Kunsthal Charlottenborg’s director Michael Thouber was, in late 2016, deliberating over what Christmas message he wanted to send to his friends and family. He wanted to offer some yuletide merriment and hope for 2017 after a year dominated by grim political headlines, a climate crisis, and the fracturing of community ideals.
He settled on Happy Xmas (War is Over) by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which finishes with the lines: “Happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s a good one / Without any fear / War is over, if you want it / War is over now.”
Released in 1971, the song was a key component of Lennon and Ono’s peaceful activism against America’s participation in the Vietnam War – protests that included their famous bed-ins in Amsterdam, in March, during their honeymoon, and in Montreal, in May 1969. Alongside this, the multimedia campaign spread to cities around the world as John Lennon and Yoko Ono rented 12 billboards internationally for black and white posters carrying the slogan: ‘WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John and Yoko’.
When he clicked ‘send’, Thouber had little idea what would blossom from his Christmas message. But just as Ono’s work demonstrates, small acts, art, and ideas, can have enormous ripple effects. When Danish curator Lars Schwander received Thouber’s message, he was inspired to host a small exhibition of Ono’s graphic works, both political and conceptual, and ‘reactivate’ them in a much wider sense.
An exhibition that leaves the gallery
What followed was a week-long trip to New York to discuss the ideas with Jon Hendricks, Yoko Ono’s curator, and to look at material related to the ideas, resulting in the exhibition opening this month at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, entitled, Yoko Ono Transmission. It features newspaper pieces from the New York Times, posters, albums, ‘WAR IS OVER ! ‘ and other billboards on display, alongside contextual information documenting their production and proliferation.
This work is not limited to the walls of the gallery. It spills out into the foyer, where participants can rubber-stamp IMAGINE PEACE on maps of the world, pinpointing the places they would most like to see peace on an interactive map. A work entitled OPEN WINDOW in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, will bedeck the gallery’s façade, addressing the conflict in the Middle East, while also invoking the message of the exhibition: that art spills out of the closed windows of the art gallery, and into the world.
Thouber makes it clear that the exhibition in the gallery is actually only one component of Yoko Ono: Transmission – the ‘exhibition’ can be experienced throughout Copenhagen, and even throughout Denmark. The gallery has worked with PostNord to produce two stamps – the first Ono has created – bearing new works, while newspapers, bus stops, billboards and radio programs will carry her words and interactive ‘instruction paintings’, which invite people to engage with the works they encounter.
Seeking an audience
Ono was born in 1933 in Tokyo, and for more than five decades, her work has been at the forefront of avant-garde art, transmitting profound messages of philosophy and peace. She has utilised advertising spaces in newspapers, the famous ‘bed-ins’, and has even used sky writing to disseminate her peaceful yet radical ideas. Her works include conceptual thought pieces like ‘instruction paintings’ –151 preparatory typescripts for her germinal text, Grapefruit, will be on display in Charlottenborg – that invite people to tread on, photograph, and even break objects. They are works that do not exist without the viewer’s imagination, much as her more political pieces do not exist without the viewer’s engagement. In an interview in 1966, Ono observed, “The work becomes a reality only when others realize the work.”
Thouber points out that this kind of art can actually have an incredibly profound impact.
“The War Is Over song and billboard campaign gave the public an anthem, a theme, and actually won a lot of people over in the fight against the Vietnam War. Historically, it is one of very few examples of contemporary art that actually changed the world, and that can only be done through mass media, but in an artistic way. If you look at her work, her posters, her instruction paintings, we have the power in a democratic way,” says Thouber.
“Since 2001, she has been widely recognised as one of the leading contemporary artists. Long before she met John Lennon, even from the early 1960s, she put very conceptual works in Japanese magazines, and would give out pieces like merchandise. In later years, she took up social media. You can follow her today on imaginepeace.com and watch how her campaign develops across the world. The WAR IS OVER ! campaign can even be downloaded in your own language, and you can stick the posters up wherever you are – she has a global reach all the time, through the participants in her art.”
Do you really want it?
Twelve days after 9/11, Ono used a full page in the New York Times to share the simple idea: “Imagine all the people living life in peace”. In quoting the lyrics of Lennon and Ono’s song, Imagine, she was not offering an answer, but, as in all of the works exhibited in Yoko Ono: Transmission, the power lies in usurping the spaces that are typically dedicated to advertising, to answers, to journalism. She was making a statement, yes, but also asking a question, asking her readers to visualise, to change perspective, and to change the world.
“The main difference between journalism and art is that journalists seek the truth – they want articles to end with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. They need to know before they go to print. But artists start with a question instead of an answer, and the artist needs the audience to find the answer,” says Thouber.
Utilising social media, the internet, advertising spaces and newspapers, Ono is a master of the communication media that overloads the modern world. Her art is all about spreading and sharing, gaining maximum impact by ensuring that the messages build and grow. One of her pieces, to be reprinted during this exhibition, even requires participants to photocopy her images and spread them through public spaces. Her work does not fetishize the sacred gallery space, but sees the streets as a canvas for her words and message, actively engaging viewers, and making sure that those who encounter her work, leave a little bit changed.
As in John and Yoko’s song, and their posters: WAR IS OVER ! / If you want it, the weight of this piece is in the small print. You have to want it – to want to participate, to think, to act. M