Manchester International Festival 2019 (MIF19) is in its seventh year. It basically is – and does – what it says on the tin, so to speak; it brings together some of the best and most creative artists and performers from across the globe (this year more than 20 countries are represented) and takes over the city of Manchester every other year. It gets better and better every time. And this year is no exception.
The opening event for MIF19 is BELLS FOR PEACE, created by Yoko Ono. Like many of the events at MIF19, it is free to the public. It is billed as a ‘unique public artwork’ that involves thousands of people coming together to ring a bell for peace – a message of peace to the whole world, something our world sorely needs right now.
And it couldn’t be simpler or more powerful. Indeed, its power comes from its simplicity. In the Cathedral Gardens is a stage with a large screen, and another screen to the left of the stage. There are bells – large and ornate and on loan, including the ancient temple bell from Chetham’s School – are suspended at points around the green, manned by a bell-ringer. And almost everyone present has some form of bell with them. From metal handbells (4, 000 of which were made and engraved specifically for the event), clay bells made by local school children (again, specifically for BELLS FOR PEACE), and even the humble but effective bicycle bell can be seen here and there.
On the screen, Yoko Ono guides the gathered crowd to draw large circles in the sky, to imagine peace, before leading everyone in a mass ringing of bells, followed by The Plastic Ono Band’s ‘Give Peace A Chance’ with the words splashed across the screen. Without any prompting whatsoever, the crowd sings along with gusto. It promised to be loud, and it didn’t disappoint. The message of peace, perhaps ironically, needs to be loud and proud and unrelenting if it is to have the desired effect and impact in changing the world – harsh and cruel, unforgiving, and cold as it is. We live in dangerous times, indeed.
At various points around the space are trees covered in brown parcel tags. These are the whispering trees where the attendees are invited to take a tag and a pen and write their own wishes for peace and harmony in our world, imperfect as it is. Some of the wishes are light-hearted and maybe even a little superficial, while others are pleading for real change – environmentally, personally, politically – but all seek a kind of difference and clarity from the uncertain times we currently face.
‘The beauty of this piece will break the sky and more. Peace is power. I love you all,’ says Ono. Peace really is power. Peace has a power that those with false power, and those who give themselves authority over the world, those who are mistakenly given too much power, do not want the likes of you and me to have or hear about. Maybe because they know something that the rest of us are slowly coming to realise; that when the tables finally turn, people will one day rise up and take the power of peace for their own and change the world for good. Perhaps, then, it is one of the most potent and devastating powers we have left to us.
Give Peace A Chance. It’s not a bad idea, really. The way the world seems to work these days – not just here in the UK, but across the globe, peace might just be our only chance of survival, a little spark of hope against the madness. In any case, the alternative doesn’t exactly bear thinking about, does it?
Photo by Bjarke Orsted © Yoko Ono