Influence. Some people have it. Loads of people want it. But the means by which some people attain it is a mystery as weird as quantum mechanics.
Take Yoko Ono, for instance. Most people in this part of the world assume she gained her fame and influence through being Mrs John Lennon. Not so, apparently, for since the early 1960’s, there has been a small but highly dedicated band of artistic academics (many of whom have gone on to become influential Professors instructing whole new generations of artists) who have championed Ono’s work in conceptual art as being both revolutionary and deeply profound.
They speak with reverence of her notorious ‘Cut Piece,’ an art installation – performed repeatedly by Ono and others across the world – whereby members of the audience are invited to cut away pieces of the artist’s clothing, until she presumably ends up bollock naked.
Cynics like myself might be tempted to snort at ‘Film No. 4,’ which features extended close ups on the 355 bottoms of various artists and friends of Yoko Ono’s, but if you hang around with arty types, you’d want to be careful where you do your snorting.
Until a few months ago, I hadn’t met anyone who had actually listened to a Yoko Ono album. Yes, quite independently of John, she’s been writing and recording her own songs for ages, a fact I was unaware of until embarrassingly recently.
As with the output of most conceptual artists, I often find myself divided. Yoko Ono has produced pieces of art – such as her white chessboards – which seem to conform to some doubtless outmoded patriarchal, woman suppressing notion of beauty (I’m trying to be scrupulously correct and non-patriarchal here). But a large other part of me just purses its metaphysical lips and goes ‘so what? What’s the point?’
Those who know ‘things’ about conceptual art will tell me that this is precisely where I am falling down: my atavistic lust to find a point is defeating the whole enterprise. The viewer of conceptual art is in some sort of Schrodinger’s cat like relationship with the artist and the art. It’s only there because you’re seeing it, or something, and it’s all about what you yourself bring to the viewing process, or something.
If I was venturing into the perilous territory of those who write explanatory notes for pieces at conceptual art exhibitions (to assist slow learners like myself), I might say that Yoko Ono’s art is an attempt to bring Eastern notions of silence, self-exploration and even self-immolation into the noisier performance spaces of Western culture, but breathe easy, it’s not a gig I’m likely to be offered anytime soon.
And yet, from as far back as my college days, I’ve been aware of one way in which Yoko Ono has influenced the culture very profoundly. It is a way in which avatars of her have become ubiquitous all over the planet, everywhere young people gather to explore new ways of communally fleeing reality.
It’s what I call ‘the weird girl in the corner’ phenomenon. Many of the most iconic images of Yoko Ono involve her seated, usually on the floor, in the corner of some gathering of artists or musicians. During those last fractious days of The Beatles, with Lennon and McCartney fuming at each other in the mutually resentful effort to get those last immortal albums hammered down on vinyl, there she is, sitting like a Japanese Mona Lisa, inscrutable, internal.
Is she smiling? What, if anything, is she thinking about? I bet such questions drove McCartney crazy.
I came across reproductions of the phenomenon at virtually every house party I attended during and after College. Along with the drunks, the music, the shrieking girls, the lumbering jocks inarticulately attempting to persuade the shrieking girls to repair with them to some slightly quieter location, there would be the weird girl in the corner.
She often sat on floors, usually cross-legged, long hair falling in strangely ordered strands down her front. Was she smiling? Was she internally dismissive of the bedlam around her? Was she having the time of her life? Nobody knew. The weird girl in the corner occupied her own precisely defined universe of space, like an enchanted fairy circle, and only the most hard core drunken sociopath ever dared interfere with that space.
And maybe the weird girls had tapped into some Yokoesque voodoo about how to exploit the insecurities of western masculinity, simply by being. They were rarely beautiful in any Barbie sense, but they were always striking. Did they know from birth that they had always been striking, or was it a look they had worked on?
The insecure male could never entirely ignore their presence. No matter how much you tried to drown your awareness in ever louder buffoonery, your gaze kept straying back to the weird girl in the corner.
Is she judging me? Is her sheer passivity mocking the way I am seeking to swathe my universe in noise? Does she think I’m unlikely to be any good in bed? Is she even aware of my existence?
Some clue as to what some at least of the weird girls might be thinking was provided by the Great One herself, in an explanatory note on the programme of the immortal ‘Film No. 4’:
“I wonder why men can get serious at all. They have this delicate thing hanging outside their bodies, which goes up and down by its own will. First of all having it outside your body is terribly dangerous. If I were a man I would have a fantastic castration complex to the point that I wouldn’t be able to do a thing. If I were a man I would always be laughing at myself.”
I knew it. I knew it. Those weird girls in the corner were laughing at us all the time!