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Yoko Ono’s Refugee Boat swims across to New York

The 18th annual River to River Festival in New York presented the largest ever outdoor exhibition by world renowned artist Yoko Ono.

by Sukanya Garg Aug 27, 2019

The 18th annual River to River Festival, organised by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), presented large-scale artworks by world renowned artist Yoko Ono. The festival presented the artist’s largest ever outdoor exhibition with artworks displayed in 24 locations in New York City’s Financial District. The exhibition comprised of two projects - The Reflection Project with Yoko Ono and Add Color (Refugee Boat) (1960/2019).

Curated by Lili Chopra, LMCC’s Executive Director of Artistic Programs, and Alice Russotti, Program Manager, Public Programs and Exhibitions, The Reflection Project is a visual and mnemonic counterpoint to the relentless pace of the everyday, and an invitation to connect passers-by to a realm of expanded consciousness and moments of personal, meditative pause through the placement of art in non-traditional spaces. In a cosmopolitan city like New York, the city that never sleeps, the pace of life can be nerve-wrecking at times. In addition, the constant exposure to technology and digital platforms increasingly makes us oblivious to not only our surroundings but our own emotions. The project then is an attempt to jolt us out of our engrossed over-exhausted state of mind and attention, refocusing it to what perhaps is at the root of all we seek. It is no surprise then that Yoko Ono was the choice for the inaugural artist for the 2019 edition of The Reflection Project. Her iconic text works, including Dream and Imagine Peace, provided the stimulation the exhibition aimed to create. Each piece was a prompt wherein Ono spoke directly to New Yorkers, rallying the collective consciousness towards heightened awareness, hope and action.

Yoko Ono, Dream, Image 1| River to River Festival| Yoko Ono| STIR
Yoko Ono, Dream, Image 1 Image Credit: Courtesy of Yoko Ono

The festival, which was organised in partnership with real estate companies, civic organisations, major support from the Alliance for Downtown New York and other stakeholders in Lower Manhattan, was spread across storefront spaces, screens, corridors of transit centres and the exteriors of apartment arcades. New Yorkers, therefore, were encouraged to walk through the streets of Downtown and discover the many locations that were part of The Reflection Project, with key points including Fosun Plaza, Fulton Center, The Oculus at Westfield World Trade Centre and the Seaport District. The Reflection Project marked the first time that Ono’s text-based works were displayed on such a wide scale in Lower Manhattan.

Yoko Ono, Add Color (Refugee Boat), Image 2| River to River Festival| Yoko Ono| STIR
Yoko Ono, Add Color (Refugee Boat), Image 2 Image Credit: Ian Douglas

Simultaneously, the festival also presented the U.S. Premiere of Ono’s Add Color (Refugee Boat) (1960/2019), a participatory installation piece shown for the first time ever in the United States. While at the time of the opening, the work simply entailed a small white boat placed inside a white empty space, the visitors were invited to paint it with their own hopes, wishes, dreams, ideas and images. What resulted during the course of the festival was the transformation of the walls, floor and boat into an ocean of blue text and images. While on the one hand a white place of calm had turned into chaos, but on the other, what seemed to be a still boat in the beginning had come afloat in the exhibition. Each iteration of display of the work Add Colour (Refugee Boat) infused a renewed sense of vitality to the work, evoking new feelings and emotions wherever it floated to. Previous to New York, its shores included Mori, Japan; Thessaloniki, Greece; Leeds, England; and Leipzig, Germany.

Yoko Ono, Add Color (Refugee Boat), Image 3| River to River Festival| Yoko Ono| STIR
Yoko Ono, Add Color (Refugee Boat), Image 3 Image Credit: Courtesy of Yoko Ono

About the pieces exhibited in the River to River Festival, Ono commented, “I can’t wait to see The Reflection Project transform Lower Manhattan with my artworks. I hope they make busy New Yorkers stop rushing through their day to ‘imagine pace’, ‘remember love’, and ‘dream’. My Add Color (Refugee Boat) will be in the Seaport District, once a centre for immigrants, merchants, artisans and workers. Please come add your hopes and beliefs to the boat so that it is created as a reflection of all New York."

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About Author

Sukanya Garg

Sukanya Garg

Garg is an artist and writer with a Master's degree in Public Policy from Duke University, USA. She has been involved in research, planning and execution of gallery exhibitions and external projects in collaboration with curators. Her writing has been published in several art magazines, journals and as part of curatorial notes and catalogues, and her work has been showcased at multiple exhibitions.

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