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The most famous thing anyone ever said about Yoko Ono was, inevitably, said by John Lennon, and for years it held true. He called her “the world’s most famous unknown artist, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does”.
As the artist, musician, film-maker and peace activist nears 80, that could be changing. After decades demonised as the witch who destroyed the Beatles she is emerging from the shadow of that complicated personal history.
Since a groundbreaking exhibition in New York in 2001 re-established her reputation, she has come back into focus as a significant artist, winning the accolade of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale. New generations of artists have discovered her as an inspirational figure.
Basement Jaxx, Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her in recent years. Younger visual artists as different as Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster cite her as an influence; the photographer and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood even jokingly calls herself an “obsessed fan”.
This summer the artist – a tiny figure, usually to be seen wearing trademark sunglasses and hat – will be the focus of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London.