Fragments of cloth, lost and found: Remnants of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece.

cut piece Kyoto 1964

Cut Piece, performed by Yoko Ono in Kyoto 1964.

Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece has been variously described as a generous act of giving, a feminist critique, and an invitation to violence. Ono first performed the piece in Kyoto in 1964, following her ‘score’ (an set of instructions for performing an art piece):

Performer sits on stage with a pair of scissors in front of him.
It is announced that members of the audience may come on stage-one at a time-to cut a small piece of the performer’s clothing to take with them.

Performer remains motionless throughout the piece.

Piece ends at the performer’s option.

cut piece london 1966

Cut Piece, performed by Yoko Ono in London, 1966.

Cut Piece has since been performed by Ono herself in Tokyo, London, New York, and finally Paris in 2003. Numerous other performers have also presented their own interpretations. In 1968 John Hendricks, Ono’s exhibition manager, carried out the first male performance Hendricks performed the piece in his capacity as guest instructor at the “Semester In New York”, as part of the students’ induction to the course. He invited his audience of students to cut fragments from his suit, “as a kind of leveling of the student-teacher relationship” [1]. The performance acknowledges that, by being denuded, the instructor is stripped of some of his power, and that students, in their capacity as cutters, gained their own power and authority. Male performances such as this render obsolete the feminist readings of Ono’s own performances, instead expressing messages about the depowerment.

Ken Little is among many artists who have preformed Cut Piece. This performance took place in Texas in 2007

Ken Little is among many artists who have preformed Cut Piece. This performance took place in Texas in 2007.

Ono’s own interpretation of the piece also did not initially feature feminist ideals. Ono has herself confessed to having no notion of feminism at the time of her first performance [2] and Concannon observes that feminist readings did not begin to emerge until Haskell and Hanhardt’s 1991 book Yoko Ono: Objects and Arias. Ono herself began to explore feminist interpretations in her later discussions, prompted by critics and interviewers.

Yoko’s own interpretation of the piece was as a Buddhist act of “giving”. “I felt that I was willingly sacrificing myself”, recounts Ono [3]. The artist’s use of the term “sacrifice” seems to equally reference giving and taking, acknowledging that giving necessarily deprives the giver of something precious. Ono wore her best suit for the performance, conscious that it would be a more generous gift, and a greater sacrifice, than if she had worn a more disposable garment.

Ono’s gift to her audience was the fragment of cloth that each member removed from her body. In the 1965 performances, audience members were invited to keep the fragments that they removed. In the 1966 performances, participants fixed their fragments to a canvas at the side of the stage, producing a secondary collaborative output [4]. In 2003, in an effort to reignite peace movement in the in the wake of 9/11, Ono requested that participants give their fragments to loved ones in gestures of reconciliation [5]. In each case, the piece is extended beyond the initial performance as the fragments are distributed and redistributed, and so Ono’s act of giving is extended beyond the confines of the performance space.

Cut Piece Paris 2003

Cut Piece, performed by Yoko Ono in Paris, 2003.

Very little has been written about what happened to these fragments of cloth. Though Ono’s suit was her most valued item of clothing at the time of each performance, that value is lost as the suits are destroyed. The fragments instead adopt a new kind of value as mementos of the event. Johnson speculates that the fragments may have been “cherished as souvenirs or discarded as scrap” [6]. Some participants in the Parisian performance have preserved and displayed their souvenirs as evidence of their proximity to the notorious artist and widow of John Lennon (see, for example, Ian Ayres’ proud display of his fragment on his blog, alongside the sough-after ticket that allowed him access to the private event, pictured below).

One fragment from the 1966 performance found its way to the Tate gallery’s archive, and went on display in the exhibition Art Under Attack (2 October 2013 – 5 January 2014), a collection documenting 500 years of “assaults on art”. The exhibition firmly positions the fragment as the relic of a destructive act: it is exhibited alongside the remains of destructive art performances and the subjects of religious desecration [7]. The Tate’s setting equates Ono’s actions, or those of her audience, to vandalism. The attacks on each of the artifacts displayed in the exhibition sought to destroy its value and reduce its power over audiences. In this respect, Cut Piece could be presented as a violent protest against the superficiality of dress, or to undermine the powerful influence of the fashion system.

fragment cut piece

A fragment from the 2003 performance of Cut Piece, preserved by audience participant, Ian Ayres.

References:
[1]  Hendricks, cited in Concannon, K. (2008), “Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’: From text to performance and back again”, The Journal of Performance Art 30(3), p. 91.
[2] Rhee, J. (2005), “Performing the Other: Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece”, Art History 28 (1), p. 90.
[3] Ono, 1974, as cited in Concannon, Op. Cit., p. 89.
[4] Rhee, Op. Cit.
[5] Concannon, Op. Cit., p. 82.
[6] Johnson, C. (2014), “Performance Photographs and the (Un)clothed Body: Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece”, Clothing Cultures 1(2):
[7] Cumming, L. (2013), “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm – review”, The Observer [online]

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