François — Journalisms — Imagining this Piece — 10.06.03

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Journalisms — François — Imagining this Piece — 10.06.03
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Imagining this Piece
by François Bucher
Every once in a while an event, an action, an image signals a problem in a way that is definite in your mind, absolutely pointed. You realize that without this image (I underline the fact that it all gels in an image, not so easily in a word) you wouldn’t be able to address with such precision, the issue that has been stalking you. This week in Paris the image was Yoko Ono. The image was the image of New York, and the image of Paris, and the image of New York that Paris holds, and the image of something that we vaguely call “the left” (or of the things that we refer to as “liberal positions”); and the image of something that we call “the Art World”. Your thought pauses, and some passion is ignited, the magma of your ideas finds the place of its combustion, a slight opinion becomes a radical position.
I am invited to go to a Yoko Ono performance in a theater near the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. That much I know, and I am aware of the fact that it is a part of her exhibition in that museum. In the back of my mind I also have the knowledge that she is revisiting a piece from 30 or 40 years ago: “Cut Piece”. I am not quite aware of how it goes, but I quickly put the pieces of information together as I advance in the line; from the comments that I hear from my friends, from fragments of conversations and from the questions of a TV crew to the people in the line about how dated this performance is, or isn’t. Two men approach me: one asks to buy a ticket from us (he seems to suggest that he will pay any price even if we didn’t buy our tickets ourselves. I see him later on the stage cutting a piece of Yoko’s dress in a posture that one couldn’t call anything but “of devotion”).
Another man hands me a piece of paper that I glance at and put in my pocket. Another paper is also handed to me (I couldn’t say by whom) and I also glance at it. It seems to me that they both have the same text in different versions. Both are signed Y.O. The smaller paper, handed by the man, specifies something that the other doesn’t, that the letter signed Y.O. appeared on September 12, 2003 in Le Monde. Later that night I read the backside of the paper, which I had ignored, it was an angry retort to Y.O.’s open letter.
In we go. People are excited and effortlessly elegant. The theater is a cozy Parisian venue with a lot of wood carved details. The lights go off, the waiting is very long, silence, squeaking chairs, coughs, self-conscious giggles. Then Yoko Ono comes out and says something in a heavy English accent about imagining peace and some other awkwardly spoken prescriptions. Then she sits there waiting for the public to come and do their thing like they did 40 years ago. I’ve never seen the documentation of the piece as it was performed the first two times, and I haven’t really been thinking of what it is that will actually take place, so it takes me by surprise.
First let me try to paraphrase the text that was printed in big posters all throughout the lobby of the theater; the same text that we received in those two flyers that I mentioned. The text talks about the fragility that she felt at the time of the political changes following 9.11. She says that she was touched by people who acted as human shields in Palestine. She says that she almost joined them. I pause when I read this. Could there be something more tactless than to publicly say that you would have been a hero but something held you back? Then she mentions the girl from Seattle who stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer that ran her over, leaving her dead on the ground. She says that girl stood for all of us. She says that “Cut Piece” is her hope for World Peace, that she first performed it in anger and now she does it for love.
Having covered the elements I want to look at two performances taking place at an interval of 40 years. I can’t speak about the piece as it was performed the very first time in Japan in 1964, because I could never grasp all the connotations of “Cut Piece” in a Japanese context. They would exceed by far my interpretation tools. But I can imagine and interpret the piece as she performed it in New York in 1965, a year later.
Roughly 40 years ago a young angry Japanese girl used a symbolic action to speak about the vulnerability and the historic turbulence of her condition under the lines of race and gender. She exposed herself to the public in an action of self-objectification and self-endangerment that must have been very moving and powerful in activating all sorts of sociopolitical tropes. The Vietnam war was beginning, the rumors of the atrocities in Asia were only skin deep, and here was an Asian woman handing scissors to an American public that would be made to feel, bodily, their direct implication in the actions of their government that was ravaging the people of Vietnam. Let alone that she is Japanese and the history of those two countries is even bloodier. Furthermore, she probably didn’t have to contextualize her action, because the image could “speak” it all directly, and its metaphor was ready to be set forth in the consciousness of the participants in all kinds of ways. Performance, as a genre, was fresh, at least in that particular incarnation; still indomitable, still somewhat resisting reification. So were scissors and nakedness and intimate interactions with the public.
And now the piece that we saw yesterday: A celebrity arrives in a black night gown, driven in a limo, performs in a central Parisian theater and heads back again to her Hotel, in a kimono, followed by her son Sean in another limo. Meanwhile he has directed and organized, like a traffic policeman, the public that is eager to come close to his mother. His mother is a larger than life icon of popular culture who has made herself available to a carefully calibrated Art World public (the event was not publicized for obvious reasons, it would be reckless to give scissors to the general public and offer a Parisian psycho the celebrity status that a celebrity killer has. Many dream of being a Trivial Pursuit question).
But we are still in the moment before the “public” from the theater comes on stage. What follows is a succession of Art World and Fashion World Parisian local and international figures that come on stage practicing their best catwalk skills solemnly kneeling in front of the greatest celebrity of them all, as they whisper things in her ear as one would in a confessionary, while they cut little pieces of the expensive looking black night dress. She sits there like a priestess of the Art World and the Fashion World who is sacrificing a cherished dress for her fans to have invaluable relics when she will have passed away in splendor.
I can only try to imagine the lack of perspective that a position like that of “being Yoko Ono” must produce after the years. I never had anything against her image, it was frozen firstly in the hopeful nakedness of her activism with Lennon and secondly (I speak within the chronology of a Colombian teenager deciphering the New York ecology) in her work as a Fluxus artist. I didn’t even have such a strong image of her Lennon-related legal battles, as included in the two lines by which the Pariscope summed her up this week. But I was frankly dispelled by the lack of introspection of her actions, by how unable she was to read herself as a sign of the culture, when restaging her action. If anything can be seen as an inevitable billboard of the last century, without having to resort to Heraclit, is that there are no such things as mere translations, that the birth of the reader is at the cost of the death of the author. Borges could have written his “Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote” on this particular restaging. It doesn’t matter that it is the same woman in this case. Because in all truth it isn’t the same woman, and it is not the same piece, and the second piece is extremely thoughtless especially in the way it was contextualized. The main reason being that it pretends to be dangerous and politically active, when it is doing very little more than talk about celebrity fetishism. You can’t have it all, and you can’t jump over your shadow: if you are Yoko Ono today, you can no longer be at the same time Rachel Corrie; and an appeasement of that private conflict in public will look like an absurd gesture of false consciousness rather than the frank stance of a veteran politically-minded artist.
Lately, in New York I have been involved in many conversations around the issues that this event gelled in my mind. I don’t have to go into them because of the clarity by which this summons them up. If “Cut Piece” was necessary in the exhibition to complete an overview of the work of Yoko Ono, either because she or the curator of the show, felt it needed to be included, then I think it was necessary to keep it in a kind of “autonomous” platform of the Art World: a particular language game where pieces and actions of the present are in dialogue, with pieces and actions of the past, in the intricacies of their Art Historical developments. But to actively seek a proximity of this action and that of Rachel Corrie dying under an Israeli tank is the ultimate prescription for all the “political” art of big heroic gestures that stands completely divorced from any real politics… that is… outside of the politics implicit in being a part of the Art World. I am sitting in that theater, that makes me a part of that world; so this is not intended to present a “hollier than thou” position. But I believe it is healthy to ask, what is the left? If this is the left, or if this is associated with the left; and to think how much has been taken in from the philosophical questions of the last century both around representation and the political. And to ask also if we can imagine peace in the void, or if it is necessary to be very clear on what ground that proposal is standing.
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