.” The idea of “bed-in” is a play on the nonviolent protest tactic of sit-in, which was at the time prevalent in demonstrations against the US’s involvement in the war in Vietnam (after having proved its energy during India’s independence movement and African Americans’ civil rights movement). Of Ono and Lennon’s slogans, “hair” and “bed” are images also associated with hippies, who grew their hair unconventionally long and promoted free love and bohemian lifestyles. Furthermore, “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace” can be translated as “Hair Piece” and “Bed Piece,” with the “piece” indicating an art piece. Since the 1950s, like her fellow Fluxus artists, Ono has preferred to give simple titles to her event scores and performances that end with “Piece” or “Event.” In brief, Ono and Lennon’s Bed-In was part honeymoon, part press conference, part protest, and part art. They staged an Event, a platform to which people can virtually gather from anywhere and from which people can depart to anywhere, and an intermediate medium carrying the performers’ hope for the audience to see things anew or differently through that experience.
After they finished the Bed-In Event in Amsterdam, the newlyweds then flew to Vienna and held another clamorous Event called Bagism Press Conference. They invited the international press to the Sacher Hotel, where they presented about their new “Bagism” project from inside a large white bag. Here is an excerpt from their interview:
… I [Lennon] think that it’s very important that we’re communicating now just by words. We are making a total communication without thinking, as John said, about what sort of face you have or what sort of taste you have in your clothes, etcetera. And those things usually disturb and lock the mind of people, and they can’t communicate totally.12
What they meant by “total communication” was mind-to-mind communication without being able to look at the other person, and thus unhindered by appearance and prejudice. Though this concept may sound simplistic, abstract, or idealistic, it was apparently based on the couple’s struggles with public antipathy and stereotypes; the concept of Bagism involves critiquing how people usually judge others based on their own prejudices about skin colour, hairstyle, attire, gender, age, and so on. If Bed-In resembled an anti-war sit-in protest in form and concept, Bagism more proactively suggested how “total communication” can help achieve love and peace.
After staging the Bagism Press Conference, Ono and Lennon “appeared” in several official events fully covered in a white sack, giving rise to rumours that the hidden bodies might actually be anonymous substitutes. The “appearances” included a Today television show (April 1), the New Cinema Club’s “An Evening with John and Yoko” film screening and talk program (September 11), the Plastic Ono Band’s performance at Lyceum Ballroom, and the Hyde Park protest speech against the 1961 hanging of James Hanratty (December 15).13 According to their Bagism ideology, whether or not they were really behind the sack did not matter, which underscores their concept of “total communication.” Is it possible for people treat Lennon as they would an anonymous person? Would they be able to see his partner as another person just like us, not as the “Ono” or a Japanese woman?
Ironically enough, though, precisely because of the hide-and-seek engagement with audience, Bagism was a kind of performance that only famous public figures like Lennon and Ono could bring to effect. They utilised and played with their own celebrity identities to point to the role that appearances and prejudices play in social interactions and identity formations. Hoping to lead the people to “see” better with their minds, Ono and Lennon covered, rather than exposed, their own public identity markers, instead of trying to cover or open up the viewers’ eyes. Bagism Events were probably intended to offer spectators and media consumers opportunities to un-see the celebrity couple.
It is important to note that while Bagism and Bed-In are apparently based on Ono’s Bag Piece, both conceptually and stylistically, they would have not been possible without the fame and publicity Lennon brought to Ono and to those events. It was Lennon that gave those Events a global audience, and so he deserves credit for his role in joining Ono’s world and introducing a general public to the art of Fluxus Events, whose audience and participants had previously been confined to experimental art circles. In fact, it appears that from the very beginning of their relationship and partnership, both Lennon and Ono knew well that they could deploy their identity and fame. The very first official occasion that Ono and Lennon ever attended together was Britain’s First National Sculpture Exhibition in June 1968, where they staged the Acorn Event by planting two acorns at Coventry Cathedral’s courtyard, one acorn facing East and the other West.14 Ono later explained that the acorns were “not only a symbol of Peace, but a symbol of East and West coming together” which would “keep multiplying forever.”15 The Acorn Event thus demonstrates that Ono and Lennon wanted to represent the union of East and West to symbolise the idea of love and peace beyond boundaries of geography, nationality, ethnicity, and race. It also suggests that the couple had decided to utilise their joint identity symbolically, metaphorically, and politically in their works and activities calling for peace.16
The avant-gardist paradigms that art is life and vice versa have now become clichés, and the triteness often misleads or simplifies the significance of Ono and Lennon’s joint performances, which have escaped in-depth analyses. But by borrowing the Fluxus notions of Event and intermedia, I have proposed a new framework for re-examining the couple’s performances, which at the time provoked more outrage than appreciation. As I have also explained above, Ono and Lennon’s public activities and appearances show some conceptual and aesthetic links with Fluxus Events, and the framework of Event, which I read as an intermediate medium and a multidirectional platform, providing new insights into the notorious couple’s art performances and even their seemingly unplanned media appearances. As I have above demonstrated, they can be seen as deliberately thought-out Events, intentionally arbitrary and immeasurable. Through those self-displaying Events, Ono and Lennon deliberately yet playfully offered and “staged” themselves, using their own bodies and the press as effective mediums to engage the audience and spread messages about love and peace and about themselves. They became embodied messages.
SooJin Lee is an assistant professor at Hongik University, South Korea.
1. For more about the concert, see the concert director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s publications. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, DVD (New York: Abkco Films, 2004). Michael Lindsay-Hogg, The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991).
2. The concert was initially planned as a television special to be aired on BBC, but after the Rolling Stones withdrew the tape to be broadcast, it was released as a film only in 1996. However, when the tape was released on film, Ono’s Bag Piece performance had been completely erased from the Dirty Mac’s stage, as if the producers as well as the audience wished it never happened in the first place. The film never shows a full view of the stage, and the Dirty Mac’s “Yer Blues” performance is shown only with close-up shots of the male rock stars’ faces and instruments. The full shot of the Dirty Mac’s stage with Ono performing Bag Piece can be found in the 2004 DVD version of the film, in its “Sideshows” extra tracks.
3. Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 37.
4. The “constructed situation” defined in Internationale Situationniste #1 (June 1958), trans. Ken Knabb, Situationist International Archive, https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/definitions.html (accessed September 29, 2019).
5. Dick Higgins, “Intermedia,” Something Else Newsletter 1, no. 1 (1966), rep. in Dick Higgins, Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 18.
6. Barbara Haskell and John G. Hanhardt, Yoko Ono: Arias and Objects (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1991), 33.
7. Yoko Ono, quoted in Toshi Ichiyanagi, “Saizen’ei no koe: Donarudo Richie no hanron” (Voice of the Most Avant-Garde: Objection to Donald Richie), Geijutsu Shincho 13, no 8 (1962): 138; quoted in Midori Yoshimoto, Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 94.
8. Yoko Ono, “To the Wesleyan People,” rep. in Alexandra Munroe and Jon Hendricks, eds., Yes Yoko Ono (New York: Japan Society; Harry N. Abrams, 2000), 290.
9. A 1966 Village Voice reports that Ono and Cox once conceived of “a large bag in Central Plaza that could be filled by an audience of 200 people removing their clothing and putting it back on while the performers fulfilled their duties outside the bag.” David Bourdon, “A New Direction,” The Village Voice, March 24, 1966, sec. Art, University of Illinois at Chicago Daley Library Microforms.
10. Munroe and Hendricks, eds., Yes Yoko Ono, 276. The Bag Piece score was first published in 1966 in Ono’s self-published Strip Tease Show, but the earliest recorded performance of the piece was in May 1962, by a male performer during the “Works of Yoko Ono” program at Sogetsu Art Center. Ono herself performed it in July 1964 during her “Insound and Instructure” concert at Yamaichi Hall in Japan.
11. Their second Bed-In took place at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal, Canada, from May 26th to June 1st of 1969.
12. Quoted in The Beatles Ultimate Experience, “The Beatles Interviews Database: John Lennon & Yoko Ono: Bagism Press Conference 3/31/1969,” http://www.beatlesinterviews.org/db1969.0331.beatles.html (accessed September 1, 2019). The interview was transcribed by www.beatlesinterviews.org from audio copy of the press conference.
13. These appearances/performances are documented in photographs, which can be found on Getty Images. In April 1969, Lennon and Ono also co-founded a public relations company called Bagism Productions Ltd.
14. For this event, see Anthony Fawcett, cited in The John Lennon Letters, edited and with an introduction by Hunter Davies (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012), 132.
16. Ono and Lennon’s use of identity politics is one of many important issues raised by Kristine Stiles in her article “Unbosoming Lennon: The Politics of Yoko Ono’s Experience,” Art Criticism 7, no. 2 (1992): 21-54.
- Tue, 1 Dec 2020