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Reading Rämistrasse #88: Brit Barton on Yoko Ono at the Kunsthaus Zürich

In one of the seminal artworks of the 20th century, artist Yoko Ono sat stoically on a stage and instructed her audience to take the scissors in front of her and cut a piece off her clothing ­– a gift, she said, for you to keep. It was Tokyo, 1964: just over ten years after the Korean War, in the midst of the Vietnam War, and at the height of the Cold War. Relations between East and West were charged with a tension that gave urgency to Ono’s artistic practice. The artist ­– initially in Tokyo, Kyoto, a year later in New York, then London, and finally Paris in 2003 – has performed Cut Piece by herself and directed others to much acclaim and analysis. There is a multitude of takes from feminist theory to Buddhist philosophy, but ultimately when we talk about the early days of performance this is usually where we start.

For most, Cut Piece doesn’t exist as a performance but as a video. The Maysles Brothers are credited for taking the iconic 1965 footage at Carnegie Hall in New York, the first work for visitors to the current retrospective, Yoko Ono: This Room Moves at the Same Speed as the Clouds, at the Kunsthaus Zürich. Technically, it’s the second work: a monumental white banner hangs in the great hall, with IMAGINE PEACE in black capital letters. It’s a familiar sentiment for the anti-war activist but a reminder that not only is the world confronted by a war on European soil in Ukraine, but that the artist has to negotiate the fact that This Room inescapably sits opposite the disgraced Bührle collection. The exhibition, however, is a pleasant mix of comparatively little-known work, archival pieces, and a thoughtful examination of the Fluxus movement. But it is always about the performances with Ono, and Cut Piece was put on for one evening as part of the Kunsthaus programme. This time it was re-performed for the first time in Switzerland by London-based Chinese performance artist Xie Rong, who previously performed the work in Leipzig and was chosen by Ono.

The ticketed performance wasn’t sold out, but there were easily fifty or more people at the beginning. Xie Rong sat center stage under a single spotlight and after the initial instructions were given, the palpable anxiety from the audience lasted only a minute. A steady string of men made their way to the stage, at times lining up behind one another. The initial snips were timid, in common with the Maysles’ video: a small bit from her skirt or jacket’s lapel. Thirty minutes passed by rather quickly and despite the slow nature of the piece, the audience remained fully engaged.

An hour into the work, the mood shifted dramatically.

As the audience began to be more familiar with one another, softer and simple gestures became few and far between. Several parents took their toddler children onto the stage and encouraged them to cut more, waving their pieces to the crowd, and returned repeatedly. Another person circled the artist, examining which piece might be easiest or maybe most rewarding to have. Those of the audience that were sitting in the back rows were now standing or had gathered around the perimeter of the room, craning their necks to see every cut. Despite the fact that the performance has withstood so many interpretations in the last fifty years, it really boils down to the colonization of a foreign woman’s body. Though I had seen the video, talked, or read about Cut Piece many times, I wasn’t prepared to be disgusted by such an aggressive audience or ultimately to witness Xie Rong's breakdown on the stage.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, Kunsthaus Zürich, 2022

Foto: Nelly Rodriguez

There was an obvious moment of pause and a collective silence that was probably more of an attempt to discern if this was the end of the performance. After five minutes or so, the audience began again, only this time with a mix of acts in an effort to either soothe the artist or themselves; some cut their own clothing, or hair, or offered their jacket or shirt in order to cover her. But other members of the audience – all male, brash and frustrated – countered and assertively removed any added piece of clothing that was covering the artist and continued to cut. Several clapped in appreciation to get the performance back on track. One man kissed Xie Rong’s forehead. I left after an hour and half, never having gone to the stage.

It lasted until 8:40, over two and half hours. As a witness to an action ­– one that has been performed or taught over and over again – I would have never anticipated the immediate level of caustic ownership by an audience. I am still horrified.

Yoko Ono, This Room Moves at the Same Speed as the Clouds, Kunsthaus Zürich, 4. März–29. Mai 2022

Reading Rämistrasse

Geht der Raum für Kunstkritik verloren, müssen wir handeln. Deswegen schaffen wir diesen Ort für Kritik – Reading Rämistrasse – auf der Webseite der Kunsthalle Zürich und veröffentlichen Rezensionen zu aktuellen Ausstellungen. Diese geben nicht die Meinung der Kunsthalle Zürich wieder, denn Kritik muss unabhängig sein.

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