But that’s only one of the messages that the avant-garde artist, who became a household name during her romance with Beatle John Lennon, is sending through her latest interactive work, “Wish Tree for Pasadena,” on display through Nov. 9 among the tables and chairs in the One Colorado courtyard.
Ono’s “Wish Trees,” a concept as simple as it is powerful, invites passersby to write their hearts’ deepest desires on small paper tags and tie them to one of 21 crepe myrtle trees planted in recycled wine barrels. From a distance the wishes look like tens of thousands of white flowers — and each week brings another 1,200 more, say organizers. These wishes will be joined with others from “Wish Trees” events in places as far away as Spain, England, Israel, South Korea, Brazil and Tokyo.
When the exhibit closes, all of those wishes are headed to Videy Island (off the west coast of Iceland) to be buried near the Imagine Peace Tower, which Ono christened last year in memory of Lennon, murdered Dec. 8, 1980, in New York. It is lit each year on Lennon’s birthday, Oct. 9 (when the sun is shining only about four hours per day), and goes dark again on Dec. 8.
On the phone from Germany after the opening of an exhibition of her work, Ono’s voice was unlike the screechy, primitive sounds in some of her music. Instead, it projected warmth and peacefulness (of a kind I’ve sensed over the telephone only from her, Buddhist monk Claude AnShin Thomas and peace activist Cindy Sheehan) as she discussed the death of her late husband, surviving the bombing of Tokyo during World War II, keeping up the fight for world peace and her newfound love for Pasadena.
“I was totally surprised by Pasadena. When the request [to host “Wish Trees”] came, I said ‘OK, if they want to do it that’s fine,’ but when I saw the pictures I was amazed. It was such a beautiful, beautiful feeling. There’s a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood going on,” she said. “I’d like to send a message to the people in Pasadena: I love you very much and I really feel that we’re very close to each other. Thank you.”
Ono, 75, spoke with such infectious hopefulness that we might have talked for hours about art, politics and ideas had an assistant not pulled the phone away from her.
But even after questions were cut off — “I have to go. They’re tapping my shoulder,” she said as our 15 minutes expired — Ono (quoted elsewhere saying “I see life as the playground of our minds”) was tempted to stay on the line to play a quick word association game, which would have to take the place of all those questions left unanswered.
It went like this …
Art: “Practical solution.”
Money: “It’s convenient.” (Ono is descended from wealthy Japanese aristocrats and attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York.)
Woman: “Strength, power.”
War: “War is within us.”
God: “God is within us, too.”
Wish: “I’m a witch.” (A reference to a song she recorded while estranged from Lennon? It goes “Yes, I’m a witch / I’m a bitch / I don’t care what you say / My voice is real / My voice speaks truth / I don’t fit in your ways.)
No, “wish.” Like “Wish Trees”: “We all wish together.”
Why did you say you are a witch?: “I’m just joking. Can’t we joke a little?”
— Joe Piasecki
What inspired “Wish Trees”?
The Wish Tree [at least one has been featured at most of her recent exhibits] was something that comes from my early childhood. When you’d go to temple you have to buy a little paper that says health, love and money, which you would get if you buy it for $10. You buy that and put it on the branches of bush, a very low bush, actually. And when you go to temple, from far away those papers look like white flowers. I think that people should make their own wishes and write them down because it’s very powerful to write them down. And then I thought to use a tree, not a bush. A tree is beautiful. It is growing and will grow with [the exhibit]. A bush is something they cut and keep low, but a tree is something that grows. The changes were meant to give some kind of freedom.
Your “Wish Trees” have been described as a kind of communal prayer …
Yes, but when you say prayer it sounds very religious. I don’t believe in any kind of fixed denomination. I think that’s the whole problem with what we have now in the world — my religion is better than yours or something. It’s not religious. It’s a prayer that we have innately, which we’re born with. It’s visualizing things. When you write it down and you’re visualizing, it’s very, very strong.
You know, there are so many kinds of clever, creative works that I’ve done that I was proud of. With the Wish Trees I thought this is kind of nice, but it was sort of simplistic, I thought. But this was my hit song — let’s put it that way. At the beginning, I think in Spain — Alicante [at Lonja del Pescado museum] — I was so surprised because people in that town were queuing to put up their wishes. There were people who never go to museums, people who would ordinarily be intimidated to go the museum, all lining up. It was great! Whenever I do this piece, one tree is not enough.
What will happen to the wishes when they are sent to Iceland?
They’re going to go into a capsule, like a capsule you send up into the sky or something, out of the stratosphere. It’s symbolically interesting, and it will be buried on Videy Island.
We’re going to announce one day how many came from France, how many from Germany, that type of thing. So-and-so country sent so-and-so much. But Pasadena, I have to put that name there. I didn’t know it was going to be so fantastic. There are so many people making wishes that I think it has to be mentioned particularly, specially, with the name Pasadena — not just say from United States.
Also, we’re waiting to hit the million mark. I think it’s about 700,000 now.
This article is going to be published on Sept. 11 — you might say about seven years since America forgot about peace all over again but needed it most. What are your thoughts on that and where we are now?
Nobody forgot about world peace. That is all within us, but some people have a different way of trying to get peace [laughs]. A lot of us believe in getting peace in a peaceful way. So, I’m not criticizing anybody; I think we don’t have the time to be critical. I think we should focus on visualizing world peace and see what happens.
See what happens?
I’m just being modest [laughs again]. We’re going to get it. Of course we’re going to get it.
Another issue has been increased government surveillance, fear and paranoia. You and John were followed around and wiretapped by FBI agents — what was that like?
Let’s put it this way: It was not pleasant. Especially when we spoke to our friends about it; they’re like “C’mon, really?” They didn’t believe us. And John would say: “You don’t believe us? I’m not dumb.” It was scary, but I’ll tell you, this is an age when probably all of us share that kind of fear. But instead of focusing on fear — which John and I actually didn’t — we’d say “Did you know that we were followed,” but we’d soon forget it. The proof is in something like the Madison Square Garden concert that we did. If we were really scared, why would we do a concert like that, ending with “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine”? We weren’t really that scared, no. And we shouldn’t be now. We should just keep on doing things. I say think peace, act peace, spread peace and tell your friends to imagine peace. Let’s go. Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen.
What was your own experience of war like?
My experience as a child, as a teenager, when I look back there were many situations that were rather unusual and very trying. It was that that made me strong, I think. I am strong in some ways — not that strong, but there is a certain strong part of me that I definitely think was created then.
How did John’s murder affect your ability to have relationships?
In the beginning I didn’t feel like going out at all. Also, the security people would say to have all the shutters closed on the [Central] Park side because some people might shoot you from there. I finally said I’m not going to live like that. I’m not going to live with the shutters closed all my life. I still trust people. I still trust life and trust the world and the human race and where we’re going. But on the private level, it’s been a little bit hard.
It’s been almost 40 years since you recorded “Give Peace a Chance,” which you recently remixed and re-released. Is the idea of peace any different now, and how does this time compare with then?
I don’t think we should always keep just focusing on the fear and on the doomsday kind of idea. The other side is that there is an ocean of people who really believe in world peace now. It’s different than the time we lived in [together], standing around and saying hello [introducing the concept of peace]. There’s an incredibly strong contingent of people who really want world peace and are working for it.
Back to the Trees, what’s your wish — in addition to peace?
World peace is so important that I can’t think of anything else. The Imagine Peace Tower, just the fact that it is a peace tower, if somebody wished wrongly — “bomb the whole world” or something — the strength of the Imagine Peace Tower is going to turn that energy into good energy.
The trees used in “Wish Trees,” a collaboration of One Colorado (on Colorado Boulevard between Fair Oaks and DeLacey avenues) and the Armory Center for the Arts, will be donated to a community garden when the exhibit closes.