What would the Dorian Gray portrait of Yoko Ono look like? That’s what first preoccupies you when you meet her. Her 80 years sit remarkably lightly on her – everything about her is dynamic, engaged. In London to collaborate with a wide range of artists for her curatorship of the annual Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre, she perches on the edge of the couch in her hotel suite, signature sunglasses well advanced down her nose, a small amount of cleavage revealed by her designer V-neck sweater.
The only thing that seems to reveal a slight vulnerability is her voice, which adds to the sense of youthfulness by being light, almost girlish, quick to break into nervous laughter. But, as our conversation progresses, it’s clear that to a degree she uses self-effacing tones to mask how formidable she really can be. “We all play that game,” she says at one point. “That game of not appearing as independent as we really are.”
Of all the accusations that have been flung at Ono during her lifetime, failure to be independent has not been one of them. Her refusal to be trapped and defined by any particular decade in her life – even the time she spent with John Lennon – is made clear in her Meltdown programme. (As, indeed, it is in the retrospective of her work that opened on Friday at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum.) Groups such as New York-based Japanese band Cibo Matto and rapper Immortal Technique are as intrinsic to the festival’s flavour as more established names such as Patti Smith, and Marianne Faithfull with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. “Marianne’s going to do something completely different, so I’m really looking forward to that,” Ono says. She is thrilled that her line-up is dominated by powerful women, including electro-punk pioneer Peaches and singer Siouxsie. But the Y-chromosomes in all their rich variety will get a fair showing too with Iggy and the Stooges, guitarist Thurston Moore, and Boy George strutting his flamboyant stuff.
There has sometimes been a sense with other Meltdowns that the celebrity curator, who rotates annually, has been more of a figurehead than a hands-on organiser. But there is no doubt about the degree to which Ono has shaped the programme. Jane Beese, head of contemporary music at the Southbank Centre, declares that “her generosity of spirit and passionate creativity are just infectious”.
The line-up shows how her experimentalism continues to inspire today’s performers. Peaches will be restaging Ono’s famous “Cut Piece” (1964), in which Ono sat on stage as members of the audience came and cut away pieces of her clothes till she was naked. The appearance of artists such as Moore and indie San Francisco band Deerhoof are testimony to her ongoing collaborations. Last year she released a benefit single, “Early in the Morning”, with Moore and his Sonic Youth bandmate Kim Gordon for Japanese tsunami survivors, and she first invited Deerhoof to appear on the same bill as the Plastic Ono band in 2010.
Yet I find myself needing to challenge Ono when we talk about the Activism Weekend that will form part of Meltdown. She continues to produce protest art on everything from gun control to fracking, and following her outspoken support of Pussy Riot she will devote a large part of the weekend to their plight. In Putin’s Russia these days, protest artists are risking at the very least their freedom and possibly their lives, I say. She replies: “But all artists are doing that. They’re all gambling with their lives.”
I counter that surely it’s one thing to make that gamble in America or Japan, and quite another to make it under a violently censorious regime. She gazes at me calmly. “Sometimes even the small things are painful,” she replies. “I think most artists have gambled themselves against their parents and against society.”
That sense of how profoundly she believes she disappointed her wealthy, talented parents (her banker father was a gifted pianist, her mother a frustrated artist) is a surprisingly strong theme in our conversation. But the scale of what she feels any artist risks, though initially eyebrow-raising, becomes easier to understand when you consider it in the context of the traumas she has survived. She has gone through two divorces, endured the abduction of her daughter Kyoko by her second husband, and witnessed the shooting dead of Lennon.
Lennon haunts her conversation constantly – she starts talking about him before I prompt her. Their relationship will be celebrated at Meltdown through the first live performance of their Double Fantasy album, an event she has already confessed she may find overwhelming.
I talk to her about the famous photo shoot the couple did with Annie Leibovitz just hours before he died, in which the naked Lennon wrapped himself in the foetal position round the fully clothed Ono. What are her memories of that session, and how did she feel when she saw the photos afterwards? “I don’t remember it really,” she replies. “It’s a block. It’s almost as if you’re saying, ‘OK, you drowned, and you were in the water, and then you came up. How did you come up?’ The answer is you don’t know. You just do whatever you can do with your body and eventually you come up.”
Her voice cracks, and there are tears in her eyes. But, even now, there’s no sense of self-pity, just a moment of being submerged in emotion. Earlier we talked about the time when she miscarried a baby at six months, and used a recording of the dying child’s heartbeat on the album Unfinished Music No 2. “There have been so many painful things in my life,” she says. “But I think the way you think about what pain is makes a big difference. In my case the approach is a bit like acupuncture.” She laughs edgily. “Lots of little stabs. That’s why I’m healthy now.”
The remark is characteristic of a woman who – whatever your take on her work – has never taken the easy option in her life. This extends to the fact that, at a point when she could easily be dining out on her past, she is looking forward to the future. At the start of our interview I asked her about being Asian – and whether it’s a mishearing or a Freudian slip, her response is about ageism. “People say I’m young but I’m just being my normal self.” She laughs. “Just detoxing myself so all the muck goes away.”