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Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko Exclusively at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
John Lennon and Yoko Ono surrounded by journalists, Room 1742, Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal, 1969. Photo Le Journal de Montreal / Jacques Bourdon.

MONTREAL.- In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous Bed-in, held from May 26 to June 2 in Suite 1742 of Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, made headlines around the world. Forty years later, from April 2 to June 21, 2009, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will celebrate this legendary event with Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko, organized in collaboration with Yoko Ono. This multidisciplinary exhibition, designed and mounted by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts under the direction of Nathalie Bondil, will be presented exclusively in Montreal. Rekindling the philosophy behind John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s commitment for today’s world, this comprehensive exhibition will provide a picture of the historical and political context in 1969 that formed the backdrop to the Bed-in, as well as explore the wide-ranging artistic and musical dialogue in the name of peace conducted by the pop icon and the conceptual artist with ties to the Fluxus group. In order to enable the widest possible public to understand, be moved by and perpetuate this still-topical peace message, admission to the exhibition will be free at all times.

Just as in the exhibition Warhol Live, sound, at once an emotional and educational conduit, will occupy a privileged position within this exhibition. This soundscape will closely reflect the entire thrust of the exhibition. From one gallery to another, John and Yoko whisper, murmur, speak, sing, shout, call each other and, most of all, remind us that they often acted as one. For the first time ever, it will be possible to hear excerpts of conversations between the two artists during the recording of songs like “Give Peace a Chance”(three different versions were recorded), as well as media interviews, video excerpts from the 1960s for such anthems as “Power to the People”and “I Dont Wanna Be a Soldier.” The soundscape will also correspond to the record covers, which are at once artistic and autobiographical statements.

Some 140 works, drawings, unpublished photographs, videos, films, artworks and interactive materials will convey the famous couple’s message of universal peace. Furthermore, visitors will be able to play “Imagine” on a white piano with a Disklavier sound system, write down their wishes and tie them to Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, stamp “Imagine Peace” on maps of the world, and read the works of certain Nobel Peace Prize winners.

“The Museum is offering a spring of peace,” explains Nathalie Bondil. “Thanks to the participation of Yoko Ono, this exhibition, while commemorating the1969 Bed-in, which took place in Montreal, will renews their pacifist action in the present, an action made all the more relevant given the current state of the world. In solidarity, an incredible number of businesses, suppliers and partners have decided to support this project by offering their services for free, so as to spread this universal message, which, it goes without saying, extends beyond the walls of this institution. I am very touched to report that this inclusive and collaborative approach is gathering great momentum, transforming this event into a collective Montreal work and a socially engaged action, with all of us rallying around the same philosophy.”

Made possible through Yoko Ono’s loan of many exceptional works, the exhibition will retrace the story of these two major figures, from their meeting in 1966 to their first creations promoting peace, which culminated in the May 1969 Bed-in during which “Give Peace a Chance” was recorded. it will examine the legacy of such anthemic songs as 1971’s “Imagine” and “Power to the People,” as well as the politically engaged 1972 album Some Time in New York City.

Organization of the exhibition
The exhibition will comprise nine sections organized on a thematic and chronological basis. The Introduction will present the life of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The 1966 Meeting will reveal the circumstances in which John and Yoko met, and John’s discovery through Yoko of the American counterculture and conceptual art. In Four-Handed Works 1969-1971, we follow the rich artistic dialogue that developed between John and Yoko. In 1968, they presented their first happening and John had his first solo exhibition; the Plastic Ono Band was born. The 1969 Bed-In follows John Lennon’s engagement in protests against the Vietnam War, in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Ghandi: the Bed-in as political forum, the stage for experimental art and even a recording studio. War Is Over if You Want It! 1969 traces the international advertising campaign championing peace in twelve cities worldwide. Imagine 1971: John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s political message comes through on the album Imagine, the second of John Lennon’s solo albums offering a new dream of a peaceful world. Some Time in New York City – 1971-1972: John and Yoko settled in New York, where they hung out with Bob Dylan, Jerry Rubbin and Abbie Hoffman, as well as the leftist leaders of the Youth International party and the Black Panther Party. They played active roles in many political protests and recorded Some Time in New York City, an echo of their political activism. This was also the year they were expelled from the United States. John Lennon had to wait four years to receive his green card, which affected his relationship with Yoko as well as his political activism. The Peace Library invites visitors to explore the many works by a great number of authors who have written on the theme of peace. Contemporary Works by Yoko Ono will conclude the exhibition will the Wish Tree, a series of works she began in 1990, which offers visitors the opportunity to experience a moment of meditation, and the chess game Play by Trust.

A bit of background
Following their wedding at the British Consulate in Gibraltar on March 20, 1969 – itself a performance/statement in a youth culture rejecting the traditional institution of marriage – John Lennon and Yoko Ono flew to Amsterdam to devote their honeymoon to the first Bed-in for peace, from March 25 to 31, at that city’s Hilton Hotel. Their second Bed-in, which could not be held in the United States since John Lennon was denied entry, was staged in Montreal from May 26 to June 2, involving LSD guru Timothy Leary, singer Petula Clark, Rabbi Abraham Feinberg and hundreds of reporters. Knowing that their honeymoon would be a magnet for paparazzi, the couple decided to turn it into a public event to advance the cause of peace. The normally private, personal bed became a public stage, a podium, a forum where, dressed in pyjamas, they explained their perspective on the Vietnam War to the world’s press.

On December 15, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono launched an international advertising campaign for peace in twelve of the world’s major cities: Athens, Berlin, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago), Rome, Tokyo, Toronto and, once again, Montreal. Huge billboards in each national language went up in strategic locations, proclaiming “WAR IS OVER! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.” The format varied with the available space, ranging from immense billboards in New York’s Times Square to posters and handout flyers, all bearing the same message. The campaign kicked off with the “Peace for Christmas” benefit for UNICEF at London’s Lyceum Theatre on that same December 15, with the Plastic Ono Band assembling George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Keith Moon of the Who for the occasion. The following day, John and Yoko took the peace campaign to Toronto, and met with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. On December 21, an ad with their “War is over” message appeared in the New York Times.

The Bed-in was the high point of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s actions for peace, which owed their efficacy to both communications strategies and contemporary performance art issues. Like their performances, these uncategorizable actions were generally rejected as gags or self-promoting theatrics by publicity-hungry stars. In the same vein as Andy Warhol founding Interview magazine or Joseph Beuys and the German Green Party, the couple demonstrated a keen awareness of how to use and channel popularity and manipulate the media.

Yoko Ono
Today, Yoko Ono is still actively pursuing the career in art she began close to fifty years ago. The latest retrospective of her work, Between the Sky and My Head, was recently presented in Germany and is currently on show in England. In 2004, she mounted a controversial exhibition of photographs depicting parts of women’s bodies. Born in Japan, this avant-garde artist associated with the Fluxus movement has never ceased to promote peace in her works, from those in the 1966 Indica Gallery exhibition where she first met John Lennon, to those shown throughout the world today.

A “conscientious objector” during a time of societal and political crisis throughout the world, John Lennon, along with his muse and alter ego, Yoko Ono, sang a message of hope and tolerance that sought the transformation of violence into peace, and hate and racism into love. Forty years after the iconic Montreal Bed-in, this four-handed work composed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono still speaks to us today. The tremendous explosion of media and public attention that surrounded “Beatlemania” often overshadowed the innermost voice of John Lennon, who, even as a child, believed he would be an artist and poet who would use a gift for words and humour and the power of a somewhat surrealistic imagination to build a world of magic again. Imagine, far from consigning the artist to the past, will endeavour to make his creative process come alive and let the voice of this extraordinary witness to his times be heard.

Emma Lavigne is curator in the Department of Contemporary and Emerging Art at the Musée national d’art moderne–Centre Pompidou. Formerly curator of twentieth-century music at Paris’s Cité de la musique, she has curated a number of exhibitions exploring: the relationship between music and contemporary art, including Electric Body and Espace Odyssée; rock and the contemporary music scene in Jimi Hendrix Backstage, Pink Floyd Interstellar and John Lennon: Unfinished Music, presented from October 2005 to June 2006 at the Cité de la musique, an exhibition which enabled her to forge closer ties with Yoko Ono; and the work of artists like Chen Zhen, Saâdane Afif, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster. Most recently, she presented the work of video and sound artist Christian Marclay in the exhibition Replay at Montreal’s DHC/Art Fondation pour l’art contemporain. She was also co-curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition Warhol Live.

Emma Lavigne is assisted by Thierry Planelle, an art director and sound designer. Formerly art director at Virgin Music/EMI and visual and sound creative director for Virgin France, he now designs soundtracks for the showings of the Hermès and Jean Paul Gaultier fashion collections. An independent producer for the Maturity Music label, he is also a founding member of Paris’s Radio Nova. In addition, he collaborated on the exhibition John Lennon: Unfinished Music at the Cité de la musique. Recently, he created the aural design for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition Warhol Live.

The exhibition will also benefit from the collaboration of Thierry Loriot, Research Assistant in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Curatorial Department, and Karla Merrifield, Yoko Ono’s archivist.

Éric Daoust, from the Montreal agency Bosses Design, is responsible for the design of the exhibition. Graphic design is by Philippe Legris.

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