From Iceland — Yoko's Tower of Power

Yoko’s Tower of Power

Published November 18, 2009

Photo by
Julia Staples

I like Yoko Ono. In fact, I like Yoko Ono far more than I’ve ever liked John Lennon. I once worked in a museum and watched Ono’s “Cut Piece” almost every day. I appreciated the way she felt it necessary to include the audience in her work and wondered at the small but revealing results of that dialogue.

I was thus looking forward to seeing the Imagine Peace Tower. A five-minute boat ride later, I stepped off the pier and onto Viðey Island. It’s a rugged crop of land, but handsome too, featuring two 18th century structures: one of the oldest churches in Iceland and the stately residence of Treasurer Skúli Magnússon, which is used these days for weddings, banquet celebrations and the communal eating of sheep heads. The guided tour bypassed all this at first, opting instead for the Imagine Peace Tower.

Despite resembling a death laser, there is something calming about the Imagine Peace Tower from up close. Six powerful beams shoot through the ground, bounce off 45-degree mirrors, join nine more lights, and launch into the sky forming a brilliant white column. The base structure, known as the ‘Wishing Well’ is paneled by opaque glass with the words ‘Imagine Peace’ etched in 24 languages. Born out of a conceptual artwork known as the ‘Light House,’ I wondered if the tower wasn’t an intergalactic weapon after all, but a beacon of hope. At the instruction of the guide the tourists joined hands in a human chain around the Wishing Well and respected a minute of silence. It was all very… peaceful.

Back at Magnússon’s pad, we write peace wishes on little cards meant to be buried under the tower, drink hot chocolate and listen as our tour guide weaves history and humour, extracting laughter with rehashed zingers. Back to the boat and back to town before 23:00—all in all, a peaceful, pleasant and painless tour.

In Reykjavík, however, things are a bit more complicated. I live downtown, where I can see the Imagine Peace Tower every time I go out for a beer. It’s always there, burning bright between houses and trees. It frustrates me: unlike her other work, Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower doesn’t need my participation, it’s a blinding monologue I can’t silence.

A few days ago I stepped outside my house for a smoke and saw what every foreigner dreams of seeing in Iceland: the glowing ribbons of the northern lights. Seeing them in Reykjavík is rare, and seeing them this bright is rarer still. I grabbed my coat and ran to the shore, the darkest place I could think of. Sitting on the breakers with the city at my back, the northern lights were brighter and faster than I’d expected. But I couldn’t help thinking that without a gigantic beam of light shooting aimlessly at the sky, they would’ve been brighter and faster still—that sometimes, Reykjavík might be a more peaceful place without the Peace Tower.

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