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Spread Peace: Yoko Ono’s installation at Portland Japanese Garden

For four days, the Portland garden joins others around the world in the artist and peace activist's almost 30-year project of creating and adorning Wish Trees in pursuit of peace.

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The five Japanese Maples at the plaza of the Portland Japanese Gardens that will become Wish Trees.


Story and Photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER


A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” — Yoko Ono

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The next few days — Friday through Monday, June 7-10 — offer all of us the opportunity to raise our voices in support of a better world, one without violence or suffering. We are invited to interact with SPREAD PEACE: Wish Tree, an art installation by Yoko Ono, manifesting our hopes for peace by writing them on slips of paper and hanging them on five Japanese Maple trees specifically provided for the occasion.

The five Japanese Maples at the plaza of the Portland Japanese Gardens that will become Wish Trees.
Five Japanese Maples at the Plaza of the Cultural Village.

It could not have arrived at a more poignant time or a more appropriate place: a time when wars have raised their ugly heads across the world again, a place — Portland Japanese Garden — that was founded to help heal the ruptures and wounds carved by an earlier war.

In addition, we are afforded this interaction in the company of other important public gardens across the globe: Keihanna Commemorative Garden in Japan, Kokoro no Niwa in Chile, and Johannesburg Botanical Gardens in South Africa will be exhibiting Wish Trees during these four days, as well.

Three detail shots of the five Japanese Maples at the plaza of the Portland Japanese Gardens that will become Wish Trees.

The international collaboration with multiple organizations, including the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, which houses the Yoko Ono: Peace Is Power exhibition, is led by Japan Institute of Portland Japanese Garden, our own cultural institution that, in its own words, is focused on fostering dialogue and bridging divides. (I had written a more detailed history here.)

Close-up photo of the base of a Wish Tree.

The Japanese garden is the perfect setting for the installation, and not just due to its historic focus on issues of reconciliation and peace. It currently provides a particularly peaceful atmosphere: rather than the fiery colors of autumn, spring produces softness and calm in most of the garden’s appearance, the muted purples and whites of the last rhododendrons,

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Two photos of pink mountain laurels at the Portland Japanese Garden.

Close-up photo of white mounttain laurel with blossoms at the Portland Japans Garden.

the pink and whites of the mountain laurels,

Two photos of pink and white azaleas at the Portland Japanese Garden.

the pink and white of the azaleas,

Dogwood sitting low by stone walk and moss at the Portland Japanese Garden.

Dogwood with pink blossoms above a pool at the Portland Japanese Garden.

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Dogwood with white blossoms at the Portland Japanese Garden.

and the ever-graceful dogwoods.

Close-up photo of white blossoms at the Portland Japanese Garden.

Two close-up photos of blossoms at the Portland Japanese Garden.

The garden joins the ranks of many other important places chosen across the lifetime of the Wish Tree project, started in 1996 and now almost 30 years in the making. Some of the previous trees were placed temporarily for exhibition purposes, in museums or cultural institutions. Others have found permanent homes in public gardens — still in use, or just beautifying their respective locations. I have seen them in New York City, the Arlington Gardens in Pasadena, California, and at a gallery in Venice, Italy; but they spread across the entire world, to Europe, South America, and Asia.

Bush with white blossoms reflected in a pool at the Portland Japanese Garden.

The instructions are simple:

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Make a wish. Write it down on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around a branch of a Wish Tree. Ask your friends to do the same. Keep wishing. Until the branches are covered with wishes.

The power of wishes has been a theme throughout mythology and literature: Think of the Greek or Norse Pantheon, the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, 1001 Arabian Nights, the drama of Dr. Faustus. Whether Gods, fairy godmothers, genies or the devil granted the wishes (often three of them), the warning was about the content of the wishes — driven by greed, longing or lust — and the distinction between cleverness and foolishness, with individuals believing they possessed the former but exhibiting the latter. Be careful what you wish for is often the moral of those tales.

Detail views of the trees that will host the wishes.
Detail views of the trees that will host the wishes.

The power of Ono’s work lies in the leap from individual desire to collectively expressed hope around a shared dream. Looking at a tree covered with hundreds of pieces of paper provides a sense of collective voice; a gratitude for being joined by many in our very own aspirations. That feeling is multiplied by millions, the number of wishes collected so far, all of which get deposited in one final resting place: Imagine Peace Tower, on Viðey Island in Kollafjörður Bay in Iceland. There is something about shared action that adds value to an experience, whether singing in a group or choir, praying in unison with a congregation, or taking part in a shared exposure to cultural events: It provides a qualitative, not just quantitative, shift in the way we feel, given that we are a social species.

Detail of maple at Portland Japanese Garden.

Group actions, whether through economic alliances, political coalitions, or the structure of societies geared around families or clans, have, of course, shaped cultures in other ways as well. We are all aware that partisanship exists, and that the struggle for power, limited resources, land, or revenge for historical slights can lead to horrid consequences, including war. It is all the more important, then, to have projects like Ono’s that demonstrate a desire for peace likely crossing the boundaries of partisanship. The majority of people, no matter who we vote for, or where we live, do not want to be exposed to violent harm or inflict it upon others. We will hang our wishes on the tree joined by others who in that moment become simply allies.

Detail of foliage at Portland Japanese Garden.

I had felt this years ago in another show concerned with interaction around wishes, although not defined solely by a single theme. The New Museum in New York City exhibited work by Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander in 2010. In A Day Like Any Other, you entered a room with white walls covered with colorful ribbons on which wishes, previously written by visitors and deposited in small holes in the walls, were printed. You were encouraged to add your own, and permitted to take a ribbon and bind it across your wrist, with three knots, if you shared the particular wish written on it. Lore had it that the wish would come true once the knots dissolved and fell off. (Note: I can confirm that that happened, against my better rational judgment; and yes, you may roll your eyes now.) The main emotion was contained in a sense of shared longing, bound to an unknown companion in a particular hopefulness.

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Exterior photo of The New Museum in New York City.

Rivane Neuenschwander, "A Day Like Any Other" (2010) at The New Museum in New York City.
Rivane Neuenschwander, “A Day Like Any Other” (2010).

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The Tate Modern in London is exhibiting a retrospective of Yoko Ono’s work, open until Sept. 1, 2024. Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind received rave reviews both for its content and its curation of seven decades of work by this iconoclastic artist. Much of the work expresses a leap of faith around the dichotomy of war and peace, the core focus of her creative imagination. The artist, who grew up In Japan during World War II — a deadly conflict that ended with nuclear bombs destroying Hiroshima — is convinced that we, the interactive participants in so many of her installations, will, in the end, provide individual contributions to make our world less belligerent.

In April, the nonagenarian Ono also was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal, an honor previously given to Stephen Sondheim and Toni Morrison, among others. The lifetime achievement prize honored her continuous engagement with her Leitmotiv: Peace. Projects like the one we’re about to experience at Portland Japanese Garden will be a reminder that we all, indeed, can — no, should — contribute to this singular goal.

Water dripping into a stone container from a bamboo pipe at the Portland Japanese Garden.

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Wishing Trees (or for that matter, wells) have been around for a long time, across diverse cultures. Many speak to existential issues of love, fertility, poverty, and, of course, war. The wishes can be expressed via words, or pieces of cloth, or the donation of coins, depending on custom. Why trees? They might be particularly visible and relatively stable. In many mythologies they are linked to forces of nature or habitats of benevolent grantors, the spirit world.

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Clockwise from upper left: Tanabata Festival wishing tree in Japan; wishing tree from Alaçati, Turkey; wishing tree hung with Nazar in Anatolia; wishing tree spiked with coins in Scotland. (Photographs all web sourced.)
Clockwise from upper left: Tanabata Festival wishing tree in Japan; wishing tree from Alaçati, Turkey; wishing tree hung with Nazar in Anatolia; wishing tree spiked with coins in Scotland. (Photographs all web sourced.)

Portland has had its very own wishing tree for more than a decade now, an ancient chestnut tree at the corner of Northeast Seventh Avenue and Morris Street. I wrote about it some years ago, puzzling over the diverse sentiments found at the location:

“For me psychologically more interesting is the fact that people like to externalize what could be a private prayer or wish — the very act of making it public, saying it out loud, seems to have some meaning. Maybe the act of sharing makes you feel less alone, or heard, even if the next reader is not the powerful entity that could fulfill your wish. Maybe the act of voicing it defines a problem that you want to be collectively remembered and then collectively tackled (certainly for the wishes for peace or end of poverty.) Maybe putting it in words clarifies, through the very act of verbalizing, the hierarchy of your own needs and provides access to thoughts about action.”

A Wish Tree adorned with many wishes tied to its branches and trunk.

Three close-up photos of written wishes attached to trees.

Whatever motivates us, it is Ono’s creative insight that mobilizes a communal agreement about a worthy goal, reminding all of us about the fact that there are some things that are truly at the core of our existence, and that they are forever endangered by war. If you have a chance to visit Portland Japanese Garden this weekend, add your voice to the chorus. If you can’t, you can still make yourself heard: Here is a link to the Imagine Peace Tower site, where you can send your wishes electronically or with old-fashioned postcards.

Then go and take in the peacefulness of Portland Japanese Garden and its current bloom at a more convenient time. It nourishes hope for a better world.

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A stone statue at the Portland Japanese Garden.

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This essay was originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on June 6, 2024See Friderike Heuer’s previous ArtsWatch stories here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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Friderike Heuer is a photographer and photomontage artist. Trained as an experimental psychologist at the New School for Social Research, she taught at Lewis & Clark College until she retired to pursue art full time. Her cultural blog www.heuermontage.com explores art and politics on a daily basis through photography and commentary. She has exhibited most recently at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Camerawork Gallery, on issues concerning migrants and refugees. She frequently volunteers as a photographer for small, local arts non-profits. For more information, visit www.friderikeheuer.online.

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2 Responses

  1. I am Grateful for Yoko Ono and her Lifelong Quest for Peace. This speaks volumes for the Power of Collective Consciousness and the inherent need for a Shift. I believe strongly in our future. I see this as a wonderful way to plant collective seeds which will assist in the growth of Love and Compassion.

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