Yoko Ono, "Odyssey of a Cockroach," Feb. 5-Mar. 7, 2004, at the ICA East, 14 Wharf Road, London NW1 England
On the advent of her 71st birthday, has Beatle John Lennon's widow Yoko Ono -- artist, musician and avatar of anti-war dissent -- finally "bugged out"?
Fresh from a triumphant run at Deitch Projects in New York last October, Ono's recently opened anti-war installation Odyssey of a Cockroach is all about imagining peace while standing in a gallery crammed with images of violence and gore -- as seen from the point of view of a cockroach!
An artist's artist, Ono was part of the Fluxus movement of the early 1960s and considered by some to be the first conceptual artist. She became an icon of the "give peace a chance" generation after staging the famous "bed-in" protest against the Vietnam War with husband John Lennon in May 1969.
Spread over three floors of the ICA's sister gallery in London's Islington district (where Britain's anti-war sentiment is strongest -- an inspired choice by ICA director Philip Dodd), Odyssey of a Cockroach takes the form of a theatrical mise-en-scene.
"I have taken various pictures of the city's corners and presented them from a cockroach's point of view" says Ono. "Through the eyes of this other strong race" -- cockroaches can supposedly survive even a nuclear holocaust -- "we may learn the true reality of what our dreams and nightmares have created. I invite you to join me on this odyssey."
The odyssey began at the private view. The ICA invited 500 people to the preview and three times that amount showed up, including a few A-list intelligentsia from the music industry -- Chris Martin of Coldplay, former Talking Head David Byrne, Graham Coxon of Blur, Robbie Gillespie of Primal Scream, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys and Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead. Too bad there were no instruments around for a "give peace a chance" jam.
Once past the gauntlet of clipboard tyrants at the door (some, like Elton John's beau David Furnish, nearly didn't make it in), guests were handed lapel buttons printed with the words "Imagine Peace." The theme of the exhibition, the slogan has been Ono's mantra for years, up to and during the current war in Iraq.
At the entrance of the gallery stands an oval mirror without the glass, sitting on a Persian carpet. Beyond the frame lies a white linen djellaba, the type worn by Muslim men, placed on the floor surrounded by a pool of blood. Further along are two crumpled women's black burqas; next to them a stack of what appear to be severed limbs.
Opening night was so packed that many revellers mistakenly stepped in the blood, and trampled it across the floor, with the crimson footprints adding to the overall gore.
A Lilliputian world of oversized sculptures are strategically positioned throughout the exhibition: A giant shoe, a 30-foot. baseball bat, an enormous chair, two walk-in steel rat traps and a six-foot-tall garbage pail filled with human body-parts made from plaster.
On the top floor, the anti-war message is emphasized by two wooden tables covered by maps of the world. Guests are encouraged to stamp "Imagine Peace" on international trouble spots. The exhibition culminates with an attention-grabbing screen imprinted with the words of Hermann Goering. "It is simple to draw people into war. Just tell them they are being attacked."
Although difficult to fathom in the current climate of whitewash and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Yoko Ono still carries the flame of the late 60s idealism: Art (and long haired hippies?!) can change the world.
Yet today, it's tellingly difficult for most of us not to cringe at the futility of such obvious clichs as "Imagine Peace." The obviousness is arguably part of Ono's point -- we have become as numb and passive as cockroaches over the atrocities we witness daily, events which we feel powerless to change.
"Most people think I'm too optimistic" says the energetic Yoko, looking fabulously half her age. "But my optimism is based on the thought that negative thinking is a luxury we can't afford."