Since the early 1960s, initially as an important if orbital member of the Fluxus movement, Yoko Ono has been making subtle and challenging works of art across a range of media. After meeting John Lennon in 1966 she was placed in a position of global celebrity that no member of the avant-garde had ever experienced before. Turning her situation to creative advantage, she used the mass media as both her gallery and an actual medium in which she could work – in that she could count on every event or statement that she or Lennon chose to make being broadcast around the world in a matter of hours.
Now a youthful-looking 70 years old, Ono remains a pioneer on the frontiers of contemporary culture. In the last three years she has enjoyed a number one hit on the US club charts, with the Orange Factory re-mixes of ‘Open Your Box’ (2001) and a major retrospective touring exhibition, ‘Yes, Yoko Ono’. Today it is hard to think of an artist better placed to make statements about the relationship between political activism, global fame and the art-making process.
Fusing the refinement of Far Eastern aesthetics with the brute force of American mass media, while also being rumoured to be worth something in the region of $700 million she embodies an index of seemingly opposed qualities: a millionaire member of the avant-garde, a Japanese artist at the centre of contemporary American culture, a feminist in the highest ranks of rock music’s aristocracy.
All of which brings us to the recent reprise in Paris of her legendary work Cut Piece. Ono first made the work at Yamaichi Hall, Japan, in 1964, and last performed it herself, at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1966. This latest reprise took place under the auspices of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where there was also a small retrospective exhibition of mixed media pieces by Ono, under the title ‘Women’s Room’ – notably a selection of early film works, including Fly and Freedom, both made in 1970 – the latter with an early electronic sound-track by Lennon.
Held in the small, dark, richly ornate Théâtre du Ranelagh, Cut Piece comprised Ono entering the stage dressed in a chic black evening dress and carrying a pair of scissors. Her printed statement included the pronouncement ‘Cut Piece is my hope for world peace’ and concluded, ‘Come and cut a piece of my clothing wherever you like, the size of less than a postcard, and send it to the one you love’. Moving to the centre and sitting down on a low stool, she offered up a brief prayer ‘not to forget love’ and then, with the minimum of ceremony, invited the audience to cut off her clothing.
In our Mass Age culture, obsessed with celebrity, terrorism, sex and death (in pretty much equal parts), it would be difficult to imagine an event more provocative and disturbing than Ono’s reprise of Cut Piece. With a heavy media presence – at least five film crews – but absolutely no security, there was more than a sense of sacrifice in the air – not least because of Ono’s extreme vulnerability. The immediate rush to queue in the theatre’s small central aisle dispelled any sense of church-like quiet or meditative repose that one might have thought the event would inspire.
But Cut Piece is a work that calls up whatever feelings are in the individual participants and witnesses, as well as somehow reflecting the temper of society back to itself. In the act of getting on to the stage, cutting and leaving – an act at once brutal and intimate – emotions, impulses or affectations become massively amplified.
The two ugly men who clearly took delight in flirting with intimations of violence, for instance, or the smug young girl who snipped straight through Ono’s bra strap, seemed only to reveal their own insecurities. For others the occasion was clearly moving – one couple cut together; a father brought his young son with him; for yet others, it was an opportunity for a bit of Agitprop. (’I don’t want a piece of Yoko Ono’s dress,’ said one woman, ‘I just want America to leave the world alone.’) In a little over an hour Ono’s clothes had been cut down to her underwear. Thus concluded, the effect was one of concussion: as though the social gravitational field had slipped, and the Freudian underbelly of a herd of humans was revealed in all its nakedness – a mass of repressions, hopes, anxieties and social neuroses. Perhaps the feeling was an echo of the experience of war; whatever, it made one long for peace.
By chance, over at the Centre National de la Photographie, there was a major retrospective of work by Ono’s contemporary Valie Export, whose work included ‘art terrorist’ tactics such as a performance-based work examining incision and the cut, entitled Cutting (1967-8). It seems necessary to remark that both exhibitions, particularly with regard to their presentation of works made in the 1960s and early 1970s, had a force and freshness that has sharpened with age. If anybody can cut through the fatty layers of complacency that seems to have settled around the belly of so much contemporary culture, then these women can.
by Michael Bracewell, Frieze Issue 79.