Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Yoko Ono

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — Yes, Yoko

I wonder how many photographers I pissed off by spoiling their shot by being on the other side of this glass maze when Yoko Ono walked through it.

You can read all about her 2003 visit to Korea in one of the articles I wrote for the Korea Times entitled, “Yes, Yoko”in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Picture of the Day: Yoko Ono in Seoul, June 2003

Back in 2003 when I was writing for the Korea Times, I had the chance to cover a press conference for Yoko Ono’s first visit and exhibition in South Korea. Later I wrote the following article.

After she had answered some reporter’s questions she took the press pool on a tour of the exhibition and some of the installation pieces–like the one of the Plexiglass maze and the chess tables.

The day I met Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono in Seoul, June 2003

I was very fortunate when I was writing for the Korea Times from 2000-2006 to have the opportunity to cover some very special events including Yoko Ono’s first visit to Korea in 2003. 

Yes, Yoko Ono 

By Jeffrey Miller, Feature Writer 

When this reporter heard Yoko Ono was going to be in Seoul to open an exhibition and hold a news conference, it was one of those rare journalistic moments one does not want to pass on.

After all, it’s not every day you have the opportunity to meet someone as important and seminal from the arts like Ono.

Last Friday, the petite 70-year-old Ono—dressed in black with her eyes hidden by her trademark sunglasses—met with local media on the eve of the opening of her exhibition  “Yes Yoko Ono” to discuss her life and art.

As Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Art Gallery, introduced her to the press corps with one deserved accolade after another, Ono sat calmly; breaking into a smile now and then as the cameras whirred and clicked away.

“It’s a big deal to be here,” Ono said. “I feel as if I am coming home. I know your country so well and now I am finally in Seoul.”

This was a big deal, her first show in Korea and the first stop on a major tour of Asia. During the news conference, Ono spoke about the need for peace and how art for her is more about communication than anything else.

“Through art and music we can be together and understand each other,” said Ono. “It’s a universal language.”

This was classic Ono through and through. Even if one is only vaguely familiar with her work, there is something magical about her soft-spoken style that is just as delicate as it is commanding. Here was the woman that was at the forefront of the 1960s avant-garde movement. One who broke artistic conventions and in many ways changed the way we perceive modern art.

Yoko Ono in Seoul, June 2003

As Ono described her art or fielded questions from the press corps, it was hard not to think of John Lennon while listening to her speak. After all, the title of the exhibition refers to her famous “Ceiling Painting,” which is one of the more important pieces featured at the exhibit: A white ladder bathed in light leads to a magnifying glass dangling from the ceiling surrounded by a metal frame. Visitors to the gallery were asked to climb the ladder to find the word, “Yes” written. First shown at a 1966 London exhibition, it was where Ono first met Lennon.  

“Yes is saying yes to life, to love, to peace,” Ono said. “It’s all yes.”

While Ono was an artist in her own right before Lennon climbed the ladder and read that magic word for the first time, the two have been inextricably linked for eternity—long before an assassin’s bullet took him from this world and long after with his spirit that lives on in their collaborative works.

Ono, who has always been known to break traditional forms, emphasized that art “will always find a way to communicate and that artists will keep and discovering ways to do this.”

She shared a story about a radio disc jockey during World War II in war-torn St. Petersburg who tried to uplift the spirits of the people who were facing starvation as the Nazis bombarded the city. The disc jockey cracked jokes to make the people happy and for a moment forget about the war and their hunger.

“Finally the DJ himself was getting too tired to talk, so he just put a metronome on the radio,” Ono explained. “It was just going tick tick tick and people just listened to that sound. That’s how St. Petersburg was saved, that’s how the people survived.”

Ono went on to say that she believes when the disc jockey decided to put on the metronome as a means to communicate and to keep the people alive, he was an artist.

“When you talk about this form or that form it’s irrelevant,” said Ono. “You have to keep on finding a form each time that is relevant for that particular situation we are in.”

Yoko Ono in Seoul, June 2003

The show, which runs until the end of September, is a veritable cornucopia of Ono’s work over the last 40 years. However, she feels her best work is yet to come.

“I hope that my most important works will come later in the future,” she said. “When I became 50 I said that the past 50 years was just a preface to my life. I think that my best work will come later.”

If in the beginning Ono’s art was misunderstood by the mainstream, these days her art and message—which is louder and clearer than ever before—have reached a wider audience in a world that needs such artists.

“What art means to me is that it is a healthy way of communicating and to create a better world for us because we can’t rely on politicians, educators or other institutions,” Ono said. “Artists are the only ones who are giving something to the world to love.”

At 70, Ono is still a driving force of the international avant-garde movement, but more importantly is a voice and vision of reason, hope and above all, love.

“Love is something that is not enough now in the world,” Ono added, “we need love.”  

Yes, Yoko Ono. All we need is love. 

Remembering John Lennon

john_lennon.jpg

Ironically, the day after I arrived in Korea in 1990 was also the tenth anniversary of the death of John Lennon. Ten years later, when I was writing for The Korea Times I wrote an Op-ed piece about the death of John Lennon and what it meant for my generation.

Thoughts of the Times: Remembering John Lennon

This past week, people around the world took time out to remember the 20th anniversary of the death of John Lennon.

“Where were you when John Lennon was shot” became just as poignant a question as the one posed by another generation when people asked, “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” 17 years earlier.

For myself, I was a student at Southern Illinois University when I heard the news that fateful night in December. I had been studying for finals in my dorm room and didn’t think much of the block of Beatles’ songs being played by the local college radio station I had tuned in. Only when I walked upstairs to the TV room to check the score on the Monday Night Football game when I learned of the news. Howard Cosell broke away from his usual play-by-play of the game to announce to the millions of viewers that Lennon had been shot.

I ran back downstairs and burst into my friend Paul Collin’s room to tell him the news. “Now I know the world is coming to an end,” Paul said as he sunk down in the beanbag chair he had been sitting on, “someone shot a Beatle.” We tuned in the college radio station and listened to one Beatle song after another, too stunned to say anything.

And it did seem like the world had, at least for the moment, stopped. For the next few days, it seemed that the whole world was in mourning. It didn’t make any difference where you were, there was bound to be someone who had either grown up with the Beatles or who had been touched by Lennon’s music. Even if you hadn’t been into his music or a fan of the Beatles, the fact that an entertainer, a musician—a person who tried to advocate peace through his music had been gunned down was tragic enough to make one stop and take stock of their own life.

What was it that brought so many different people together, then—when they gathered at Lennon’s Dakota apartment or other places to leave messages, flowers, album covers, candles and the like in memorial—and now, when people again gather around the world to remember? What was it about Lennon’s life and his subsequent death that affected so many people around the world? Why did his death in 1980 fill so many people with such an incomprehensible sense of loss? Without question, Lennon’s death was the loss of an icon for a generation.

We always feel robbed and cheated when one of our icons, one of our generation’s spokespersons is taken away from us. Although one can argue that it’s unbefitting that he has been elevated to some cultural sainthood status, his contributions to modern pop culture, not to mention history as a Beatle and as a solo artist cannot be ignored.

Above all, Lennon’s life and the music he created represented not only this whole idea of rock and roll rebellion, but also to a much larger extent, the social and cultural consciousness that touched a sensitive chord in us all. Whether it was one of his and Yoko’s “Bed Peace” events or one of their “War is Over” posters, Lennon was dedicated to raising our social consciousness. His music became a medium to address these issues and perhaps explain our own social consciousness through his songs. Just listen to “Imagine.”

His death touched us all, and perhaps reminded us of our own mortality.

On the other hand, would we still be gathering and remembering Lennon, though, if he hadn’t been gunned down, if he had, say, died of a drug overdose or committed suicide, or even died of natural causes? Would such a death have had that much more significance? Would he have been just another rock and roll casualty?

The fact that Lennon was murdered in the prime of his life made his life and death that more significant. Likewise, he had just re-emerged from this self-imposed exile with a new album at age 40—proof that even forty-year-olds could still rock and roll. One more reason, which made a generation, feel robbed. Lennon was different. He broke the rules and we forgave him. Whether you agreed with his politics, his self-righteous cant, understood his avant-garde leanings or not, Lennon influenced our collective cultural consciousness and raised our social awareness. Of course, there was always the music, too.

Twenty years after his death, his legacy, not to mention his music still resonates. He wasn’t a Mother Theresa, a Princess Diana, or a Martin Luther King. He wasn’t a doctor who devoted a lifetime finding a cure for cancer or AIDS. He was just a musician, an artist who gave us all something just as important: the hope and the dream of a better world.

What do we really remember in the end? Is it just the passing of one our icons? Or, is it something more? I think the answer lies in our need for some connection with are own permanence, are own mortality. Remembering Lennon is our own memorial for our permanence and humankind, and our hope for a better world.

This originally appeared in The Korea Times on December 11, 2000

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