Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Imagine Peace (Tower)

Had he lived, John Lennon would have turned 70 on this coming October 9th. I am sure you are asking yourself what that has to do with Iceland but I assure you there is a connection - although a bit of an odd one. Turns out that in addition to rereleasing his solo albums and handing over the „Lennon-Ono Grant for Peace awards“ to 4 worthy recipients, his widow Yoko Ono, has just announced her intention to celebrate the anniversary here, in the same manner as she usually does, namely by lighting the “Imagine Peace Tower”.

The Imagine Peace Tower is an outdoor art installation designed by Yoko herself in memory of her husband and his love of peace – or something like that. I willingly admit I would have made a horrible hippie so I am not the best person to explain the mumbo jumbo surrounding the philosophy of the piece but no matter what your politics, most can appreciate the quite pleasing result. The term “tower” refers to a column of light reaching from a concrete monument, decorated with the words "Imagine Peace" in 24 languages. The Icelandic translation “Hugsa sér frið” is possibly the worst translation ever from English to Icelandic if you count out when the TV here translated vote results from the English Parliament as 275 eyes and 361 noses (ayes and nos). The tower also contains half a million hand written wishes that Yoko collected through the years in another art project – I suspect she realized she would never be able to fulfill them all and thus decided to hide them underneath the massive structure.

The tower was inaugurated in 2007 and is lit on the anniversary of Lennon’s birthday each year and turned off on December 8th which marks the date of his assassination. It is also lit on certain other occasions but for much shorter periods. The light column reaches extremely high into the sky, sometimes up to 4 km, penetrating clouds should they happen to be in the way. The tower is located on an island just outside one of Reykjavík’s harbors named Viðey and is accessible by a five minute boat ride.

Yoko has since become a seasonal fixture in Reykjavík, arriving to the city every October since 2006 when she first arrived to commemorate the construction site and then to turn the tower lights on in the years that have followed. The winter darkness is setting in at this point and her signature sunglasses seem a bit ill placed. But good for her – with increased age approaching at an ever faster rate I can see the attraction of TV screen sized black lenses. I can also understand why she would be partial to an art piece involving 15 strobe lights.

Most Icelanders don’t know what to think about this whole thing. We like the monument and Lennon’s music but we are a bit unsure about the familiarity with the man's beliefs placed upon us which seems random for lack of a better word. To boot some began to suspect that the arrival of Yoko each year was the foreboding of chaotic events. When she first arrived in 2006, our Landsbanki launched the Icesave accounts which landed us on a terrorist list, sandwiched between Al Qaeida and the Taliban. When she arrived a year later in 2007 to turn on the tower for the first time, the government of Reykjavík collapsed in an unprecedented political coup that left us with a mayor who refused to leave office when his time was up and acted strangely to say the least. It was the closest Reykjavík has been to ancient Rome and one always looked forward to the evening news which was certain to have some odd news regarding the mayor (now we have a comedian who is relatively somber compared to this one). In 2008 when Yoko arrived for the third time, the banks collapsed and that cinched it. When Yoko arrives something bad is going to happen to us – few dispute this bit of conventional wisdom. Last year her autumn arrival brought on tax hikes which did nothing to change this belief and we shudder at the thought of what will happen this time around – the anniversary is a big one you see.

But I cannot leave the subject of the Imagine Peace Tower without mentioning the inauguration ceremony attended by Ringo Star, the widow of George Harrison and lots of local big wigs looking forward to hobnobbing with foreign celebrities. Paul McCartney was unfortunately in court being taken to the cleaners by Heather McCartney and thus unable to attend. I guess when you are being sued by someone missing a leg you don’t want to appear stuck-up and make every effort to show up for every single court appointment. I would. But it was not the lack of this Beatle that made the Icelandic attendees wish they had stayed at home but the ceremony itself which was televised live. The locals, ministers of the government and other dignitaries, had dressed up to the tee, expecting champagne and chocolate covered strawberries on silver platters but were instead met by miserable windy weather and an MC named Yoko wearing jeans who did things her way – in a similar way as she regards sunglass etiquette.

Yoko had everyone line up in front of the structure holding hands and had them repeat after her: “Imagine Peace! Imagine Peace!” When she got tired of that chant she moved on to “Love everyone!” and “No more war!” and so on and if my memory is not failing me, towards the end of this strange group act she had gotten so carried away the words she selected seemed pulled at random from an environmentalist’s dictionary. “Pastures!” “Granola!” Anyway, irrespective of the actual chants the spectacle was hilarious because of the cringing faces of the Icelandic participants, trying to get away with whispering the words instead of belting them out as was expected. If you consider yourself respectable here, you do not, ever, want to be seen holding hands in an attempted group-hug yelling “Love everyone!”in a sequined dress or tuxedo - much less by one and all on live TV.

I must say kinda took to Yoko at that moment – despite her tendency to present Iceland with free Plastic Ono Band concerts when she passes through here.


  1. Yrsa, I love the translations of eyes and noses. An eye would be in favor because it indicates that the person casting the vote can look at himself/herself in the mirror without cringing. A nose would be a sign that the voter has to hold his/her nose in order to vote for it. There is a level of honesty built in.

    I don't know why the American legislative branches of the federal or state levels can't just say what they mean but I suppose that would defy the first law of politics. Instead of the archaic "ay" and "nay", yes and no work quite well. They could even go back to the Roman system of thumbs up or down.

    Does anyone get a vote on whether they want Yoko Ono back every year? She is a professional widow. I do wish you hadn't started off my reminding everyone that John Lennon would be 70 if he had lived. I wonder if they remaining Beatles still think 64 is so old.


  2. Great piece, funny and perceptive as always. The memorial looks great with the lights turned on.

    The last time Yoko visited Santa Monica (as far as I know), it rained. And in Santa Monica that's as dramatic as a bank collapse any day.

  3. Great stuff Yrsa.

    I know Yoko means well but...just be thankful she didn't release a record or perform a concert. That's true calamity right there.

    And I have to say Imagine is one of the worst, drippiest songs ever written. 'Imagine no possessions.' I can. It sounds awful!