Last evening I attended a special memorial event celebrating the life and work of the famous Korean artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006) at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. Speakers included Jonas Mekas, Russell Connor, Shuya Abe, and Wulf Herzogenrath, with presentations by Thomas Krens, Merce Cunningham, Shigeko Kubota, David Ross and Lisa Phillips in a program organized by John G. Hanhardt, Senior Curator of Film and Media Arts, Guggenheim Museum, with Ken Paik Hakuta, Manager of the Nam June Paik Studios.
The highlight of the evening was Yoko Ono’s special performance of her work ‘Promise Piece-Bones,’ in tribute to Paik. Reminiscent of a Fluxus event, a happening of sorts, Yoko’s tribute to Paik consisted of the famous “Yoko shriek,” her own form of poetry, and two hooded women all in black arranging broken fragments of a huge vase portrayed as a background piece on the makeshift stage. And then Yoko quietly invited everyone to come forth and then simply started knitting what appeared to be a blue sweater while everyone gathered around her, picking up pieces of the pottery. The broken pieces of vase probably represented aspects of Paik – something each person could take away as a memento. Mine has what looks like a date written on the back.
It was moving. They wouldn’t allow flashes on cameras, so my photos came out with strange ghostly images. Yoko appeared icy, guarded, yet still poised – very small and thin, but beautiful in her own way. Oft misunderstood by the world, she nonetheless continues to do what Yoko does best – externalizing her feelings via her conceptual performance art, which is universal; and as always, she invites us to take it apart and put it back together in our own way prompting the creative impulse in each of us.
Her security was understandably protective, although almost the entire evening, I was only a few feet away from her as she allowed the people in the audience to photograph and film her for about 15-20 minutes. It felt like a kind of religious ceremony. I could sense the otherworldly energy in that room (the hairs on my arms were literally standing on end!) – the murmuring as she sat there peacefully knitting almost unaware of the cameras, cell phones and DVD recorders all focused on her as the crowd pushed like a wave toward her to glimpse of the Japanese-American icon.
In her prolific 40-year-plus career, she has moved us to rethink the norm; she gives us suggestions that are simple, yet seem impulsive and offers us a new angle, a new way to look at things. This is not to mention her role in the postwar international avant-garde, and her critical and influential role in originating forms of avant-garde art, music, film, and performance, her early and central role in the Fluxus movement (an event that is in flux or constantly moving and changing such as suggested by proposal pieces, propositions, or instructions); her important contributions to Conceptual Art in New York, London and Tokyo; her concerts; experimental films; vocal recordings; public art, including works made with John Lennon; and recent works, including interactive installations and site-specific art.
Yoko also collaborated with such avant-garde figures as John Cage, George Maciunas, the recently deceased Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman and Andy Warhol on objects and installations; language works, such as instruction pieces and scores; film and video; music; and performance art.
Some of her more famous works are known as:
GRAPEFRUIT: The Early Instructions
HALF-A-WIND: Early Objects
FLY: Events, Performances & Films
WAR IS OVER!: The Peace Movement & Other Collaborations with John Lennon
PLAY IT BY TRUST: Recent Work
…and, of course, CEILING PAINTING, an important work shown at her historic 1966 Indica Gallery show in London.
I was always inspired by Yoko from the time I was a teenager when I read “One Day at a Time,” by Anthony Fawcett – a candid biopic of John & Yoko during the prime of their lives and popularity. They were involved… in EVERYTHING! They were controversial. They were naïve and idealistic. They were important and outspoken… and most of all, vulnerable.
Their biographer at the time, Anthony Fawcett, was more than sympathetic; he was privileged to find himself involved at a time when the magic of John Lennon transcended who he even understood he was. They’d sit around basement macrobiotic restaurants talking about their next “Event,” their current projects, and everything was exciting and inspiring. From the time they created their twin “sculptures” – as Yoko put it: “two acorns planted in the ground, one facing to the East, the other to the West… [symbolizing] our meeting and love for each other, and also the uniting and growth of our two cultures” – to the bed-ins in Amsterdam and billboard events around the world, everything they did was ingenious and smart, fresh and alive.
What captivated me was not only the innocent way in which Yoko inspired John Lennon, but just how creative she was and how she had a way of looking at things as though anything in the world is possible. She set no limitations or boundaries on anyone or anything and I’m sure it was difficult for the popular crowd to accept her in a world of, as John put it, “Yeah Yeah Yeahs” and “loveable moptops.” John and Yoko thrust themselves headlong into a cruel world of politics and protest only to come to the realization that the threats to their own survival and freedom were becoming all too real.
It started to hurt too much and John’s very real financial woes from being mismanaged during the Beatles years, their own addictions, dealing with the primal pain of childhood remembrance, and coming together out of sheer loneliness all had yet to be dealt with. They no longer could afford to carry the pain of the world on their shoulders and so they withdrew – to heal and reflect.
When they re-emerged in 1980, they were more than ready to give it another go; they were healthy, strong and full of energy and new ideas. “Double Fantasy,” their new record, was a collaboration that reflected their love for each other, their two separate yet complimentary roles in the relationship, and most importantly, their love for their newborn son, Sean. Thus, they were able to give us a glimpse into the special little world they’d created together and how they’d healed each other’s pain in therapy through love and understanding, artistic and musical collaboration, and then they taught us to simply “Imagine.”
I’ve always held a soft spot in my heart for Yoko because I believe she’s a special soul. John knew it and hoped the world would know it, too, and discover the beauty and light inside Yoko the way he had.
Read more about John Lennon, the creative process, and how he and Yoko inspired her in Sandra Frazier’s book, “The Mystic Artist” – out in paperback. See Sandy’s song in tribute to John Lennon, written in December, 1980 – inspired by Yoko who stated at the time of Lennon’s death, “John loved and prayed for the human race – let’s pray for him,” and then called for 10 minutes of silence. “Let’s Save the Human Race”
The column will be an illuminated column of glass, full of wishes of peace from people all over the world.