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.