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  • Yoko Ono’s Cut PieceFrom Text to Performance and Back Again
  • Kevin Concannon (bio)

Art is inexorably bound up in the situation where it is produced and where it is experienced. You can emphasize this, or you can emphasize where it is produced or experienced: you can even equate them, and emphasize the equation. The relationship exists in any case, and, either as artist or as audience, we are in a situation analogous to a swimmer who may fight the surf, dive through it and struggle against it until he gets out beyond where the surf is noticeable: or else this swimmer can roll with the waves.

Dick Higgins, Postface (1964)1

The seemingly sudden and recent popularity of reprise performances of live artworks of the 1960s and 1970s has been greeted with an equally abundant supply of critical analysis, much of which frames these events as “reenactments.” Such is the case with Yoko Ono’s 2003 performance of her 1964 Cut Piece. It was performed by Ono on at least six occasions and by others many times more. The first two performances took place in Kyoto and Tokyo in July and August 1964. The third performance was presented at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York City in March 1965. And the fourth and fifth performances were offered as part of the Destruction in Art Symposium presentation of Two Evenings with Yoko Ono at the Africa Centre in London in September 1966. While Ono “directed” later performances of the work, these were—until September 2003—the only confirmed occasions on which she herself publicly performed it.

In these first performances by Ono, the artist sat kneeling on the concert hall stage, wearing her best suit of clothing, with a pair of scissors placed on the floor in front of her. Members of the audience were invited to approach the stage, one at a time, and cut a bit of her clothes off—which they were allowed to keep. The score for Cut Piece appears, along with those for several other works, in a document from January 1966 called Strip Tease Show. [End Page 81]

Cut Piece

First version for single performer:

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.

Second version for audience:

It is announced that members of the audience may cut each other’s clothing.

The audience may cut as long as they wish.

And in the 1971 paperback edition of her book, Grapefruit, Ono included not so much a score as a description, concluding with the statement that, “the performer, however, does not have to be a woman.”

In her catalogue essay for the 2005 exhibition, Life, Once More: Forms of Reenactment in Contemporary Art, Jennifer Allen characterizes Ono’s 2003 performance of Cut Piece as a “reenactment,” and imputes to the artist rather grand ambitions for the event.

In September 2003 at Paris’s Ranelagh Theatre, Yoko Ono reenacted her own Cut Piece as an expression of her hope for world peace . . . . One could argue that the original performances of the sixties and seventies needed to be reenacted in order to catch up with the spectacle, in order to be reproduced, in order to exist. Ono’s intervention seems to differ since she decided to reenact Cut Piece, not for an exhibition, but for the mass media, and not merely to ensure the continued existence of her work, but in order to make a difference in the present. In France, the organizers placed a full-page advert for the event with a statement by Ono who described her intervention as a response to the political changes in the wake of 9/11. Her statement appeared around the world for a little bit longer than fifteen minutes. It seems that Ono hoped that her performance would reenact the peace movement of the sixties on a global scale. In this case, the reenactment searched for a lost totality, not...