Yoko Ono’s art of defiance

But Maciunas was a conscientious organizer—a problem, since he happened to work with avant-garde artists, the kind of people who don’t like to organize. For years, he tried to round up those cats. He opened the FluxShop, where Fluxus art—mainly cheap plastic boxes filled with odds and ends—could be purchased. (The entry business was not brisk.) At one point, he made plans to buy an island and build a self-sufficient Fluxus community on it.

The island venture did not come to fruition, but Maciunas would eventually realize his idea by purchasing and renovating abandoned buildings—more than twenty of them—in downtown Manhattan for artists to live and work. The Enterprise destroyed it. He was sued by the tenants because the renovations weren’t up to code and the attic couldn’t pass inspection, and he was badly beaten by goons hired by one of his creditors. In the mid-Seventies, he fled the city for a farm in Massachusetts, where he died of cancer in 1978. But he was born in SoHo. It would become, in the nineteen eighties, the world capital of contemporary art.

Maciuna’s slogan for Fluxus was “Cleanse the world of ‘Europeanism’!” and at Fluxus’ West German debut in 1962, a grand piano was smashed to pieces. Ono, who was invited but declined to attend, had not wanted to break the piano. “I’m not someone who wants to burn the ‘Mona Lisa,'” she once said. “That’s the difference between some revolutionaries and me.” But she shares something with Maciunas. She is a utopian. She would be happy if the whole world could be a Fluxus island.

In 1962, Ono returned to Japan. She found that the Japanese avant-garde was even more radical than the New York avant-garde. There were many new schools. The most famous today is Gutai, which originated in Osaka in 1954. Like Fluxus, Gutai was a kind of low-tech performance art with everyday materials. One of Gutai’s earliest works was “Challenging Clay,” in which the artist jumps into an outdoor pit filled with wet clay and thrashes around for half an hour. When it comes out, the clay form is presented as a work of art.

Ichiyanagi had returned early – the marriage was falling apart – and he arranged for Ono to present a concert at the Sogetsu Art Centre, in Tokyo. Outside the hall, she mounted what she called “Instructions for Paintings,” twenty-two pieces of paper taped to the wall, each with a series of instructions in Japanese. The instructions resembled some of the art created by young artists in Cage’s circle in New York—for example, Emmett Williams’ “Voice Piece for La Monte Young” (1961), which reads in its entirety, “Ask if La Monte Young it’s in the audience, then the exit”, and Brecht’s “Word Event”, the full score for which the word “Exit” is.

Inside the hall, with thirty artists, Ono performed several pieces, including some he had done at Carnegie Recital Hall. It’s unclear what the audience reaction was – Brackett says it was enthusiastic – but the show received a bad review in a Japanese art magazine from an American expatriate, Donald Richie, who mocked Ono for being “old-fashioned”. “All her ideas are borrowed from people in New York, especially John Cage,” he wrote. This was not an attack by an unintelligible traditionalist. This was an attack from the cultural left. Ono was traumatized. She was placed in a sanitarium.

But when she got out, she picked up where she left off. She remarried Tony Cox, an American arts promoter and counterculture type, and in 1964, she published her first book, Grapefruit, a compilation of event scores and instructional pieces:

Piece of sun

Look at the sun until it becomes a square.

Fly Piece


Collection of part II

Break a contemporary museum into pieces with the tools of your choice. Gather the pieces and glue them back together.

These are like Brecht’s “Word Event”, but with a big difference. “Word Event” was intended to be performed, and artists found various ingenious ways to implement the “Exit” instruction. Ono’s parts cannot be performed. They are instructions for imaginary acts.

In an essay in a Japanese art magazine, she invoked the concept of “fabricated truth,” meaning that the things we create in our heads (what we want to have for dinner) are as much our reality as the chair in them. which we are sitting. “I think it’s possible to see the chair as it is,” she explained. “But when you burn the chair, you suddenly realize that the chair in your mind has not burned or disappeared.”

What Ono was doing was conceptual art. When conceptual artists came forward in the late nineteen sixties, her name was practically never mentioned. She does not appear in the art critic Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s essay, “The Dematerialization of Art,” published in 1968. But she was one of the first artists to do so.

In 1965, she returned to New York and, in March, had another performance at Carnegie Recital Hall, New Works of Yoko Ono. This was the New York premiere of her best work, a really big piece of art, “Cut Piece.”

The performer (in this case, Ono) enters fully clothed and kneels in the center of the stage. Next to her is a pair of large scissors – fabric scissors. The audience is invited to come on stage one by one and wait for a piece of the artist’s outfit, which they can wear. According to the instructions, Ono later wrote, “The performer remains stationary throughout the piece. The piece ends at the performer’s option.” She said she wore her best clothes when doing the job, even when she had little money and couldn’t afford to spoil them.

Ono had performed “Cut Piece” in Tokyo and in Kyoto, and there are photographs of those performances. The New York performance was filmed by documentarians David and Albert Maysles. (Brackett, curiously, says that the Maysleses’ film, rather than a live performance, is what people saw at Carnegie Recital Hall.)

In most events and event art, the performers are artists or friends of the person who wrote the score. In Cut Piece, the performers are unknown to the artist. They may interpret instructions in unpredictable ways. It’s like giving loaded guns to a room full of strangers. Ono is small (five-two); scissors are large and sharp. When members of the audience begin to cut the fabric around her breasts or near her crotch, there is a real sense of danger and violation. In Japan, one of the cutters stood behind her and held the scissors above her head as if impaling her.

The score called for Ono to remain expressionless, but in the film you can see the fear in her eyes as audience members continue to climb onto the stage and stand over her holding scissors, looking for another place to cut. When her bra is cut off, she covers her breasts with her hands – pretty much her only movement in the entire piece.

Immediately, “Cut Piece” is a concrete interpretation of the striptease that men are said to perform in their heads when they see an attractive woman. It weaponizes the male gaze. Women participate in cutting, but this is because it is not only men who are part of society that objectifies women. The piece is therefore classified as a work of feminist art (made at a time when almost no one was making feminist art), and clearly it is.

But what “Cut Piece” means depends largely on the audience it’s being performed for, and Ono originally had something else in mind. When she performed the piece in Japan, a Buddhist interpretation was possible. It belonged to the “Zen tradition of doing what’s most embarrassing to you and seeing what you think and how you deal with it,” she said.

The piece also derives, Ono said elsewhere, from a story about the Buddha giving whatever people ask of him, until he eventually allows himself to be eaten by a tiger. Ono offered everything she had to strangers – which is why she always wore her best clothes. “Instead of giving the audience what the artist chooses to give,” as she said, “the artist gives what the audience chooses to receive.”

In 1966, Ono went to London to participate in the Destruction in Art Symposium, where she performed “Cut Piece” twice. It was not read as a Buddhist text at those events. Word of mouth after the first performance led to the second being mobbed, with men eagerly ripping off all of her clothing, even her underwear. This was Swinging London; everyone assumed the piece was about sex. After London, Ono did not perform it again until 2003, when she did it in Paris, sitting on a chair. This time, she explained that the work was about world peace and a response to 9/11.

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