The Mistress of Wishes

What Yoko Ono meant

A performance of ‘Cut Piece’ in New York in 1965.
01 March, 2012

IN 1964, A SLENDER, ROUND-FACED YOUNG WOMAN knelt silently on a stage in Tokyo, Japan, as members of the audience came up one by one to snip away bits of her clothing.

The event was entitled ‘Cut Piece’, and the 31-year-old artist on stage belonged to a well-connected Japanese family that had emigrated to the US. Though her family objected to her artistic career, she became a singer-songwriter, acted in avant-garde films, and designed and performed in other live-art presentations, all in relative obscurity. Two years after she first enacted ‘Cut Piece’, however, she was catapulted to the pinnacle of fame by her association and eventual marriage to John Lennon of the Beatles.

She was and is, of course, the legendary Yoko Ono.

The artist was in New Delhi recently to open two shows featuring her work. The pieces in Our Beautiful Daughters were created exclusively for exhibition in India, while a parallel show, The Seeds, is a retrospective. Curated by the Vadehra Art Gallery at their Okhla and Defence Colony exhibition spaces, the two shows mark the first occasion Ono is presenting  her works in India, and only her second visit to the country.

Two original DVD films are projected onto facing walls in a single room at Vadehra’s Defence Colony gallery. A black wooden bench sits in the middle of the room, and though each of the two films has its own soundtrack, it is impossible to pay attention to either one without being made aware of the other. Separated by a period of 38 years, the films depict two separate performances of ‘Cut Piece’. The first, nine minutes long and in black-and-white, was filmed in New York in 1965. The second, at 16 minutes, is in colour, and was filmed in Paris in 2003.

‘War is over’, photographs from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s campaign for peace in 1969, and ‘Sky TV’, Ono’s only video work, from 1966. BRIANA BLASKO / YOKO ONO

Both films are remarkable for what they show, what they hint at and what they reveal about audiences and their responses to an artist. When the black-and-white film was taken, Ono was a minor talent, though she must have gained enough attention for the event to have been recorded. In it, her straight black hair is drawn over the right side of her head, covering one ear, and is secured in a bun at the nape of her neck. Though she maintains a mask-like impassivity, her tension and discomfort make it clear that the session is an ordeal. She sits with her legs neatly folded to one side, supporting herself with her left hand on the floor, fragile as a porcelain doll.

In a participatory art performance, the audience is typically told what it may do. In the case of ‘Cut Piece’, there was a simple directive: “CUT”. As viewers of the films, we might wonder at the audacity of the cutters, those invited vandals who picked up the scissors and exposed the artist’s flesh. But was Ono a masochist who wished to be humiliated? Or was she a provocateur, stripping the audience of its faith in itself, exposing the viciousness within? Do the cutters believe they’re participating in art? Or are they merely enjoying their chance to slash at a woman, in public, on film?

Some of them are smiling, in particular the wiry young man with curly brown hair who takes it upon himself to slice away the top of her slip, revealing the white bra beneath. The woman beneath his hands remains perfectly still, only her eyes flicking. We can sense her apprehension, even though we can also say to ourselves, “She asked for it, didn’t she?” As the young man shifts around behind Ono, her eyes betray her concern. “She didn’t ask to be humiliated,” a second voice says in our heads. “She gave the audience a pair of scissors and told them to cut. But they could choose to disobey her. They could honour her modesty.” Just then the young man lifts away the flimsy cloth he has cut, and, smirking slightly, snips first one then the other strap of her bra.

The Paris film is different in a number of ways. Ono is 70, and clearly a venerable presence. Many of the audience members who come onstage greet her with a nod or a light touch, which she acknowledges in slight ways. Facing towards the audience with her hair in a short, curly bob, and wearing mauve-tinted glasses and a faint, fixed smile, she sits not on the floor, but upright in a chair. Her knees and calves, as they remain neatly together throughout the performance, are astonishingly youthful. She is vulnerable here too, and the scissors flash dangerously in the hands of the sometimes inept audience. Yet, as her layers are snipped away, leaving her at the end of the film in only her bra and panty, she gains rather than loses strength. Her exposure is as if a powerful light is being released from under its shield. At the end she is resplendent, with her concave stomach, her fearlessness and her poise. Look at me, she says with her silence, the more you take from me, the less I have to lose.

‘Freedom’, a one-minute film, was first shot in 1970.

On the floor above this room there’s another room in which three films are screened in a loop: FreedomFly (1971) and No. 4 (Bottoms) (1966). The first time I visited the gallery for the show, Bottoms was in progress and I sat down on the wooden bench against the wall to watch, not realising it was 80 minutes long. As one of the voiceovers during the film says, it is one of the most boring films anyone is ever likely to see. All we are shown is a succession of bottoms—naked, in black-and-white and in such tight close-up that the sides of the person’s body remain virtually unseen. The behinds appear without a break and with no transition effects from one person’s bum to another. The camera is stationary, while each owner walks on a treadmill.

Meanwhile, the soundtrack chatters away as a number of different voices talk about the film—about participating in it, about meaninglessness and beauty. Some of the voices are recognisable: Ono is clearly among them, and so is Lennon, now and then. Around the half-hour mark, we hear a transcript of Ono being interviewed on the BBC in preparation for the film’s debut on TV. The interviewer wonders out loud whether the entire film is a highly contrived joke. Ono answers in her earnest schoolgirl voice that she’s being perfectly serious and it isn’t a joke at all.

‘Bottoms’, is an 80 minute film from 1966.

Is she telling the truth? It’s very hard to tell.

I set myself the task of watching the whole thing. Not all at once, I admit, and not all on the same day, but eventually I succeeded in seeing both terminal points. Because of multiple viewings, I soon realised that it was quite easy to recognise the bottoms even after just one viewing. Each walker appears for 20 seconds and not one is repeated. The least memorable behinds are those that are absolutely smooth and featureless. The most memorable have blemishes, lots of hair, are creased in funny ways, and in one case, has a small but highly noticeable growth, like a tiny white Mount Fuji, sprouting on its lower left lobe. Perhaps three-quarters were men, identifiable not merely by the hair on the cheeks and backs of the legs, but also by the shifting view of dangling appendages on the other side of the body.

Some have fuzz all over. Some are so nakedly hairless they look like they belong to adult newborns. Some are so taut there’s no space whatsoever between the continuously churning cheeks of the walkers—even the upper part of the legs appear to be so tight that it’s difficult to imagine the person wearing trousers. Others are loose enough to offer a glimpse of the mystery of folding skin as it smooths around the curves only to tuck itself abruptly underneath the body and out towards the front. Such is the extraordinary power of illusion that within a very short while, not only do our eyes cease to think of bottoms at all, but the flesh itself dissolves and reforms itself into a type of dough, gently kneaded from within by a pair of massively labouring pistons.

Several times, I found myself wanting to giggle, realising that my mind was being toyed with by someone who knew, at the time she made the film, that anyone who owns a bottom would inevitably feel and think very similar things. For instance, we might be reminded of the bottoms we have seen up-close; of the smells associated with bottoms; of the end-point of the alimentary canal and, by association, the entrance gate as well; of the fact that men and women both have bottoms; that there’s something satisfyingly democratic about the rear end of any living thing, because we all have them—kings and queens, athletes and fashion models, thieves and beggars alike. The simplicity of the visual and its effectiveness in getting under the viewer’s defences was something I found playful, innocent and sophisticated, all at once.

Fly is in colour, and is a pure and very visual journey into the extremes of experience as a small black fly explores the length and breadth of a young, beautiful and very naked woman, lying spread-eagle on a bed. During the film, Ono provides a continuous soundtrack, using her voice to produce an astonishing range of sounds, from buzzing like a fly trapped behind a screen to mechanical croaks to utterly alien shriek-growls. The fly provides a virtuoso performance, including an amazing three-minute nonstop workout of every one of its six limbs plus both its wings, while posing on the top of the model’s tender pink nipple. Here and at several other sensory nodes of the woman’s body—her lips, her eyelids, her ear—the exquisite torture caused by the fly’s tickling presence creates an unbearable tension that would otherwise only be offered by a murder mystery: Come on, lady! Slap the creature away! But she barely twitches.

We see the entire body of the sleeping model—or is she comatose?—only at the very end. She’s lying on a bed in front of an open window and we realise that there are at least six flies, not one. Where before we admired the little questing insect, now we feel a faint revulsion, as if the supine body might be a corpse and the tiny adventurers, perhaps, morgue attendants.

‘Freedom’, a one-minute film, was first shot in 1970. MINORU NIIZUMA / YOKO ONO

Freedom is very brief—a spare minute in length—and all that we see is a woman wearing a shiny purple bra as she struggles, in vain, to rip it off.

AT BOTH EXHIBITION SPACES, and at 20 sites around Delhi, Ono has planted Wish Trees, one of her long-term projects. The trees are live plants, onto which participants are invited to attach white labels with hand written wishes as well as their name and the date. Ono has set up Wish Trees around the world, and all of the wishes will eventually be collected and buried in the ground beneath the Imagine Peace Tower, a memorial to John Lennon, that beams  ‘a tower of light’ up and out of Iceland.

‘Wish Tree’, Ono’s long-term public art project. BRIANA BLASKO / YOKO ONO

The trees and other participatory pieces are Ono’s methods of insisting that her audience be engaged with the work. This is most obvious with the main installation, at Okhla, called Remember Us. Presented in a dimly-lit room, 15 troughs are arranged in two rows, with 15 headless female corpses of varying ages, shapes and sizes, including one swollen with pregnancy. The limbs and bodies are fashioned out of soft silicon and the audience is invited to stroke the bodies and to strew ash upon them from the three bowls provided in the room. At night, these bodies are covered with cheerful, embroidered shrouds created specifically for this show by Rajasthani craftswomen from the Urmul campus.

Yoko Ono creates ‘Remember us’ at Vadehra Art Gallery. BRIANA BLASKO / YOKO ONO

On the second floor of the same gallery are other participatory pieces: ‘Smiling Face Film’, in which visitors add their smiles to a continuous record of happy faces by stepping into a video booth. ‘Mend Piece’ involves gluing together shards of pottery scattered on a table. ‘My Mommy is Beautiful’ provides a number of wall spaces on which visitors are invited to write tributes to their mothers.

The exhibit, because of the sheer number of pieces it contains, requires of the viewer a length of time and concentration that is exhausting. As a visitor, I found that I could expend a small part of my attention each time I came, and I will admit that I still have a distance to go. At Ono’s press conference at the Imperial Hotel, one of the remarks she made stood out from the rest. Looking intensely at the audience of journalists and photographers in front of her, she said something to the effect of: “I know it may not seem possible, but I know all of you really, really well. I can see all of your childhoods and understand all of your thoughts ...” There was no follow up to this astonishing statement and no one asked her to explain the remark.

Yet days later, with each successive visit to the galleries, I feel I am slowly gaining an insight into what she may have meant. She may come across as an almost childlike ingénue, and yet, for all that, I am starting to see her now as a complex, enormously compassionate and intensely focused person, who has spent the greater part of her life using the minds of her audience as her canvas.

Let me say that again: Yoko Ono is an artist for whom we, the viewers and visitors and participants, are the canvas. What we get out of the work has more to do with what we bring to the gallery than about what we see there. Our responses are the end product, yet they can only be experienced in the solitude of our own minds. Her work lifts a curtain on the infinity of our own hearts. If we’re lucky, we’ll learn to see the stars within ourselves.