She sits against a white banner that says “Dream". Dressed in black, she is a diminutive diva, with a five-member staff fussing around her. Speaking in somewhat halting English, her fedora tilted preciously, and peering above the dark glasses perched on her nose, 78-year-old Yoko Ono doesn’t put a face to any of the sobriquets about her: cryptic avant-garde, once music’s most hated person, the woman who broke up The Beatles (she refers to them as “the four men").

Ono is in India for her art exhibition, Our Beautiful Daughters, which opened on Friday at the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi. This is the first time her art is being exhibited in India, and the second time she’s visiting the country—she first came here in the late 1960s, after her marriage to John Lennon.

Centre stage: Ono, 78, started her art practice in the early 1960s in New York. Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint.

Ono, whom Lennon famously pegged as “the world’s most famous unknown artist", started her experiments with the avant-garde in the early 1960s in New York. She was influenced by musicians John Cage and La Monte Young, as well as artist George Maciunas, who’d coined the Fluxus movement—an association of artists who were experimenting with Neo-Dada noise music and experimental art.

Ono’s early art involved installations such as the Eternal Time clock, a clock with only a seconds hand encased in a plastic bubble. She once took a fly for an alter ego; and at one of her early “concerts", microphones were hidden in the toilets so patrons could be heard urinating and flushing on stage.

There has been a renewed interest in Ono’s work, often misunderstood, over the last decade. In 2009, she was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. Our Beautiful Daughters is in keeping with her long-running interest in feminism and women’s issues. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Was ‘Remember Us’ created especially for this exhibition, or was it an existing work that you believed could address the gender issues in India?

“Remember Us, a large-scale installation by Ono that is the centrepiece of her exhibition in India. Photo by Briana Blasko.

How do you contrast memories of your previous visit to India with this 10-day stint?

I can’t remember exactly when I was here, but it was with John and it was definitely after “the four men" had visited (in 1968). John kept talking about India and so we came. The idea was to visit (Sathya) Sai Baba’s camp and we were there for a few days... I remember trekking all the way up a mountain, and it was an incredible experience. At the camp, the men and women sat separately but John and I insisted on sitting together. Maybe it was rude...it was all quite odd.

Your ‘Wish Trees’ have been all around the world. What are your plans for it in India?

“Wish Tree for Hiroshima was created in 2011 by Ono. Courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery.

People started asking me what I was going to do with all these wishes I was collecting and I thought about one of my earliest ideas—the Light Tower! So what we’re doing is we’re collecting all these wishes from across the world and sending them to Iceland, where there’s an Imagine Peace Tower. Millions of wishes from around the globe will be together. Togetherness is very important...we can move the mountain if we’re willing.

I remember this beautiful project by women artists in Mexico where they took “bucketfuls" of a mountain and moved it a few metres away so eventually this mountain would be gone and another would be built. It was just to show that it was possible. It was beautiful.

The book, ‘The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of The Beatles’, mentions this incident where one of your early public artworks—a couple of acorns you and Lennon planted—was stolen. How has your response to public art projects changed since then?

It was a “living sculpture" for which John and I decided to plant two acorns. The thing is, once a concept is set, nobody can destroy it. Even though they stole the seed the next day, the actual conceptual seed still remains.

You’re doing a performance called ‘To India, with Love’ in Delhi on Sunday. Tell us a little about this performance.

It’s difficult to do that because my performance work is so interactive, as is my instruction-based installation art. When I stand on a stage and look at the faces in the audience, I feel like I know them: their life story, what they’re thinking. I don’t have fixed plans for performances. What’s important is that this particular show will never happen again. Even if we were to register every audience member and call them back five years later—the performance would be entirely different. The people would have changed; the energy would have changed.

How has your art been interwoven with music: your music, Lennon’s music, John Cage’s music? Where does the art and music meet in your work?

Well, I’m not that aware of it. When I conceptualize an artwork, I do think of the music—music is an incredibly strong vibration— but sometimes the absence of music is important too. In Our Beautiful Daughters, you’ll see, there’s 3 minutes of really powerful music and then that disappears and there’s total silence. That, I think, is much more musically interesting.

You tried to kill yourself after a critic in Tokyo accused you of plagiarism. Do you take criticism that seriously? How has your response changed over time?

In my early years, because my work was low-key, people didn’t really bother to attack it. They didn’t care. But when I staged musical dance programmes in Tokyo in 1961, an American critic said I had stolen all my ideas from John Cage. When I confronted him, he denied it and suggested that the magazine had misunderstood. I went to the magazine’s offices and they showed me the original English version from the critic…he’d just lied to me! I was very hurt; I felt unaccepted. He was part of this very macho group of artists in Japan at the time and I suppose they were all just upset that I came back and did something.

Lennon sponsored your first big show, the ‘Half-A-Wind Show’ in London in the 1960s. Would you call him your first patron?

There were benefactors of my art in the US. But yes, he was the only one in Britain. John was one of my first patrons.

Our Beautiful Daughters opened on Friday and will run till 10 March. For details, visitwww.vadehraart.com

anindita.g@livemint.com

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