Monday, January 6, 2014

Strawberry Fields

Following is an augmented excerpt of the chapter "Memorials and Monuments" from our latest book,
Central Park NYC, published this past September by Rizzoli.

Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s widow, conceived Strawberry Fields as a living memorial to her slain husband and dedicated the site on what would have been the singer’s forty-fifth birthday, October 9, 1985. The two-and-a-half-acre informal garden occupies a sloping triangle of land at Central Park West and 72nd Street near the Dakota Apartments, the family’s residence and the site where Lennon was murdered on the evening of December 8, 1980. Ono worked with landscape architect Bruce Kelly and the Central Park Conservancy to transform the parcel into a Garden of Peace with plants donated by over 120 nations.

The garden, of course, is named after one of Lennon's most famous Beatles songs, Strawberry Fields Forever, a haunting psychedelic reminiscence of his childhood secret garden, the grounds of the Strawberry Field orphanage in Woolton, Liverpool. The iconic Imagine mosaic, a simple round set in the pavement at the heart of the garden, has become a shrine to Lennon’s memory, collecting notes, flowers and votive candles from his myriad fans, and it is the site of annual vigils to celebrate his birth and mourn his death.

Though often described as interpreting traditional Roman patterns, the design is actually far more expressive than this reading allows and alludes to Lennon's uniquely provocative pacifism and strongly Buddhist leanings and worldview. (Above, Lennon and Ono staging their famous bed-in for peace in Amsterdam in 1969.) IMAGINE, the title of Lennon’s famous 1971 peace anthem, holds the center of an abstracted lotus flower made of thirty-two radiating segments, the number of Buddha’s virtues. (Below, Buddha on the lotus throne.)

In Buddhist traditions, the fully opened lotus, rising above muddied waters, symbolizes enlightenment, and a white lotus connotes purity of mind and spirit. The duality of black and white represents matter and spirit, the mud from which the lotus blooms and the blossom of understanding. And finally, the flower signifies rebirth in a figural and literal sense, entirely appropriate to honor a musician who integrated Buddhist mantras into his music and Buddhist philosophy and a Buddhist worldview into his life.

Disarmingly simple, a single word centering an abstracted flower, Lennon’s memorial owes an enormous conceptual debt to Maya Lin’s revolutionary 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which overturned traditional notions of a monument’s form and conceptual underpinnings.

However, the Imagine mosaic takes Lin’s abstraction a step further by renouncing three-dimensionality entirely and setting its single-word message into the earth, where it can be trod upon or reverenced—a wry and profoundly insightful evocation of Lennon’s humanity and spirit.
And finally, and as Buddha himself would have observed, there is nothing new under the sun and we find a remarkable conceptual precursor in the 18th-century French garden of Ermenonville, the Altar of Reverie—a simple cylindrical socle, artfully aged, inscribed with the invocation, "To Dream."

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