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Yoko Ono: Crawling With Cockroaches

Author: Jonty Skrufff (
Monday, February 9, 2004
"Why of course the people don't want war… that is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger."

Hitler's propaganda minister Hermann Goering, speaking during his Nuremberg war crimes trial, 1946.

Sitting on the toe of an enormous replica of a shoe, Yoko Ono looks incongruous surrounded by the giant-sized exhibits that make up her new show 'Odyssey Of a Cockroach' at London's ICA East Warehouse, in Shoreditch. Above her, towers an equally gigantic poster displaying Hermann Goering's infamous post war propaganda quote, though it's at ground level that her new show is principally focused, specifically the microscopic worldview of the insect.

Themed around cruelty and man's inhumanity to man during the 20th century, the exhibition tells the tale of a cockroach as it wanders round New York City, encountering such situations as a bloody crime scene, bombed out building and numerous giant artefacts scattered around all three floors of the gallery. Surrounding the sculptures are billboard sized photos of the scenes plus Hermann Goering's infamous quote, which dominates the ground floor room.

"That's a great quote, isn't it, more people should be made aware of it," Yoko murmurs.

"Many people are still believing in the propaganda that's being put out and I'm saying 'Hey, don't believe in everything, try to see reality."

The last time Yoko chatted to Skrufff (in March 2003) she'd been in London to perform her seminal 1980 club classic Walking On Thin Ice at Nag, Nag, Nag, though this trip she's firmly focused on cockroaches rather than clubs. Still best known as the wife of murdered Beatle John Lennon, she's finally now achieving mainstream recognition for the massive contributions she's made as an artist, with the likes of Brit art darling Sam Taylor-Wood recently eulogising her in The Guardian.

"Everyone knows her name, but no one knows how good Yoko Ono is as an artist'," said Taylor-Wood.

"It has been said before that she is very much an artist's artist, and it's true - artists can really recognise her thought process, see the ways in which ideas bounce from one thing to another. Artists can respect that. Other people don't find her so accessible, but perhaps that's because they can't get past her relationship with her husband," she suggested.

Seminal in inventing Conceptual Art (in which the idea mattered more than the artwork's form) Yoko also remains the best-known character in Fluxus, a movement New York art critic Peter Frank defines as 'a sensibility, a way of fusing certain radical social attitudes with ever evolving aesthetic practices'.

"Fluxus is still going very strongly," says Yoko.

"The essence of Fluxus is knowing that life is about change, it's all about change, which mean things can't accumulate. Otherwise they end up becoming an institution."

Frank also describes her as "one of the most daring, innovative and eccentric artist-performers of her time" and it's the way she's applied the same fearless approach to her life that's made the 70 year old Japanese icon as relevant to the present as she was in the 60s. Yet sitting on her giant shoe sculpture, the immaculately presented artist could easily be mistaken as a demure even passive character, save for her focused, highly alert gaze, which projects the same blazing intensity that shines throughout her work.

Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): What inspired the concept of looking through a cockroach's eyes-

Yoko Ono: "Cockroaches are a very strong race, just as we are as humans, we're a good match, so I wanted another strong race to look at us and see what they see."

Skrufff: Wh