SCISSORS TO WIDOW’S WEEDS:
Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece 2003
By Ian Ayres
“I see life as the playground of our minds.”
~ Yoko Ono
“CROWD CUTS YOKO ONO’S CLOTHING OFF!” and “YOKO ONO DOES STRIPTEASE FOR PEACE!” and “FRENCH FIGHT SHY OF YOKO’S STRIP!” sensationalized the headlines. None of the media even hinted at the deeper meaning of Yoko Ono—in the name of world peace (and perhaps a new love of life)—having allowed the crowd to cut off her widow’s weeds. Even more symbolic was the fact that Yoko Ono performed this finalé of her legendary Cut Piece in Paris, the fashion capital of the world. Instead of a dress being paraded for potential buyers, a dress was being cut to shreds! This struck me as more than a demonstration for peace, world peace, but a statement against capitalism; a cry for the return to nature that would save our planet, our species. What impresses me most, however, is the courage Yoko displayed—considering the murder of John Lennon with her literally at his side, and the innumerable death threats she’s received ever since—in daring to repeat a performance that would not only expose her throat to a potential assassin but put into the assassin’s hand a deadly weapon: a pair of well-sharpened scissors.
The jagged steel of those scissors she carried glistened against the blackness of her long, layered, silk-chiffon skirt and tight, black, long-sleeved top when she gingerly stepped, as if walking on thin ice, onto the stage of Paris’ intimate Théâtre du Ranelagh. Applause temporarily relieved the foreboding I felt during that Monday evening of September 15, 2003. Here was Yoko Ono: A slender, cool, 70-year-young avant-garde icon; one of the art world’s leaders of conceptual and performance art; in the flesh. My angst over a possible, bloody murder metamorphosed into fascination.
With whispered thanks to my absent friend Phillip Ward—coeditor of Van Gogh’s Ear: Volume 3 (www.frenchcx.com) that I edited here in Paris—for having told me about this top secret event in time to get on the guest list, I applauded long and loud enough for the both of us. Applause filled the theatre as the memory of Phillip’s 5th of September telephone call from New York City rang in my ears. The second he was sure I was me, he’d said, “Are you sitting down?” Something in his sonorous voice told me the news was too thrilling to send in an email. Earlier in the week, Phillip had asked Yoko Ono’s studio and production assistant, Robert Young, if he’d ask Yoko about contributing some work to our upcoming edition of Van Gogh’s Ear. It wasn’t long before Robert contacted Phillip to echo Yoko’s answer, her famous, “Yes.” Not only would she contribute several poems—but a few of her Franklin Summer drawings, too! This news hit me like a shot of some euphoric drug. Little did we suspect, when we began our small non-profit enterprise, that we’d be entrusted with the works of such great talents as Yoko Ono, Norman Mailer and Thich Nhat Hanh. My enthusiasm led to Phillip informing me more about Yoko Ono’s art and music, and to her mind-altering “Fluxus.”
I knew that John Lennon once said Yoko Ono was the world’s “most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” When Phillip mentioned Yoko being one of the founding members of Fluxus, I said, “What’s Fluxus?”
“Fluxus,” he offered, “began as a group of writers, musicians and artists organized by George Maciunas, whose 1963 Fluxus manifesto incites artists to—Here, I’ve got it right here: ‘purge the world of bourgeois sickness, intellectual, professional and commercialized culture…dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art…to promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art, to promote living art, anti-art…non-art reality to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.’ So they created an art form that was anti-elitist, anti-commercial. Utilizing readymade materials and experimenting with various art forms, they created something that was part Dada, part Bauhaus and part Zen.”
Phillip explained that over the last 40 years, Fluxus artists produced interesting installations and limited edition publications, teasing the mind in cartoon fashion, yet in a minimalist and philosophical manner, while encouraging thought and dissection. In her association with Fluxus, Yoko Ono staged performances in Japan, England, and the United States. She hosted art and music Happenings in her SoHo loft. While at the same time making films, composing music, and creating paintings and books. Even today, Yoko continues to execute Fluxus concepts and philosophies behind her art form.
“Her inventive sometime provocative game-like concepts and instructions encourage us to step over the boundaries of art’s constraints to construct art inside ourselves,” Phillip continued. “She brings to the mind a challenging concept: Trust. This is demonstrated clearly in her chess piece, titled Play it by Trust. All the pieces, including the checkered grid, are painted white. According to Yoko, white is the most conceptual color. Being a metaphor for light and transcendence, it doesn’t interfere with your thoughts.
“Yoko’s works are to be performed by a viewer or an audience member. Many to be performed only in the participant’s mind. These concepts also compliment Marcel Duchamp’s belief that art is only partly created by the artist and is completed by the spectator. Incidentally, Dada artist and philosopher Duchamp was himself an active Fluxus contributor and participant in many Fluxus ‘Happenings.’”
Phillip—saying that Yoko Ono is one of the most pioneering avant-garde artists of our time—then encouraged me to go experience her Women’s Room exhibit, on view at Paris’ Musée d’Art Moderne. He mentioned how, with patience and imagination, “Yoko’s art is as rewarding as it is demanding,” then added an idea that now fascinates me: “Transforming art into thought.”
On the Mètro to Musée d’Art Moderne I got to thinking, “Women’s Room. Men’s Room. Public restroom. Hmm….” However, instead of hearing toilets flushing when I entered Women’s Room, I heard a looped recording of Yoko’s occasional soft coughing punctuated by the gentle clicking of what appear to be claves. From one of the exhibit’s leaflets I learned that the recording was titled Cough Piece. Phillip later informed me that Cough Piece was a 32-1/2-minute sound work originally recorded in Japan in 1963. The exhibit’s leaflet only offered that “Poetic irony is evident in the sound work, Cough Piece, composed out of the repetitive rhythm of coughing.”
Arresting my visuals was a large olive tree Ono had transformed into Wish Tree. Countless wishes of peace and love hung on small white tags with thick string from every inch of every branch, fresh as fallen snow. Yes, I thought, Yoko’s fans are Love fans, my kind of fans, the best fans to be. The leaflet said that “Wish Tree gathers together the dreams and wishes of each visitor.” Wishing they’d said more, I turned over the page and discovered an introduction for the exhibit by the artist herself. “Women’s Room,” wrote Yoko Ono, “presents the life of a woman through four different media…. In Wish Tree, a pathway is offered to the “garden” of our vision. It is in unity, we find our way to make our dream come true…. A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Thus inspired I went over to a podium next to the olive tree where blank white tags and a pen had been placed. I pondered over how Yoko encouraged love, and no limits on love, then wrote: To kiss Yoko. With patience, I managed to find a place on one of the tag-crowded branches to hang my wish. Little did I suspect my wish would soon come true.
While securing the wish onto the olive tree, I noticed the sound of snipping scissors echoing from beyond a small, wall-partition. Someone getting a haircut? Paragraph four of Ono’s introduction to the exhibit soon made it clear that whatever it was wasn’t live. “As for the films,” she’d written, “each film is repeated on two, three or four walls, depending on the set up. Each projection is being made 10 seconds later from the other—like a musical ring, in the same way as I perceive my life, going over the experience as I experience it.” The flipside of the leaflet clarified: “Women’s Room makes reference to political engagement and personal memory. The four films presented here: Freedom, Fly, Rape; and Cut Piece (a film of Yoko Ono’s performance Cut Piece 1964) evoke the social role of women and their emancipation.”
Behind the wall-partition was a large, doorless room with six screens—three on each side of the room—and a wall-petition in the middle permitting you to wander round. The 10-second differences in time of the film on the different screens scattered my sense of time. My mind seemed to fragment into past, present, and future all at once. I was in a vacuum, a whirl of “snip, snip, snip”! Surrounded in the room’s blackness, by the black-and-white film, my eyes darted from screen to screen of the young Yoko Ono kneeling onstage in a black dress with her white slip being more and more exposed as people continued cutting and taking away pieces of the dress. Like vultures, I thought, all taking a piece of her.
The audience’s aggressive violation of Ono’s body, shredding her clothes, stripping her naked, absolutely disturbed me. But throughout most of the performance she sat completely still, training an icy stare on the audience. Then one young man in the film distracts Ono from reversing the audience’s voyeurism when he symbolically rapes her with the scissors. The guy smirked vengeance and rather violently snipped the exposed slip from the area of her breasts. Yoko made a soft frightened sound, raised her hand to stop the victimization then, as if realizing it would go against the Zen-like purpose of Cut Piece, lowered her hand in sad resignation. I felt fear for Yoko. The guy contentedly laughed to himself and continued to cut away until her white bra was completely exposed. When he stepped behind her and snipped both bra straps, Ono modestly folded her arms across her breasts.
In showing the best moments of this performance of Cut Piece in a continuous, echoing loop, the film seemed to be a “cut piece” in itself. Truly remarkable, and unnerving. After witnessing the various cuttings, along with the scissors’ rape, several times, I pulled myself away to interact with more of Yoko’s exhibit. I explored Blue Room, which opened my eyes to the fact that language, by itself on a gallery wall, is a justifiable form of art. With 14 hand-written sentences on the walls, ceiling, and floor—the meaning of which is in total contradiction to the emptiness—the viewer is “instructed” as to what to construct inside their mind. For instance, to remain in the room until it turns blue. The room is painted white.
Next I experienced Vertical Memory, which, on the leaflet, Yoko explained “was created putting together photographs of my father, my husband, and my son. I selected photographs of them facing the same direction, overlapped them and morphed it. Every photo represents the man who was looking over me in a precise moment when I went through an important situation of my life.” Her words then drew my eyes toward the next art piece, Sky TV. “The Sky TV projects the sky of my childhood. The sky I saw was a little girl which was there for me, always, without change; while I kept walking through many years, many countries, many lives. The experience is parallel to that of Vertical Memory: one as the memory of earth, and the other, as that of the sky.”
That’s when I noticed a TV placed on the wooden floor. When I saw a black-and-white sky, I checked the flipside of the exhibit’s leaflet, where they’d briefly noted, “Sky TV shows an image of the sky taken by a camera placed on a roof.” Figuring color video hadn’t been possible in 1966 when Sky TV was first made, I went over, laid down on my back, and gazed up at the screen of clear gray sky…wisps of white cloud gently moving overhead. It took me a moment to realize the sky I was watching inside was the actual sky outside!
On the Métro back to my apartment I found myself surrounded by foreigners speaking in unfamiliar tongues, which irritated me. So, in an effort to block out their existence, I opened my newly acquired Spare Room—Yoko Ono’s artist’s book specially made for her Paris exhibit of Women’s Room. The passage I happened to open to made me think coincidence happens far too often to be a coincidence. “Next time you meet a ‘foreigner,’” came Yoko’s words, “remember it’s only like a window with a little different shape to it and the person who’s sitting inside is you.” These words of hers totally transformed my annoyance into compassion for these strangers on the train. And I was forced to realize that being an American living in France made me also a foreigner.
As soon as I got home I surfed the web for information on Cut Piece. In a 1992 interview, Yoko Ono tells Ina Blom that “Cut Piece is about freeing yourself from yourself. Like all artists, I have the tendency to give what I want to give. And I am defying that, in that piece. And it is a frightening piece to perform. Very tense. And because it was such an incredibly important piece for me, I took care of the details. In those days clothes were very important to me because I had so few. But when I performed Cut Piece I always made sure to wear my best suit. It was the total offering, you know, so that you wanted to wear your best suit for it. I lost my best suit every time I performed the piece.”
I surfed on to learn about Yoko Ono’s most innovative early works, which include her Instructions for Paintings. In these pieces she uses language—the words themselves—instead of a traditional art object, to provoke interactivity with viewers. The viewer must perform the instructions in order for the work to exist. Her instructions have the form of brief poems, uniquely her own. They are the thought they convey. The question is how the instructions are received and what the reader of them does to make them true: The instructions must be followed for the work really to exist.
Experiencing some of Yoko’s instruction paintings, which were shared on the web, inspired me to create an instruction painting of my own (for paper):
| POINT PIECE
Cut here > (———).
Put your hand under (or behind).
Stick your finger through.
Point at yourself.
Point at the sky (or ceiling).
Imagine no gravity.
While riding the keyboard like a surfer on waves, catching lots of great sites, I wiped out when the phone rang…and the quick download I’d tried for blocked. To my disbelief it was Phillip Ward. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “Yoko’s going to perform Cut Piece in Paris on the 15th.”
Phillip gave me the information needed to get on the guest list to participate in this hush-hush event. He said nothing would be announced until the last minute. Thanks to Phillip, chances were strong I would, after all, be one of those lucky people to witness and to participate in Yoko’s reprise of Cut Piece; which she hadn’t performed in nearly forty years, and in Paris. The wish tag I had hung on her Wish Tree dangled before my memory: To kiss Yoko.
A week later, there I was at the Théâtre du Ranelagh, watching Yoko’s 27-year-old son Sean Lennon and his girlfriend Bijou Phillips in the front row, just two rows ahead of me. People kept coming up and talking to Sean. He was quite amiable.
Then someone let Sean know it was time. He stood up, faced the audience, and introduced his mother. Everyone loudly applauded Yoko as she walked onto the wooden stage, over to a microphone placed on a simple, wooden stool, and gave a sweet smile. She picked up the microphone and, sitting down, spoke to us in perfect French.
“Imagine love,” Yoko said. “Imagine the sea.”
And I did. I saw us all as raindrops in a sea of raindrops.
“Imagine peace. Peace for you and me and all the world. Never forget love. I love you.” She paused, as if looking into the very essence of each of us. Finally, prepared to trust her life in our hands, she held out the scissors. “Allons-y!” she said (for “Let’s go!”). Setting the microphone to the left of where she sat, she placed the scissors in front of her—much like the action of a determined noble Samurai preparing for the deadly deed.
It alarmed me when several men jumped up from their seats and rushed over to the stage steps. Yoko was completely vulnerable in the middle of that bare stage. Fortunately a gentleman, standing near the steps, stopped them. Stationed directly across, at the steps leading down from the stage, was Yoko’s studio assistant exhibitions manager and curator, Jon Hendricks, who has worked with Yoko Ono for many years and is the author of the acclaimed book Fluxus Codex.
When Mr. Hendricks nodded an “all systems go,” the gentleman whose job it was to play gatekeeper allowed the first cutter to mount the steps to the stage. This first cutter, a middle-aged man, wasted no time in going for a piece of Yoko’s top, cutting a large fragment of material away from just above her breasts. The cutting of Yoko’s clothes off of her must’ve made the man nervous for, as soon as he had the piece in his hands, he dropped the scissors. A number of us 200 audience members gasped as the scissors hit Yoko’s knee, then bounced off to hit her foot.
Sean Lennon and his girlfriend Bijou Phillips were, of course, among the cutters. When Sean went up, he said something to his mother that made her smile, nod in agreement, and take off her black suede shoes. This seemed wise, since each shoe was secured to the foot by a single strap and most likely the only shoes she had in which to leave the theatre. She wouldn’t want anyone cutting them! Sean then, in a loving spirit of peace, cut a hole into the sleeve of his mother’s black top.
The routine rhythm of cutters “snip-snip-snipping” broke cadence when Yoko was obliged to stop a young woman who picked up one of Yoko’s shoes and began hacking away at its leather strap. By the time Yoko realized what the woman was doing, and said something to her, it was too late. The strap was hanging in two.
Watching the specific actions of various audience members, as I stood in line inching toward the stage, my mind wandered to what that guy had done to Yoko with the scissors in 1964. That action needed to be softened and made positive, I thought. But, presently, one woman hacked away rather brutally with the scissors, and another almost violently ripped her piece—as did a man who followed. It seemed they weren’t aware of the reasons for this performance. Why were they here demonstrating hostile actions in a demonstration for peace? I wondered. It’s about peace, not destruction.
They seemed oblivious to Ono and Lennon’s 1960s and 1970s offbeat peace protests, including the Bed-In For Peace against the Vietnam War. They didn’t seem to know about Yoko’s billboard in London’s Piccadilly Circus, which read: “Imagine all the people living life in peace,” a line from Lennon’s famous song Imagine. Maybe they didn’t even care that Yoko took out full-page advertisements in papers around the world on the eve of the war in Iraq earlier this year, saying: “Imagine Peace…Spring 2003.”
Yet Yoko remained loving (though understandably nervous) and dignified as some of these strangers, like cannibals, hacked away at her clothes. She merely sat on stage while audience members, one at a time, approached and picked up the pair of scissors lying next to her feet to cut off a piece of her black clothing. This was done fairly silently; the only thing to be heard was the occasional cough and the footsteps advancing and retreating.
Not long before it was my turn to go on, however, I became concerned about a man who approached her with doubled fists. He grabbed the scissors from the floor and hacked brutally at her skirt, tearing off a long enough piece to strangle her with. I doubt I’m the only one who became alarmed. He dropped the scissors, letting them loudly hit the stage, and stretched the piece tight in both hands. He stood over her, menacingly, pulling the piece tight then, lowering it toward her neck, suddenly turned away and walked off the stage. There was a sigh of relief in the crowd. He could’ve done it, you know. Yoko’s bodyguards, which no one saw, but I’m sure were nearby, weren’t close enough to stop him—unless they had guns, of course. Maybe that crossed his mind.
Eric Elléna, my publisher at French Connection Press*, eased the tension when he came on next and cut a piece from her skirt. At first I felt impatient with his taking longer than most to get a snippet of material…until he stood and displayed his cutting to the audience. He’d cut his piece in the shape of a heart, which lightened the heavy doom in the air and brought a laugh. From then on, the rest of the cutting off of Yoko’s dress went without a stitch.
At long last my turn came to be stopped by the “gatekeeper.” The two young women before me apparently had been in cahoots. The first went up and cut a piece of her own jacket—making a big show of this for the audience—then placed the piece on Yoko’s lap. Then her friend went on and held up a red Band-Aid for all to see. She made a show of picking up her friend’s piece of jacket from Yoko’s tattered lap, and band-aided the piece to the exposed area of Yoko’s heart (Yoko’s sexy black bra by this time fully exposed). I wasn’t sure how I felt about the dark piece of material stuck with the red Band-Aid to Yoko’s chest. It did look kind of avant-garde, the Band-Aid being red and all. But Jon Hendricks hurried onstage and yanked the Band-Aid off of Yoko to loud applause.
The “gatekeeper” wouldn’t let me pass until Mr. Hendricks was safely down the opposite steps, where he’d remain to make sure no one fell. When I was finally allowed to go up onstage, I couldn’t help smiling. There was Yoko Ono, sitting demurely on the wooden stool, her black lace bra exposed and her black silk-chiffon skirt a little gnawed at its ruffled edges. I felt such a tremendous love for peace radiating from her being. As I slowly approached her, I didn’t feel awe or goose bumps or anything but love. Love exudes from her energy. And I admired her for giving of herself so freely to the world…and for peace. In true Lennon-Ono fashion, in this world full of anger and violence, she spoke through her actions, saying, “Let’s give peace a chance through our active and visible demonstrations of love.”
I kissed her on her cheek, then knelt to cut a large enough piece to share with Phillip, as I’d promised. I chose part of a ruffle, which held another layer of ruffle beneath, thus making it difficult and prolonging the cutting. More than anything I wondered at the coincidence of it all. My wish on her Wish Tree had come true.
Back in my seat I was pleased to see other people go up and kiss Yoko. One gentleman kissed her hand. And then a tender moment came when a young man and young woman went up together. She cut a piece, then presented it to him. (The “instruction” was to cut a piece and send it to a loved one.) He then cut it in half. They each kept one half, then kissed before leaving the stage. I felt they clearly understood the meaning of Cut Piece. Yoko’s message is that although we each possess the scissors that make killing possible, we have a choice. We can choose love. We can put down the scissors. She says embrace each other. Don’t cut each other to pieces.
Of course the mood quickly changed as Yoko looked straight ahead and barely moved while a man dressed in a suit hacked a major piece off her skirt to reveal a large part of her thigh. A few minutes later one brazen young man sliced through the waistband, shearing off her skirt completely, taking nothing as he left. She sat there in her matching black lace panties and brassière, with the remains of her skirt draped over the stool beneath her.
There weren’t many of the 200 audience members who, by this time, hadn’t already had their chance to cut. The last ones of the line contented themselves with cutting pieces from what was left of her black silk skirt hanging on the stool. Well, someone was bound to cut her bra strap. This time, instead of a man practically raping her with the scissors, it was a woman who was nice about it. She only snipped one strap, as if what wouldCut Piece be without a cut bra strap?
For Yoko’s panties and bra to be cut off her, in the spirit of earlier Cut Piece performances, it would’ve been necessary for someone who’d already been up, to go up onstage again. They would’ve made a fool of themselves. Especially with Yoko’s son and his girlfriend sitting in the front row. And so it was in perfect taste and timing that Paul Jenkins (of Yoko’s Studio One) gallantly brought her a pink kimono. Yoko took her bows to a standing ovation, then retreated into the wings.
I couldn’t help thinking how Yoko Ono is the only celebrity of such magnitude who would ever have the courage to allow the public to come up and cut pieces of their clothes off. Not even for the sake of world peace would they do it. Yeah, Yoko’s a cool chick, baby. And as Eric Elléna and I left the theatre, I rubbed the black silk-chiffon of my piece of Yoko’s widow’s weeds and imagined all the peace contained in each piece of fabric cut that evening from her body.
Once more in front of the theatre, we looked up at her words on the huge posters, in French and English, displayed to inspire the world. On the posters Yoko Ono’s words read: “Following the political changes through the year after 9/11, I felt terribly vulnerable—like the most delicate wind could bring me tears. Cut Piece is my hope for world peace.” By allowing strangers to approach her with scissors, Yoko said she hoped to show that this is “a time where we need to trust each other.”
*Van Gogh’s Ear is published by French Connection Press (www.frenchcx.com)