A few days ago I was at the launch of a new, local feminist magazine when I first experienced Yoko Ono’s performance-art, Cut Piece. I had never actually seen Ono’s original version and was intrigued as to how the reenactment would take place. A young woman, robed in deep green velvet, sat in the middle of a small stage and lay a pair of scissors in front of her. A pianist played Chopin in the backdrop, and we were told that the audience was welcome to come up at any time, take the scissors, and cut a piece from the performer’s dress to take with them. It was a quietly magical experience, with the classical music and stillness in the artist’s face casting something short of a spell on us. People approached the stage, one by one, in almost equal intervals to cut small pieces of the velvet dress, slowly shredding it and exposing the woman’s pale skin beneath.
The performer never bat an eyelid. She sat poised and frozen in place as her dress fell apart; even when an audience member dared to cut her bra. A frenzied whisper swept around the room and you could hear the audience’s shock in their stifled gasps. But, then I thought: Why was anyone so surprised to see this? Why was anyone so incredulous, appalled, stunned, or offended; when this kind of violation of a woman’s personal space and the objectification of her body happens everyday, right in our faces?
With the 41st anniversary of Roe vs Wade, there is a lot of talk about female bodily autonomy, and I got to thinking about Yoko Ono’s performance again. When we are increasingly told what to do with our bodies and what they should look like, here was a woman well ahead of her time, making a statement about female objectification by actually allowing the audience to “possess” her body and performance – her peace and lack of reaction only making her message more powerful. It was like reverse psychology. Ono demonstrated how she was trying to reclaim her own body by showing others voluntarily degrading it.
While most of us (hopefully) do not experience this sort of physical violation of personal space; we do still experience it on behalf of the media on a daily basis. As artist Petra Collins reminded us not too long ago, we are used to being told by society and the media to regulate our bodies to fit a kind of norm. We are constantly reminded what we should look like, never fully allowed to own our own body – just like the performer in Cut Piece.
The sad part is how desensitized we’ve become to this kind of message. Sure, in a context where educated, liberal students are allowed to undress a woman for the sake of art, we are somewhat scandalized when someone cuts off the other bra strap. But what about when the media prizes actresses more for their appearance than for their talent? Or what about female athletes who are regarded as fit bodies to gawk at rather than record-breaking achievers? Maybe it’s time to think about these things, and take a piece from Yoko Ono’s example.