Anne Röhl

The bed-in is a variant of the sit-in and famously originates from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s two week-long Bed-ins for Peace during their honeymoon. Using the media attention following their wedding on March 20, 1969, they received the international press in their room at the Hilton hotel in Amsterdam and in Montreal (fig. 1). In Montreal, the couple invited musicians and counterculture activists to their bed: a gathering that culminated in the recording of the song “Give Peace a Chance”, which became a major anti-war anthem. The bed-ins were strategic instalments in a series of actions for peace starting with the planting of acorns (Acorns for Peace) in Coventry and ending with Lennon and Ono’s Season’s greetings “WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas From John and Yoko” displayed on billboards in eleven major cities worldwide (Kruse). Of these, the Bed-ins, undoubtedly created the most memorable images.

Surrounded by flowers and wedding presents, the sitters were also framed by written signs such as “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace”, referring to the contemporary aesthetics of anti-war protests. The signs also echo Ono’s earlier works often titled “piece” since “peace” is homophonous to “piece”. There is also a formal analogy to Ono’s Bag Piece of 1964 in which two people were hidden in a large piece of fabric resembling a bag inside which they were performing actions the audience could only guess at (Archer). Being in bed and being in a bag are similar situations in that they both serve as a reminder of the shared humanity of the occupants. This action of deindividualisation cannot be claimed by a celebrity couple who let the media into their bed. However, the Bed-in’s potentiality–as with other works of art displaying beds or bedding in public discussed below–lies in the fact that it opens an intimate, private room to the public. Beds are spaces reserved for elemental human activities: having sex, giving birth, sleeping, dreaming, dying, all actions that are considered private in modern times. Bed-in for Peace thus epitomizes the non-violent anti-war protest: instead of fighting or vandalising, the protestors succumb to the inactivity of sleep or dream.

Lennon and Ono’s bed-in is often presented as the first instance of a bed being used for political action. This ahistorical reading can only be followed if the role of the state bed in the 17th and 18th century, where absolutist rulers performed the levée–the rising of the king–, is ignored. The state bed was a political space being both a representational object through its display of heraldry, textile splendour and rigid order explicated in stiff curtains and systematic pleats, and serving as stage for the performance of political acts. A predecessor might have been the lit de justice, the event when the king attended the highest court, named after his seat in the parlement, which featured a curtained canopy like a bed (Brown/Famiglietti).

In contrast to modern times, the visibility of the ruler in bed was not a reversal of the private into the public, the state bed can rather be compared to a throne: the space where the ruler is, is a political space. In this regard, one could argue that Lennon and Ono also used their bed as a kind of counterculture throne, from which they sent their decree of peace out to the world, reminding everyone of a most basic method of resistance: staying in bed. Lennon explained their agenda later in 1969: “[…] anybody knows that the people have the power. All we have to do is to awaken the power in the people, the people in all the world. It’s like they’re not educated to realise that they have power.” (Lennon and Ono)

I would like to follow the idea that the success of Lennon and Ono’s strategy was indebted to their own partaking in the sexual liberation. In comparison to other examples of artworks and performances displaying beds and bedding, they did not enact the political stance “The private is political” coined by second wave feminism, but consciously raised false expectations stemming from the overlapping of sexual revolution and anti-war protest. The journalists’ interest in the Bed-in was fuelled by previous transgressions of moral borders–as shown in their nude self-timer photographs for the 1968 Album Unfinished Music No 1: Two Virgins. Journalists were clearly not only attracted by the prospect of two A-list celebrities in their hotel room but also expected to see some action. Much like the famous slogans of the anti-Vietnam War protesters, “Make Love not War” and the somewhat harsher “Bombing for Peace is Like Fucking for Virginity”, it is symptomatic of the interrelations of the anti-war movement and the sexual revolution in the late 1960s (fig. 2).

While Lennon and Ono used the sexualised image of the bed to gain media attention and then presented themselves as “angels”, the display of the bed has since often been connected to sexual politics. In particular, exposing one’s unmade bed seems to be a guarantee for scandal, be it Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed in 1955, which was compared to a crime scene and excluded from the documenta–it remains unclear if the crime sensed by the critics was Rauschenberg’s approach to painting or his homosexuality–, or Tracey Emin’s installation My Bed of 1998, whose explicit remnants of sexual activity could stir audiences even in the heyday of the Young British Artists’ sensationalism. Also connected to politics of oppressed sexualities is Felix Gonzalez-Torres billboard Untitled (Billboard of an Empty Bed) (1991) (fig. 3). The billboard-size photograph, staged in the gallery or city space, shows the upper part of a bed with two pillows dented by the heads of two people. In the context of Gonzalez-Torres’ oeuvre – his partner Ross Laycock had already died of AIDS by 1991– the empty bed relates to homosexual love, the prevalent hazard of HIV, and loss. However, looking at the human imprints it is indiscernible if the traces are of a homosexual or a heterosexual couple or even a couple at all. Thus, Untitled (Billboard of an Empty Bed) is comparable to Ono’s Bag Piece comments on the equality of people as intimate, sleeping, loving and even dying humans–regardless of their sexual orientation.

If the bed is thought of as a clothed person wearing different layers of dress, the bare mattress is the most private or the most fundamental part. When in Helen Chadwick’s Domestic Sanitation – Bargain Bed Bonanza (1976) four women are half-bed/half-women, she alludes to the basic duties of women while other video artists of the time confined themselves to the kitchen (fig. 4). The mattress is, due to its absorbent quality, comparable with the memory or consciousness of the bed. It can be covered with fresh linens but when stripped displays the stains of past encounters, like scar tissue. The idea of the mattress as the absorptive, observant surface of a crime scene was only recently evoked by the highly publicised performance of Columbia University student Emma Sulkovicz. Under the title Carry that weight (2014/2015), from the eponymous Beatles Song of 1969, the student set herself the task to carry a typical college dorm mattress to campus every day until the fellow student she accused of raping her on an a similar mattress was expelled from the University (fig. 5). In the song, “carry that weight” refers to unspecified heavy memories–possibly of a conflict with the record company or the happier days for the Beatles, which, by then, were already drawing to a close. The line “I never give you my pillow” can also be interpreted as an invitation to bed which was not given. Sulkovicz’ project, which included rules of engagement written on the walls of her studio, also draws on the role of language in early conceptual and performance art, of which Yoko Ono’s pieces collected in her book Grapefruit (1964) are crucial examples. The mattress here–though bearing no traces of the crime–again serves a political cause. While its weight is thought to symbolize the trauma of rape, the blatant size of the object carried around campus served as a reminder of the unsatisfactory sexual assault policies of the University. Receiving attention from the media, the art world and politicians alike, and coinciding with discussions of sexual consent on college campuses, the performance developed into a well-known political image.

fig. 1: Bed-in for Peace, John Lennon und Yoko Ono, 20th March 1969
fig. 2: Vietnam War Protestors, late 1960s
fig. 3: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Billboard of an Empty Bed), 1991
fig. 4: Helen Chadwick, Domestic Sanitation – Bargain Bed Bonanza, 1976
fig. 5: Emma Sulkovicz, Carry that weight, 2014/2015

Robert J. Kruse II.: Geographies of John and Yoko’s 1969 Campaign for Peace: An Intersection of Celebrity, Space, Art, and Activism. In: Ola Johansson, Thomas L. Bell (eds.): Sound, Society and the Geography of Popular Music. Ashgate, London, 2009, pp. 11–32.

Elizabeth A. R. Brown and Richard C. Famiglietti: The Lit de Justice: Semantics, Ceremonial, and the Parlement of Paris 1300–1600. Thorbecke, Sigmaringen, 1994, especially pp. 20–21.


Bed Piece, 1969, directed by Yoko & John and filmed by Nic Knowland, via

About the author:
Anne Röhl studied Art History, Fine Art and English Literature at the Universities of Siegen and Southampton. She is a PhD candidate and predoctoral researcher in the Textile – An Iconology of the Textile in Art and Architecture research group at the University of Zurich.

Reference / Quellennachweis:
Anne Röhl: Bed-in, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 30 December 2015, URL:

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