By Ann Collins
January 22, 2020
Since the 1960s, Yoko Ono has been making performance work of great complexity and emotional depth. Ephemerality is a hallmark of performance art, but many of her pieces have been captured on film through the decades, providing audiences at least one portal for repeated viewings. In her 2016 piece, Yoko Ono Through a Lens, writer Ann Collins meditates on one of these filmed performances, Cut Piece (1965). Collins encapsulates the drama, the tenderness, and the potential for violence that are all inherent to Cut Piece, which was documented by the famed filmmakers Albert and David Maysles at the time of the artist’s creation of it. In so doing, Collins questions the very nature of “documentary” as she meditates on what is—and is not—recorded on film.
—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief
Before there is picture, there is sound: a cough, a murmur, the stirrings of people in a large room. Film leader rushes over the screen, then cuts to a man crouched with his back to the camera. He puts something down in front of him and steps away, revealing a young Yoko Ono. Neatly dressed in a dark cardigan and short skirt, she sits demurely on the floor with her knees together, her legs curled behind her, her hands resting in her lap. A woman enters the frame, picks up the object the man put down—a pair of scissors—and kneels beside Ono to cut a strip of fabric from her sleeve. Once the woman exits frame, the camera zooms in to a close-up of Ono’s face. Her gaze is soft, fixed on an unseen point in front of her. As another woman picks up the scissors and trims the cardigan’s shoulder, Ono glances towards the ceiling; a flicker of unease disrupting her composure.
The year is 1965. Yoko Ono is perched on the stage of the recital room at New York City’s Carnegie Hall to perform Cut Piece, a work in which she invites audience members to cut her clothing and keep whatever scraps they snip away. Ono relinquishes control over the performance’s outcome, surrendering to the unpredictable actions of the participants. She does not resist even the most assertive participant as she silently allows her garments to be cut off of her. Even her status as a solo performer yields to the collaborative nature of the work, which complicates the boundaries between control and compliance, action and passivity.
A black-and-white film of Ono’s Cut Piece was projected on a loop as part of Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, her 2015 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. Directed by Albert and David Maysles, this documentary complicates and deepens our relationship to Ono’s work. Cut Piece the performance examines the evolution of a victim/aggressor relationship. Ono fascinates in her meditative submission to those who choose to slash her clothes with increasing enthusiasm. We watch as her passivity cultivates a gentleness in some volunteers—one woman carefully snips off a button at the bottom of her cardigan—but emboldens others, mostly men, who pick up her scissors and make aggressive cuts at her hem, her neckline, and her breast. One man in particular meets her silence with belligerence, acting out amidst chuckles from the audience off-screen. At the same time, Cut Piece the film questions the supposition that documentaries are objective recordings of events. A work of art in its own right, the nine-minute reel sketches a narrative centered on a heroine who designs and endures her undoing. Although we in the present are safely separated from the Carnegie Hall event by time and space, we remain—along with her 1965 audience—voyeurs of Ono’s undressing.
The Maysles observed Ono’s performance, but unlike Ono’s audience, their role was not to actively participate in its outcome, but to bear witness to it. Best known for their groundbreaking documentaries Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1976), the Maysles played a crucial role in the Direct Cinema movement, a style of filmmaking in which the film crew did not manipulate recorded events in any way. Instead, they employed cinematography and editing to shape real events into complex but universally recognizable stories. In Cut Piece, one of the Maysles’ earliest works, their unobtrusive style enabled them to neatly mirror Ono’s process of allowing events to unfold without her interference while at the same time, the directors framed her in ways that clearly expressed their interpretation of her work.
In the late 1960s, the invention of lighter cameras, faster lenses, and more sensitive film stocks transformed the documentary genre. Filmmakers could move more freely around their subjects, capturing images in environments that would have previously required bulky and intrusive lighting setups. Excited by these new developments in cinema, Albert Maysles re-engineered his 16mm camera so that it could balance on his shoulder with ease. When he wanted, he could tilt the lens down and look over the camera casing to make eye contact with his subject, connecting with them in a way that wasn’t previously possible. While filming Cut Piece, he was able to quietly move around the stage with his camera now little more than a discreet appendage.
Two minutes into the film, the camera swishes away from Ono as Albert climbs off the stage to find David, who holds the clap sticks that will allow the picture to be synchronized with the sound. There is a slate. David’s voice says, “That’s number one,” and the camera turns off. When it rolls again, Albert is behind Ono, level with her shoulder, looking from her perspective at the black wall of audience. A man ascends the steps of the stage, and as he cuts a square of fabric from the bottom of her skirt, the camera arcs around to Ono’s side, following the scissors as the man lays them on the ground. The camera then pauses on a close-up of the scissors, her knees, and her slashed skirt. This footage documents the man’s action, then stands as a perfectly composed still image that encapsulates the entire performance: the scissors act as a metonymy for those who have made vulnerable a body modestly covered by clothing.
As the camera rises and descends, circles around and gets in close, Albert exceeds his task to merely document, extending Ono’s work beyond the realm of performance and into that of cinema. He does not direct what happens, but continuously moves, adjusts, and responds to what he sees, dancing around Ono in ways that capture not just her experience, but also his own. Like the audience participants, Albert is given full access to Ono on stage, but there is a difference: his camera does not take giddy pleasure in the artist’s performance, but frames her tightly, brings her in close, and uses his camera to create empathy. His choices of movement, vantage point and proximity give us more than a mere record of the event; they compose images that elicit compassion for a young woman stripped of her clothing, exposed. He holds our eye on her. In one moment, he allows her face to fill the frame; in another, he zooms out and stands away from her so that she appears a tiny huddled figure alone in a large space.
Albert shoots to cover the scene from every possible angle, capturing moments that can later be distilled and rearranged in the editing room (although the Cut Piece footage remains unedited and is screened with slates and lab leader intact). When he films, the position of his camera and his choice of framing express his point of view as a cinematographer. As his camera lingers on Ono’s eyes, as it follows a hand moving to her waist, it communicates the sensitivity of the observer as much as it captures the ordeal of the one observed.
Seven minutes into the piece, a young man mounts the stage. He slashes the front of Ono’s chemise and severs the shoulder straps of her slip and bra. Someone in the audience hisses. A man’s voice says, “Make this a piece for Playboy!” Ono trembles. She holds the ribbons of her garments in place over her breasts. Here the film stops. The screen goes black. Why the documentary ends where it does is unclear. The uncut footage runs nine minutes. Albert was most likely shooting a 400-foot magazine of 16mm film, which would yield twelve minutes of footage. Did he turn off his camera out of some sense of decency? Did Ono choose to omit the remaining footage?
Whatever the reason, one experiences a small shock when one realizes the film has ended despite the performance’s continuation. The black screen shuts us out of knowing how completely Ono’s clothes were cut, and also leaves us with nothing to consider but our own curiosity. No picture, no sound. Only an awareness that we are standing in a museum gallery, where the film loop will return us to the beginning, to the first take when Yoko Ono is, once again, wholly dressed and seated on stage before the camera, ready for her performance to begin.