General 5-21-2004

Imagining Peace on Hennepin Avenue

Jaime Kleiman thinks about what it might mean to follow the injunction of an artwork rather than merely to contemplate it.

“A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream
together is a reality.” – Yoko Ono,
Grapefruit, 1964

For the past two months, Yoko Ono has asked Minnesotans, via a 14 x 48-foot
billboard on Hennepin Avenue and 12th Street in downtown Minneapolis, to
imagine peace. Her billboard was the first in a series for the Walker Art
Center’s “Art Without Walls” exhibition, an ingenious solution to the
museum’s remodeling project.

Such a deceptively simple sentence, just a verb and a noun.

“IMAGINE PEACE.” Black letters on a white background. “IMAGINE PEACE.” It
wasn’t a question – it was a command, and you don’t have study Buddhism to
get the message. But is just thinking about it enough? Can thought cause
action? Was this art – or liberal tree-hugger propaganda? More to the
point, what is the relevance and scope of conceptual art? What influence,
if any, does it hold? Is thinking Art? What would happen if we all
imagined peace?

In the 1970s, Yoko Ono and John Lennon held bed-ins for peace; they bought
full page ads in the New York Times and a billboard in Times Square to wish
everyone a “Happy Christmas;” they called random people from a phone book
and told them they loved them. They tried, in their own highly publicized,
slightly ethereal way, to get people to think differently about their daily
role as humans – under their watchful gaze and utopian revelation the
everyday obvious became a multi-layered conundrum, equal parts compassion
and rage. Ono’s fundamental belief, her vision, that humans are capable of
truly loving one another, is an out-of-this-world radical notion,
paradoxically less structured and more concrete than any resistance movement
or broad motion for global change. For Ono, it is individual
accountability, rather than one’s aptitude for dividing among party lines,
that should propel our actions.

Of course, it’s easy to write about such things – if we all just imagined
peace, everyone would become motivated to go to Iraq and stop the war.
Crimes against humanity and abuses of power would be fodder for national
outcry! Peace or jail, Rumsfeld!

The very suggestion that we could simply “imagine peace” ought to be enough
to outrage hibernating protesters and closet humanists, though there is a
world of difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. Taking
the time to formulate ideas, choosing to take action and then accepting
responsibility for those actions – not simply jumping on an overcrowded,
blissed-out bandwagon pumped full of ecstasy and Phish CDs – is what this is
about. Ono wants us to put aside our judgmental notions of activism (a
label usually reserved for leftist liberals or knife-wielding pro-lifers),
and DO SOMETHING, DAMMIT. And this “doing something” begins at home, from
the mundane (stop honking at bicyclists, why don’t you?) to the righteous
(write a letter to the UN or your senators or hey, you could actually vote
this year).

Ono’s beautifully simplistic, eternally hopeful worldview speaks to
something innately human, instinctively divine, and childishly sanguine.
Yoko has asked us to imagine peace – the tangible, corporeal, difficult
kind, that kind that demands personal culpability and steely determination,
a very particular brand of action and empathy that is outside the vernacular
of modern-day pop culture. Whereas the Bush administration prides itself on
unbridled unable-to-be-questioned decision-making, Ono’s policy is one of
words and thoughts (both good and bad), that generates change from the
inside out. Ono’s billboard suggested, as demurely as an elephant in the
room, that though peace may or may not be a state of mind, we should
seriously look into the idea.

A now-legendary Ono piece called “Yes Painting” (1966) consisted of a paint
ladder underneath a hanging magnifying glass through which one looked to
read the word “YES” written on a piece of paper attached to the ceiling.
Lennon, who met Ono at this exhibition, is quoted as saying, “I climbed the
ladder, looked through the spyglass, and in tiny little letters it said:
YES. So it was positive. I felt relieved. . .” This word, YES,
encapsulates Ono’s revolutionary idea that we are all capable of imagining
something better – and then creating it. It is up to us to choose
resistance or violence, and it is a choice that everyone must make, every
minute of every day. We should all feel relief at this; to paraphrase
Lennon: the YES makes us stay.

One of my favorite Yoko Ono “paintings” is a clear Plexiglas labyrinth.
Visitors walk through it, encountering mirrors at dead ends, and eventually,
a non-working toilet at the center of it all. Mythologically, labyrinths
represent, if nothing else, a journey into one’s inner self. It didn’t
matter to me whether Ono was trying to be vulgar or profound. When I walked
to the middle of the maze and encountered this porcelain oddity, I simply
didn’t have the guts to interact with it. But what was the purpose of it if
it was not to be used? I stared at that toilet for a long time, awkward and
self-conscious as gallery visitors walked by and stared at me, warped
reflections through Ono’s looking glass, all of us separate from and a part
of the finished piece. The act of living, Ono suggests, is both intensely
personal and unavoidably public. The art of life is to gracefully combine
the two. Perhaps, I thought to myself as I wound my way out of art’s
relentless scrutiny, at the center of humanity lays a pulsing, evanescent
toilet bowl, waiting to be flushed.

Yoko Ono has, through her work, consistently strived to give back to
humanity, to instill in us a grand hope and universal camaraderie –
reminding us that, through our separateness, we actually have a great deal
in common. She was vilified and ostracized in her younger years, and is
being praised and exalted in her present ones, yet she has done nothing but
ask us, repeatedly, affectionately, radically, to bring light and love into
the world. The billboard may have come down, but isn’t it time we started


Yes, Yoko. I think I will.