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Yoko Ono: "John's affair wasn't hurtful to me. I needed a rest. I needed space"
Yoko Ono noiselessly taps at her MacBook. Everything about her is quiet and compact – even the keyboard on her computer hardly makes a sound. She is wearing a black fitted jacket and trousers. It is low cut and reveals a tiny womanly figure. Her hair is in soft spikes and she is wearing her trademark round glasses. Her skin is finely lined, with no hint of sagging. It’s hard to believe Ono is nearly 80. She is weirdly ageless – her face constant and iconic through all these years.
We meet in a Knightsbridge hotel, and afterwards she will go to open The Museum of Liverpool and meet the Queen. If she’s excited, she hides it well. But then, she’s long been good at hiding her emotions.
She’s in London for talks with The Serpentine Gallery about an exhibition she’ll have there in June. It will feature a series of photographs called Smile, conceived as a way of connecting people across the world without language, just an image of their smiles. It’s been a long time in the making. “The smile is such an important thing and I actually wrote that we had to do this in 1960-something,” she says. “It’s taken 50 years. In the last page of my Grapefruit book I asked for people to send in pictures of their smiles. It was a big picture. I thought it might take a while. I visualised it. Sometimes you have to wait,” she laughs. “Even 50 years.” John Lennon once described his wife as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everyone knows her name but no one knows what she actually does.” This is possibly because he eclipsed her. Or at least John and Yoko the couple eclipsed them both as individuals.
Before they met, Yoko Ono was an established avant-garde artist. They met at one of her shows. “In a way both John and I ruined our careers by getting together,” she says. “Although we weren’t aware of it at the time.” She led him away from the mainstream, away from the Beatles, into more experimental layered music, and he led her further into him. Ono has never been a multitasker; she enjoys and demands complete focus.
I first met her a few years ago in her home in the Dakota Building. John Lennon’s famous white piano sat in the window, a Magritte painting on the wall, along with dozens of framed photographs of John and Yoko – their inescapable past still omnipresent.