How Yoko Ono changed my outlook

The encounter was brief, the impression lasting

Yoko Ono

A few years ago I was called to a media event at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where Toronto-based journalists were given a preview of Yoko Ono’s upcoming Y E S Yoko Ono show, to be followed by a question-and-answer period with the artist, who was flying in from New York for the occasion.

We each got to pose one question. I chose mine carefully. Smugly, in fact.

It wasn’t based on a carefully selected sequence of words that journalists often craft to appear intelligent to both the esteemed subject and each other. It would be based, instead, on my reaction to her Half-A-Room installation, the second aspect of her avant-garde show to arrest my mind that morning.

Prejudgement on display

While my compatriot with the publication we were representing complained about being bored (practically within earshot of her greatness, no less) and about sushi being the only food option (media types really do judge such events by the quality of the food offered), I pressed forward, making sure to not miss the opportunity to pose my Most Intelligent Question.

I had resented Yoko Ono for years. Helped carry forward the indictment for her pre-judged role in the demise of the Beatles, in fact. Despised her for turning experimental, experiential venturer John Lennon into a ... gag! ... plain ol’ political activist. Sniffed derisively at her art whenever encountered, self-righteously confident that it had made its way into my world only because of the buying and positioning power of her daddy’s big bucks.

I had not yet embraced the truth that the measure of a person lies not in how one arrived on the scene, but in what one does with the opportunity once having arrived.

Too, I am a journalist, and it is incumbent upon me to set aside all things personal when engaged in the business of dispassionate news. Still, I must have come across like Charlie Gibson-vs-Sarah Palin once the gun was cocked and loaded. (Sheesh!)

“So, Ms Ono, I was wondering,” I began smartly.

Well? Where is the other half?

You have to imagine my voice — velvet, textured, commanding — floating resolutely toward her waiting ears. You have to imagine the pack of other journalists around me (at least the worthy opponents): heads turning slowly, lips parting and jaws dropping as the wisdom of the words registers on astonished faces.

“Where’s the other half of the chair and the table...?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Yoko shot back, unmoved by either my intellect or my bravado.

Oh... Oh my. (No need to imagine the foolish grin as profundity had its way.)

The time was 11:03:47. I remember it precisely, because it was the moment I found myself in love.

It was the moment the ice began to melt. The moment I laid down the burden of contempt to enter into the bliss of forgiving. Actually, it took about six months for me to recognize it as a transformative moment. And for it to dawn on me that I had been primed to love her even before that moment arrived.

Invisible brushes reached

See, while waiting for the Ono entourage to arrive I had spent the morning examining the objects and installations, immersing myself in the non-Beatles context of what was before me (though reserving a measure of resentment for the overt John Lennon references) — and returning time and again to the room where her works-on-paper, Instructions for Paintings, were on display. I found myself ever eager to donate my mind to the invisible brushes that reached from the printed cards displayed in wall trays around the perimeter of the room.

We may agree or disagree on the value of her artistic contributions, be it participatory art such as her Wish Tree project, or puzzling sculpture or even controversial audio. But to me, any mind capable of conceiving of those surreal, Zen-like instructions intended to be completed in the mind of the reader is a worthy artist.

Acknowledging Yoko Ono’s brilliance, I have since found, is so much more pleasant than dragging around acquired resentment for guilt someone else convinced me she should own. As for the Beatles themselves, I’m not even sure I care that they didn’t last any longer than they were going to.

The writing and the song crafting was exceptional, to be sure, but apart from some pleasant tunes one can whistle along with, and vivid descriptions of ventures into nowhere land, none of their works ever achieved what Yoko has accomplished:

Using my mind as a canvas.

The brilliance of the form factor should not be lost on stage performers, whose greatest task is to be memorable to an audience. Want to have an impact? Paint an image in their minds. Echo in their midnight hour.

If you're not convinced, step into my parlor and let me show you a beautiful, hardly-used half table, half chair, half sink...