“Count the clouds and name them…” a voice booms out from a video installation conceived by Yoko Ono. “Listen to the sound of the earth moving”. This is Manchester and the clouds and the number of them draw an unexpected response – more of which later.
Soon thousands of bells are ringing out across the city as Yoko Ono opens the Manchester International Festival 2019 in Cathedral Gardens, with a free event sending a resounding message of peace from Manchester to the world.
It’s two years after the Arena bombing left 22 dead, and 50 years since the release of ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ penned by Beatles’ legends John Lennon and Paul McCartney… and perhaps also, Yoko Ono (depending on who you speak to).
From her early bed-in collaborations with husband, John Lennon in 1969, to her ongoing WAR IS OVER! campaign, Yoko Ono has boldly communicated her commitment to social justice over the past half-century, creating works that blur the boundaries between art, politics and society.
In her first major work for the city of Manchester, commissioned for MIF19, Ono makes an interactive call to ‘surrender to peace’.
Yoko, aged-86, isn’t here ‘in person’, but her presence is certainly felt as her activism is teleported to Manchester digitally. Ono’s image flashes on a huge screen high on the Urbis building, and we hear from her as she champions the work and spirit she started in the ‘60s. Bells are a means of inclusion. A way to allow the audience to interact with this art installation. Passive consumption is not an option today.
Live interviews capture where people have come from, why they’ve chosen the bell they brought and why they’ve come to Manchester today. The stories include a granddaughter who brought the bell her grandad had used to warn of danger during the Second World War. In addition to bells participants brought themselves, 4000 specially produced and engraved bells were distributed and none are left by the end.
The stage is a minimalist white affair. Site designers, Shizuka Hariu and Shin Hagiwara have created an imposing digital display above a sweeping white walk way. To the left of the stage a weathered bell, around three feet tall is suspended within a white frame. Its beauty and intrigue draw us in as we’re told it’s been borrowed from Chetham’s School of Music, but no one knows how it got there.
When the installation begins in earnest, Helvetica typeface script is flashed across the white screen to emphasise Yoko’s words “Ring to the trees, ring to the universe, ring with your heart, ring with your neighbour”.
The activist participants duly oblige. This is a modern happening. We’re encouraged to dig deep and within and remember our inner child – we are the artists the orchestra and the bells are our instrument. Emily Lim’s direction draws heavily on her tradition of working with communities and the inclusion of non-professionals.
The event ends with a chorus of ‘Give Peace a Chance’ started on-screen and finished by the attendees in a cappella, long after the show has ended.
The only minor hiccup is caused by Yoko asking us to look to the sky and count the clouds. Then name them. This is Manchester. There is one cloud and it’s grey. If she’d been here, she’d have seen it. The audience roar with laughter – this hard to classify celebration event has been a success.
Yoko Ono’s Bells for Peace was a mass participatory art event to open MIF19 at Cathedral Gardens, Manchester on 4 July 2019.