Photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono taken twelve hours before Lennon's death
Culture Art

The enduring presence and protests of Yoko Ono

John Lennon’s widow, an artist herself, makes an appearance in three important ongoing exhibitions on the state of the world present and past.
John Silva | Nov 12 2018

When John Lennon was shot by a mentally deranged fan in front of Dakota Apartments in New York City almost 40 years ago, many of us felt like Yoko Ono, widowed and pained.

Just hours before, the two had posed for the photographer Annie Leibovitz which, given the later circumstances, remains a sad, loving, and searing last memento of the celebrated couple.

After the tragedy, Yoko did not go into hiding and blend into obscurity. Instead, she continued, advocating for gun control measures, an end to conflict and oppression, and what John and she had wished and hoped for, world peace—as in the John’s composition “Imagine,” which many of my generation espoused as our personal anthem.

Three current exhibitions, two in Amsterdam and one in Tokyo, highlight Yoko’s history of non-violent protests as well as her current contributions to developing a consciousness for a humane society.

The very modern Stedelijk Museum currently has Amsterdam: The Magic Center, Art and Counterculture, 1967-1970, which runs until January 6, 2019. Those were heady years with young people in various cities around the world revolting against the reigning political norms and establishing new creative frontiers. San Francisco’s flower power, protest marches in Washington DC, and the 1968 student riots in Paris signaled a clamoring for new directions.

Exhibition at Stedelijik Museum

This “magic” exhibit about Amsterdam’s own direction claims to being less confrontational with the police. It sent its message across through music, sexual freedom, outdoor and indoor art, humor, and, with a lot of marijuana, made their imprint in that period as more a “thinking man’s” revolution.

A few minutes after entering the first gallery with video clips flashed on the wall, the image of John and Yoko appear in bed, by a window in the Amsterdam Hilton. For their honeymoon in 1969, they chose the city to have their week-long connubial stay. Behind them, taped on the window, were signs reading “hair peace” and “bed peace.” It was a roundabout way of saying Make-Love-Not-War, with “hair” especially long hair, as political tool.

Their action, very well publicized, went nowhere, with both Yoko and John later admitting not having made a dent in the minds of the warmongers. I wouldn’t be too harsh on them. In those youthful days, I myself schemed some creative ways to get my point across. I didn’t then know that the powers that be were totally bereft of empathy.

Video of Yoko and John in "Bed Peace"

But if you want to feel how “bed peace” had an impassioned resonance, check out the YouTube clip of the same title where John and Yoko are in that same bed surrounded by their fans singing “Give Peace A Chance.” 

That Christmas of 1969, John and Yoko took out full-page advertisements in American newspapers and billboards with the simple text: WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It)  HAPPY CHRISTMAS FROM JOHN & YOKO (Bag).  The same sign is in this exhibit.

Banner written by John and Yoko, December 1969

At the popular De Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) Amsterdam Museum, the exhibition, Buddha’s Life Past to the Present (until February 3, 2019) is an extensive overview of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, from childhood to enlightenment gained beneath a Bodhi tree in India some 2,500 years ago.

Buddhist figurines, beautifully drawn thangkas, prayer wheels, Indonesian door guardians from the 3rd century to contemporary works by Yoko Ono and Ai Weiwei are displayed in sharp contrast to the 15th century interior of a Dutch Reformed Church. One is initially befuddled by the incongruity but as I wander about, studying these works in the hollowed silence of an ancient church, I realized I could meditate, learn and be in awe of Buddha’s teachings in these surroundings.

Exhibit artifact De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam

Yoko’s work, Three Mounds, consists of soil from regions that have experienced much suffering. Soil where women were subjected to domestic violence was one mound. The other mounds were from places where women were forced into a madhouse and where there were victims of elder abuse. 

A mound has no aesthetic appeal and their origins are grim. But it switches one’s thinking into meditative mode. I thought of the places where the soil would have been: in suburban gardens whose homes contained beatings and pain; the walkways to a mental institution; and the backyards of retirement homes. Reflecting on the mounds saddened me considerably.

Mound of soil where women were subjected to domestic violence. Yoko Ono, De Nieuwe Kerk Museum

In a recent trip to Tokyo, I visited the Mori Museum in Roppongi Hills to catch a much publicized exhibit, Catastrophe and the Power of Art (until January 20, 2019).

I was somewhat filled with trepidation, half expecting works of art to latch on to human and man-made disasters, creating a plethora of disaster porn material. But thankfully, that was not to be. 

Drawn to photography, I reflected on the smoking remains of warped girders that once was the New York World Trade Center after the horrendous 9/11 destruction. I’m brought back to that year where just a month before the tragedy, I was blending in with an unceasing humanity briskly walking hither and thither inside the structure. Life, I’ve concluded since, has much to do with timing. 

There were works that referenced the horrifying 2011 tsunami, and the melted down rods in the Fukushima power plant. Chernobyl was remembered in one work; in another, a reflection on AIDS through strands of plastic beads—one you’d find at the entrance of a campy gay bar. Some of the artists added humor, as best one could, in their rendition of the never-ending Middle East war.

Then I came across a very large room, in blue paint, with scribbles and written signs, and a painted blue boat in the middle. This installation was used for the museum’s advertisement of the exhibition. There were visitors inside the room, their shoes wrapped in plastic holding blue chalks and encouraged to write words of peace. The spare setting with an empty boat was to recall the migrants who have fled in boats throughout the world in hopes of more welcoming shores. I looked at the wall text and find out that Yoko Ono was the artist.

Add Color by Yoko Ono installation, Mori Art Museum Tokyo

In 1961, Yoko presented an “Add Color Painting” series inviting visitors to add colors or words on a white canvas, globe, and so on, displayed in the gallery. Originally, this interactive piece was a “metaphor for the idea that every moment in our ever-changing lives is beautiful.” But in 2018, with the world a tougher place to be, this installation does not pretend to be anything beautiful. Rather it is just a plea for people to write notes of peace and empathize with migrants today. I take in the scene in this room, the blue reminding me of the sea, the empty boat suggesting that the migrants may have reached safer shores. The scene gives me hope.

Yoko at 85 years prods on with her works of peace, making use of her celebrity status with John Lennon when necessary. She is her own artist. 

Several years ago she made an appeal on Facebook, on the 36th year of John’s murder, stating the daily deaths of Americans through gun violence. “The death of a love one is a hallowing experience,” she wrote. “After 36 years, our Sean and I still miss him.”


Click on the image below for slideshow


Morit Art Museum


Facade of De Nieuwe Kerk Museum, Amsterdam


The "Bathtub" Stedeiijk Museum, Amsterdam


Buddha's Life Path To The Present, exhibition at De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam


Catastrophe and the Power of Art