Bells for Peace
Manchester International Festival 2019's opening event had a lot to live up to after the powerful, impressive spectacle that was last festival's What Is the City but the People? An unticketed, free to watch public art piece is a welcome addition to MIF's otherwise rather exclusive, sometimes inaccessible programme, and Yoko Ono's Bells for Peace delivers in terms of accessibility and emotional impact.
Crowds filled Cathedral Gardens—an appropriate venue for the theme—for the world première of the MIF commission, gathered around large screens and four white timber-framed 'bell towers' housing historic bells. Many people were unable to resist the temptation to ring the engraved bells distributed by volunteers on the way in, and for the half hour before the piece started the air was filled with the sound of persistent chiming. Adding to this army of shining ceramic bells were an assortment that people had brought from home: I saw a Tibetan singing bowl, a white china bell painted with "Happy Anniversary" and even tiny jingling bells on the collars of two dogs.
After two introductory films, instructions from some presenters and interviews with the crowds, the main event is prompted by video message from the artist herself. Understandably, there was some disappointment that she wasn't present in person, but this was always billed as an art piece by—not an audience with—Yoko Ono.
Ono gives instructions to ring the bells different ways: loudly, softly, to the trees, to the skies, and for peace. The results may not be melodious, but the effect of hundreds of bells ringing is surprising; it's deafening, of course, but moving too—a call to action that prompts a physical and emotional response.
The emotional intensity of the moment is released in a surprisingly crowd-pleasing move: "Give Peace A Chance" is played, with the lyrics shown on screen to encourage a singalong. And it's Manchester, so of course the crowds joined in.
It's a much shorter, simpler opening to Manchester International Festival than Jeremy Deller's citizens' catwalk in Piccadilly Gardens two years ago, but the power of Bells for Peace lies in its timing. The world needs peace, respect and understanding now more than ever, and Manchester is a city that is clearly determined to lead the way.
Reviewer: Georgina Wells