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Yoko Ono, Sky TV, 1966. Photo Cathy Carver. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum.

We Love You, Yoko

Kathleen Hanna—

John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s LP Double Fantasy (1980)

Yoko Ono was the first punk rock singer I ever heard, an early proponent of female rebellion in song. My parents didn’t go to college, and we didn’t have a lot of art or books in our house, be we did have the Double Fantasy (1980) album, which had Yoko’s song “Kiss Kiss Kiss” on it. My mom and I used to sing “Kiss kiss kiss kiss me love” around the house to each other and in the car. I was maybe 11 years old, growing up in the suburbs of Maryland, and Yoko entered my life through music.

In the late 1990s, I saw her installation Ex It 1997 for the first time. I walked into a gallery in New York City—a warehouse space with really high ceilings—and was the only person there. I saw rows of simple pine coffins, each with a tree growing where the face of the person in the coffin would have been. A soundtrack of chirping birds played over the top.

I’m sure everyone has a different experience with this piece, but in that moment, I realized that I had lost so many people over the years—from AIDS, suicide, heroin—and I had not mourned any of them. I’d just kept working, playing shows, and putting my anger and my sadness into songs. But I hadn’t really mourned until then. I didn’t have a graveyard to go to for a lot of those people that I had known, and Yoko’s work gave me my graveyard. I felt like they were all with me. This was the spirit of my chosen family surrounding me, and I saw the beauty and the hopefulness in death and rebirth.

Ex It 1997 at Deitch Projects, New York, April 24-May 30, 1998.

I was in there for about an hour, and I didn’t just cry—I also laughed, and felt a million other things. Walking back to my apartment, I wondered: How the fuck can an artist do that? What a gift. I’d never stood in front of a painting and felt that way. I’d never heard a song and felt that way. I felt like I had changed when I left. It reminded me of the power and importance of art.

I think the way Yoko brings humanity and everyday life into art, making it accessible to people who don’t have art degrees, while also often being playful and funny, is what first attracted me and my mom to her all those years ago.

I now live in Pasadena, California. When everyone was shut in during COVID, I took a walk around my new neighbourhood and ended up in a little public garden. Someone had made an impromptu Wish Tree, taking inspiration from Yoko’s beautiful, hopeful idea and bringing here at this very desperate time. That someone could do that really speaks to the generosity of her work.

The world is falling apart right now and it’s easy to feel that, as an artist, what you do is stupid. But Yoko is one of those rare artists who always reminds me: No it’s not—it’s life-giving, it’s oxygen. She just gives me oxygen.

Kathleen Hanna is a punk singer, artist, and the frontwoman of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. Her memoir, Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk, will be published in May 2024.

This article has been excerpted from a feature published in Tate Etc. issue 61 (Spring 2024)

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