Do some free association on Yoko Ono and what do you get? John Lennon, New York, the Beatles’ split, world peace, dark glasses, bed-ins, Fluxus/performance art. Looming over all of these is John’s shadow, and the fact she may be viewed by many as an appendage to his latent messianic complex. Yoko herself may well be aware of this, as much of the evening involved a febrile self-explanation that at times boiled over into self-justification.
This started explicitly – not just in the sense of the opening video close up of some ambulant buttocks with interstitial vulva in evidence – but with a collaged biopic accompanied by a succinct narration: “Yoko is provocative, confrontational and human”. We saw Yoko playing piano aged around five, the bed-in with swarming press photographers, Yoko the flâneur in New York, and then her naked body being traipsed over by a fly.
Just as the fly was preening itself over her mons pubis, the real Yoko appeared to rapturous applause, a sprightly 4′ 10” in trainers and dark glasses. The expounding then continued, with brief descriptions of her views on fracking and an obligatory nod to some perennial world peace obfuscation, interspersed with instructions on “not to try” when hugging, dancing and making love. In something of a knight’s move, there was a stern word about not taking photos during the show.
Then the music started. Stellar names get stellar backup, and tonight Yoko was joined by Thurston Moore (guitar) and Steve Shelley (drums); both members of recently disbanded Sonic Youth.
Something other than self-explanation next supervened: the fact that Yoko is 81 and in her dotage. This was born out by a ticking wrist watch held to Moore’s neck pickup, to which Yoko plangently listed all the things she might one day miss, “clouds, mountains, trees, snow, city lights”. Shelley joined the throng with rich cymbal swells, before Yoko deflated everything with a long sigh.
This sigh together with her vocal delivery – bridging the gap between narration and music – combined the fly-on-the-pudenda film, led me to the possibly facile idea that in inhabiting the liminal zone between music, performance art and – on this occasion at least – short film, appraisal through the prism of one of these was impossible. It did however allow Yoko to exploit their intersections to maximum effect.
This was exemplified by the next piece. It started with a fragile call and response between Yoko’s octogenarian pulmonary reserve and a tremulous metallic sliver from Moore’s Fender. Both were mirrored physically with Yoko exhorting Moore with outstretched arms, just as his body contorted with every stuttered response. This then built up as the fly decamped to Yoko’s areola, whilst she began to unfurl a spectrum of abstract ‘ahhh’s’ ranging from sarcastic hyena snicker to paroxysmal post-lacrimal gasping. The emerging cacophony plus its associated delivery neatly mirrored what was being projected. The buzz of the fly, Yoko’s scissors cutting black cloth and a purple bra being unclasped were all obliquely recreated by the band.
Things then swirled around on this frenetic inter-disciplinary level before the denouement really sealed things. Yoko and Moore prowled around each other – both wearing but not playing guitars – in a fashion combining some kind of mating ritual with hunching Japanese deference, before they suddenly came together clashing strings with the ensuing feedback abruptly bringing things to a close.
Yoko has been through a lot (bereaved; estranged from a child; never viewed outside prism of John; mauled by popular press), and it is inspiring that at 81 she’s still going for it. If not exactly liberated from this historical baggage herself, seeing her deal with it in her cross-disciplinary way was in itself liberating. Would Yoko Ono be who she is without John Lennon? An answer in the negative would be a truism, not a criticism. After all she’s human – and provocative and confrontational.
Yoko Ono played Cafe Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL on 23 March 2014.