In 1964, two years before a chance encounter turned her into an instant celebrity and altered many people’s perceptions of her art, Yoko Ono performed for the first time what has probably become her most famous work. In Cut Piece Ono sat on a stage in a traditional Japanese female pose with a pair of scissors next to her and invited members of the audience to step forward and using the scissors cut parts of her clothing from her. She repeated the performance in 2003. The films of these two performances are currently on show at the Serpentine’s Ono retrospective facing each other in a small room alone. It is striking when viewing these two films together how time and circumstance can alter a performance as outwardly simple as this.
The 1964 film is black and white and has the look of being filmed by a (talented) amateur. The woman seated on stage is young and beautiful and looks vulnerable and unnerved. She gazes blankly into the mid-distance passive and immobile. To view the film is an uncomfortable experience. As a viewer (voyeur) we are complicit in the sexualised violation of a young woman. The glee with which some of the male participants literally cut strips off her is incredibly disturbing. Cut Piece (1964) is a powerful work of feminist propaganda. Ono once said of it: “this is what all women go through every day.” It discusses sex, gender and power relations brutally and explicitly. It is a stunningly successful work of art.
By contrast, Cut Piece (2003) is a very different performance. Professionally filmed and in colour the subject is a completely different woman. Ono is now old, famous and very powerful. The vulnerability has all but gone. Only through the strange transgressed taboo of seeing an elderly woman being stripped nearly naked does the work retain any emotional power. Ono is at all times strong and in control. The performance is more a celebration of Ono’s celebrity than a radical work of art. It has become the equivalent of an aging rock band playing their greatest hit to a stadium of devotees. You can take nothing away from the artist for having written such a classic song, but you really wish you’d seen it performed in a small club back when it was fresh and exciting and youthful.