IASPM-US/POP Conference Preview: Elizabeth Lindau

by justindburton on March 19, 2012

In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Elizabeth Lindau, whose paper “‘Mother Superior’: Maternity as Performance Art in the Work of Yoko Ono” is scheduled for the Yoko, Dollybirds, and a Female Elvis session, 11:15-12:45 on Sunday, March 25 in KC 804/5. This particular preview contains a good deal of material that had to be cut because of time constraints for this weekend’s presentation.

On December 8, 1980, the final day of his life, Annie Leibovitz photographed John Lennon for Rolling Stone magazine. As he had on the newly released album Double Fantasy, Lennon insisted that his wife and artistic collaborator Yoko Ono participate in the shoot with him. In the iconic photograph that appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone’s tribute to Lennon a month later, he appears naked in a fetal position, curling around his fully clothed wife. Ono appears almost indifferent to the fervent kiss Lennon plants on her cheek. Her eyes gaze past him. Her arms, crossed behind her head, do not return his embrace. Ono appears cool and in control, while Lennon seems fragile, clinging, and vulnerable. He told Leibovitz that this image “captured our relationship exactly,”[1. Jonathan Cott and Christine Doudna, The Ballad of John and Yoko (Garden City, N.Y.: Rolling Stone; Doubleday & Co., 1982), xxiii.] suggesting a childlike dependency on his wife. Lennon once said of Ono, “I occasionally call her Mother because I used to call her Mother Superior—remember ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun.’ She is Mother Superior, she is Mother Earth, she is the mother of my child, she’s my mother, she’s my daughter . . . The relationship goes through many levels.”[2. Ibid., xxii.]

Ono’s maternal role in Lennon’s life has been cited as evidence of her unhealthy control over the famous Beatle. This supposed power over him fueled allegations that she smothered Lennon’s creative impulses and single-handedly dissolved the world’s most beloved rock band. In some analyses of their relationship, Ono preyed on Lennon’s issues with maternal abandonment and loss. Deserted by her child’s father, Lennon’s mother Julia left him to be raised by her sister Mimi. After years of intermittent interactions with her son, Julia was tragically killed in a car accident in 1958. In her recent memoir, Lennon’s first wife Cynthia attributes his unconventional “mother” nickname for Ono to lingering emotional damage from an upbringing by his strict aunt:

John had grown up in the shadow of a domineering woman—it was what he knew and was most familiar with . . . Yoko offered the security of a mother figure who always knew best. When, in later years, I read comments from Yoko comparing herself to Aunt Mimi I had to smile. She’d got it dead right.[3. Cynthia Lennon, John (Westminster, MD: Crown, 2005), 255-6.]

In some anti-Yoko accounts of the Lenono’s relationship, Ono’s pernicious influence causes Lennon’s regression to an Oedipal identification with the maternal rather than the world of men (i.e., rock ‘n’ roll, artistic creation, his Beatle compatriots). This pop psychoanalysis would seem to be confirmed by some of Lennon’s confessional songs. In “Mother,” the cathartic opening track of his Plastic Ono Band album (1970), Lennon seems to work out his abandonment issues with the lyrics, “Mother, you had me, but I never had you / I wanted you, you didn’t want me.” In the song’s closing vamp, Lennon repeats the text “Mama, don’t go / Daddy come home” nine times, his singing becoming more strained and shrieking with each iteration. Although Lennon addresses his absent father as well as his mother in the song’s lyrics, the song’s title and lyrical emphasis suggests that the maternal loss caused more grief. The album concludes with Lennon still attempting to come to terms with Julia’s untimely death in the brief acoustic track “My Mummy’s Dead.”



Lennon’s mommy issues and their effect on his songwriting and adult relationships have already been documented and psychoanalyzed in biographies and tell-all memoirs.[4. See, for example, Anthony Elliott, The Mourning of John Lennon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).] My interest is in Ono, and what Lennon identified as her polyvalent role as a mother. My presentation traces depictions of motherhood in Ono’s avant-garde instruction pieces and rock releases with Lennon, contextualizing them with contemporary feminist writings and her own statements about gender roles and parenting. Throughout their extensive interviews with David Sheff of Playboy magazine in 1980, the couple discussed such parenting topics as the division of domestic labor, day care, and public breastfeeding. As expressed in these interviews, Ono’s non-traditional philosophy of mothering shows the influence of feminist writings and her own avant-garde artistic techniques. Many of her artworks from 1961-1970 explore maternity as a metaphor for avant-garde artistic creation. An examination of motherhood has implications not only for Ono’s oeuvre, but for avant-garde aesthetics and historiography, which have frequently sidelined discussions of art by and about women.

Just as Ono and Lennon’s relationship existed on “many levels,” one of which was maternal, Ono’s reproductive history is equally multifaceted. She is the biological mother of two children: son Sean from her marriage to Lennon (born in 1976), and daughter Kyoko from her marriage to Tony Cox (born in 1963). She is a stepmother to Julian Lennon, Lennon’s son from his marriage to Cynthia Powell. Ono’s history of maternity is also marked by loss and estrangement. During her first marriage to the avant-garde composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, she reportedly used abortion as a primary method of birth control. (Lennon later attributed this to the unavailability of contraception: “when she was a young girl there were no pills so there are a lot of abortions.”[5. John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and David Sheff, The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, ed. G. Barry Golson (New York: Playboy Press, 1981), 51.]) She also suffered through numerous miscarriages. Sean was conceived despite doctors’ insistence that Ono was too old at forty-three and her body too damaged for a pregnancy.

Throughout much of the 1970s, Ono and Lennon were embroiled in a battle with Cox over Kyoko. Although Ono eventually won custody, Cox disappeared with the girl, who became separated from her mother for 23 years despite attempts to locate her. Ono eventually grew to accept the situation, even to think that Kyoko was better off with her father, but the separation affected her. As she told Sheff: “There was a time when John and I would be watching TV and there would be a child on and we would switch the dial because I couldn’t bear seeing children.”[6. Ibid., 55.] At Kyoko’s initiation, mother and daughter were finally reunited in 1994. Ono’s song “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)” (Fly, 1971) is often interpreted as attempt to reach out to her estranged daughter. Ono employs her virtuosic extended vocal skills, alternating between pitch oscillation and the rhythmic, back-to-back repetition of the words “don’t worry.”


Ono explores motherhood in several of her avant-garde “instruction pieces.” Printed in her 1964 collection Grapefruit,[7. Yoko Ono, Grapefruit: A Book of Drawings and Instructions (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).] instruction pieces are brief prose scores directing the reader to imagine or perform an action. Less elaborate and theatrical than later “happenings,” instruction pieces frequently reframe everyday events as art.[8. Midori Yoshimoto, “The Message Is the Medium: The Communication Art of Yoko Ono,” in Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 85.] For example, “Lighting Piece” (1955) directs us to “Light a match and watch till it goes out.” Like many other pieces in Grapefruit, such an instruction asks the performer and audience to meditate on an action that would normally pass by unnoticed. Other gestures described in Grapefruit are impossible to carry out, thus moving into the realm of conceptual art. Unlike “Lighting Piece,” which describes an action that can easily be performed in the physical world, Ono’s series of paintings “To Be Constructed in Your Head” call for the imagination of seemingly impossible actions, such as “mixing” three existing paintings. “Clock Piece” (1963) instructs the reader to “Make all the clocks in the world fast by two seconds without letting anyone know about it.” Instruction pieces frequently seem directed toward a single performer, but can also unite a large ensemble cast in a physical or conceptual action, as in Grapefruit’s series of “Pieces for Orchestra,” one of which asks orchestra members to ride bicycles around the hall noiselessly. The book also establishes audience participation and incompleteness as important characteristics of Ono’s artwork. The “synopsis” opposite Grapefruit’s title page consists of an approximately 2” by 3” rectangle bearing the caption “write your own.” Next to the open space stands a nondescript stick figure, and beneath it are blanks where the reader is invited to include their name, weight, sex, and color. Ono implies that she, the author, has not completed the book, but left it open for the reader to finish. Readers’ diverse characteristics (color, name, sex, etc.) result in a welcome multiplicity of outcomes. Grapefruit’s ideas (concept art, unfinished-ness, participation) and imagery recur throughout Lennon and Ono’s popular music oeuvre.

Several instruction pieces in Grapefruit frame actions associated with motherhood as performance art or conceptual art. “Touch Poem” (1963), specifically envisions mother as artist and child as evolving artistic creation:

Give birth to a child
See the world through its eye
Let it touch everything possible
and leave its fingermark there
in place of a signature

The implication is that all biological mothers are artists unwittingly performing unique realizations of Ono’s instruction. Ono replaces the artist’s signature—the mark of original, individual production—with a child’s fingerprint. Like many of the examples I discuss in my presentation, “Touch Poem” presents motherhood as artistic while applying Ono’s artistic aesthetic of unfinishedness and participation to mothering. “Touch Poem” seems in keeping with Ono’s ideal of the mother as a somewhat disinterested facilitator of new experiences rather than the sole provider of her child’s every need. The image is of a self-directed child being allowed to experience the world with little maternal interference, an unfinished artwork who evolves through contact with the environment.

In addition to “Touch Poem,” which depicts the totality of maternity—pregnancy, birth, child care—as part of an evolving artistic work, I discuss other pieces that aestheticize specific aspects of mothering. The instruction poem “City Piece” directs its reader to “Walk all over the city with an empty baby carriage.” I examine this poem’s setting to music on Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band (1970). I also discuss the documentation of Ono’s first miscarriage with Lennon on Unfinished Music 2: Life with the Lions (1969). Although she depicts motherhood as a state of contradictory emotions, it is always aligned with creativity. Julia Kristeva has written that “real female innovation . . . will only come about when maternity, female creation and the link between them are better understood.” I hope to use Ono’s avant-garde instruction pieces and rock recordings to explore this link.

Elizabeth Lindau is a Ph.D. candidate in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation, “Art is Dead. Long Live Rock!” explores rock’s revitalization of avant-gardism. She has presented at meetings of the IASPM-U.S., the Society for American Music, and the Modernist Studies Association.

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