Is it Enough to Imagine Peace?

Is it Enough to Imagine Peace?

Arts July 05, 2012 / By Mark Sheerin
Is it Enough to Imagine Peace?

A major new show by Yoko Ono in London includes wish trees, smile photo booths, and an infinite jigsaw from which all visitors are invited to take a piece. Few other shows give rise to so many questions about the impact of art.

Many things are asked of you at the current Yoko Ono retrospective in London’s Serpentine Gallery. At one point we are expected to tread on a canvas. Then shoeless, we must navigate a Perspex maze. And three walls of the central space are lined with even more instructions, from the poetic to the patently absurd: “Build a room with 31 windows. Throw your tears away from the window every day.”

Clearly Yoko wants us to build this room in our heads in order to deal with metaphorical tears. But the biggest question raised by this artist’s life and work is whether or not peaceful thoughts can lead to a peaceful world. That mental room packed with windows may not even stand up to the stressful realities of your tube ride home.

Here is an artist with a daily beauty which makes the rest of us ugly, to paraphrase the Bard. She embodies more serenity and humanity than many a religious leader and, in tireless fashion, is working towards a better world. Another element in this utopian show is a slick photo station where you are invited, or rather, instructed, to shoot your own smiling face and upload it to her global #smilesfilm archive.

Being a cooperative sort, I tried it and now my grin is catalogue number 7400580434. That’s my tortured genius schtick clean out the window along with a bottle of my tears. But have all these smiles made the world a better place. One is reminded of artist Martin Creed’s expression: the whole world + the work = the whole world. Yoko’s smiles, pranks and interactivities are only adding to the world and not really changing things.

If proof were needed, it could be time to conjure up some numbers. This artist's link to the world’s favourite song barely needs referencing. And her most frequent request, that we Imagine Peace, contains an echo of the line “Imagine all the people living in harmony.” At the very least 1.5 million people have already done so, according to a viewing count on YouTube. But current troop numbers in Afghanistan are just 130,000, so it appears there are a whole load more folk somewhere Imagining War. This show should not have come to London, one feels, but opened in Kabul or gone to Washington first.

Outside the exhibition a wish tree invites visitors to pin their hopes and aspirations to a row of willowy saplings. Checking a few it seems that safety and prosperity for friends and loved ones are highest on the agenda. That is fair enough and I expect Yoko would approve. And whether or not you believe in the power of creative visualisation or not, it still feels good to suspend disbelief. That is the insanity of hope for you.

But perhaps art and art appreciation should have a dash of insanity. Visitors to the Serpentine are all invited to take home a piece of a vast jigsaw on which blue skies and clouds can be made out. Yoko has made it clear she expects us all to meet up one day in the future and fit all these together, a grand and wildly impractical gesture. But as one of the slogans from May ’68 suggested perhaps we should indeed be realistic and, like this inspirational artist, demand the impossible.

Image is Yoko Ono, Installation view, Yoko Ono: TO THE LIGHT, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June - 9 September 2012). Photo: © 2012 Jerry Hardman-Jones


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