Cut Piece (1964)
Performed by Yoko Ono, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, March 21, 1965.
Photographs by Minoru Niizuma “People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone.” —Yoko Ono
Around 1960, new terms like happening, performance, and action art began to be used to describe public appearances by artists who, with the intention of appropriating life through an action, performed different theatrical acts or events (with an open-ended, undefined structure, often without scripts or plots) to shake the foundations of social conventionalism and provoke their viewers. The experiential, intuitive works of Yoko Ono (b. 1933, Tokyo) in those years were viewed as a benchmark by other avant-garde artists and played a decisive role in this respect.
Since childhood, Ono lived with one foot in Japan and the other in the United States. This bicultural upbringing allowed her to develop an artistic practice that blended the weight of Eastern cultural and religious traditions with Western philosophical concepts. In fact, it was the Western world's newfound interest in the East that revolutionized international art in the 1950s and ʼ60s.
In 1960–61, Ono rented a loft on Chambers Street in New York's Lower Manhattan, a place where she could work in freedom and share her radical ideas with friends. There, with La Monte Young (b. 1935, Bern, Idaho), she organized concerts and events. It was in this setting that she met George Maciunas (b. 1931, Kaunas, Lithuania; d. 1978, Boston, Massachusetts), an artist, architect, and composer who was fascinated by Ono's ideas and founded the Fluxus movement shortly afterwards. Her ideas had a decisive influence on the genesis and subsequent development of this movement.
The members of Fluxus, bent on renewing music, theater, and the visual arts, staged performances and concerts, and made films that, picking up on Ono's ideas, could sometimes only be completed with the spectator's participation. The revolutionary postulates of these artists questioned the function of art and the artist and the relationship between artist and audience. Their fundamental premise was rooted in the idea that anyone could be an artist, and therefore art was something of and for everyone. These artists explored the relationship between art and life and between object and action, forever altering traditional conceptions of the artist and the work of art.
Ono gave her first performance of Cut Piece (1964) in Kyotoin July 1964. She sat motionless on stage in a traditional Japanese feminine position, and invited members of the audience to cut a piece of her clothing away. Through this action Ono offered an intimate encounter with herself, where the audience was able to experience the sensations of anguish and pain that silently emanated from the action of cutting her clothes. Ono commented that she wanted her participants "to start to see things beyond the shapes ... [to] hear the kind of sounds that you hear in silence ... to feel the environment and tension in people's vibrations ... the sound of fear and of darkness." With this performance, she wanted to reveal the violence which, though often silent and subtle, pervades the society we live in.
Ono also participated in the revolution against conventional cinema and music in the 1960s. Her films and concerts are based on simple ideas. The moving pictures that show isolated, minimalist actions, using cinematographic devices in an austere, experimental way, achieve highly poetic effects by enveloping the viewer in a meditative aura. Eye Blink, Fluxfilm No. 9 (1966) shows the artist's eye making a single blink, and Film No. 1 (Match Piece), Fluxfilm No. 14 (1955/1966) is a close-up shot of a match being lit and burnt out.
Ono studied music from a young age and was taught to carefully listen to the sounds of everyday life, which she inscribed in her musical alphabet. In the performances and events organized by Fluxus, sounds were particularly important. Before Fluxus, Ono practiced a kind of talking chant accompanied by poetic texts, recited alone or with others, and sounds that displayed her extraordinary vocal range. Today she maintains certain characteristics of her performances from that period to create her own inimitable musical style.
- Yoko Ono, “Statement” from “Biography” (1966), published in The Stone, Judson Gallery, New York (1966). Reprinted in YES YOKO ONO, exh. cat. (New York: Japan Society Gallery and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2001), p. 28.
- Ingrid Pfeiffer, “Bringing the World into Balance,” Yoko Ono. Half-A-Wind Show. Retrospective, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Mar. 14, 2014–Sept. 1, 2014), p. 27.
- Jon Hendricks, "Yoko Ono and Fluxus,” Yoko Ono. Half-A-Wind Show. Retrospective, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Mar. 14, 2014–Sept. 1, 2014), pp. 53–54.
- Yoko Ono, quoted in Alexandra Munroe, “Spirit of YES: The Art and Life of Yoko Ono,” YES YOKO ONO, exh. cat. (New York: Japan Society Gallery and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2001), p. 28.
- Pfeiffer, “Bringing the World into Balance,” p. 28.
Watch an excerpt from the film Cut Piece (1964) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYJ3dPwa2tI.
Describe what you have seen to someone else. Who appears in the film? What are they doing?
How is the artist seated? Why do you think she chose that pose?
Ono commented that she wore her best dress even though she was nearly destitute at the time. Describe her clothing. Why do you think she chose to wear that? Observe the expression on Ono’s face as they cut away her dress. Express the feelings you think her face may convey. How would you describe the attitude of the participants?
Listen to the soundtrack of the recording. What seems to be the prevailing atmosphere in the auditorium? Ask each of your students to define it in a single word and write that word on a piece of paper. Have them exchange the pieces of paper and ask them to read each one out loud and say whether or not they agree with that particular word.
In Cut Piece (1964), there is no sound other than background noise, and yet sounds are very important and can even be understood as music. Discuss the value of silence, sounds, or a musical melody while an event is going on.
How would you feel if you were in the artist’s place? How would you feel if you were one of the participants? What do you think about audiences participating in works of art? Why do you think Ono wants the audience to participate in this action?
Using recorders, have your students go hunting for sounds in the vicinity of the school. Ask them to record different sounds, such as the rushing water of a river, ocean waves, traffic on the street, air, wind, and even sounds that can’t be heard, like the sound of a flower or the sound of the sun. Have them keep a field journal so that each sound can later be identified.
Back at school, have each student play back the sounds s/he recorded for the class and explain what they are hearing. Try to interpret these sounds as audible poems, and have the students explain the feelings that each sound elicits in them.
Prepare an activity in the school auditorium or your classroom, and invite all students to participate.
Set up a table on the stage with an assortment of everyday objects (bottles, spoons, papers, stones, marbles, pens, a package of cookies, a watch, a ticking alarm clock, etc.).Arrange some chairs behind the table so that participants can sit down in an orchestra-like formation. Invite the students to choose an object and take a seat. Once all the chairs have been taken, have the students shake, strike, and make as many different sounds as they can with the ordinary objects. Document the activity using a recorder or video camera.
Afterward, play the recorded action and have students comment on the end result and the feelings they experienced.
This activity consists in having the students shoot short videos (a few minutes at most) that zoom in on the eyes of a classmate. While recording, the subject will be asked to smile and make faces expressing anger, amazement, boredom, etc.
Once all the footage has been shot, show the videos to the class and notice how the eyes change with each different facial expression, and also observe the differences between the students’ individual faces. Have students share what they feel or perceive when viewing the images.
Action Art: An artistic practice involving public appearances by artists where various theatrical actions or events, often without a script or plot, happen at the same time. These actions are associated with provocation and frequently aim to shake the foundations of social conventionalism and draw a connection between art and life by exploring human behavior.
Fluxus: Began in the U.S. and spread to Europe in late 1961 and to Asia in 1962. Developed around figure of George Maciunas, Fluxus was an attitude, a subversive style that challenged institutional interpretations of art. Artists experimented with the relationships between the visual arts, poetry, music, dance, theater, and more radical forms of expression, such as actions or happenings. Elements of chance and humor played a central role.
Happening: An anti-narrative theatrical piece staged in a studio, gallery, or offbeat location, usually with direct audience involvement. These actions incorporated found and manipulated objects and live or electronic music, sometimes in elaborate constructed environments.
• Happening/Performance art/Action art
• Cut Piece (1964)