Simon Sheppard performing Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece"

In August, I attended an afternoon of performances at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They were based on pieces by Yoko Ono, the subject of a major show at the museum. This performance called “Cut Piece” was the most memorable of the lot. As I was later to discover from watching a video in the galleries, it was an almost exact recreation of a performance Ono first gave in New York in the nineteen sixties in which she sat motionless on stage, a stopwatch and pair of scissors in front of her, and invited any member of the audience who wanted to to come onstage and cut off a portion of her clothing from anywhere they wished.

When Keith Hennesy originally invited me to perform at tonight’s program, it had been scheduled for the evening of November 22nd, which is the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. At that time, back in 1963, (and decades of painted-on-black-velvet tributes later) it was generally agreed that with that single, shocking act of violence, history had been forever changed. Since then, of course, greater and greater levels of unexpected violence have become part of the background noise of our collective life. Sudden death, whether of Martin Luther King in Memphis or thousands at Ground Zero, has changed history again and again.

Eventually, the date of the performance was moved a day later, to tonight the 23rd, which fucked up the JFK reference, but by that point I’d already started thinking of the vulnerability of the body and its impact on history. Yes, people make history, but the voids opened up by absences can change history as well. It’s like those holes found in the solidified volcanic muck of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Human-sized holes where the flesh has long since dissolved, leaving only the whispers of negative space.

Cut Piece was about many things, or might have been. Watching a woman sitting on stage as her clothing was being shredded by strangers had a political aspect, of course, though the instructions for the piece stated that it could be performed by a man, too. But there was also an intensely personal aspect to the piece. The woman sitting motionless on the museum stage seemed both courageous and self-absorbed, a combination of brave vulnerability and artsy egotism. When most of us think about Yoko Ono, we think of a shrieking, caterwauling woman. But as one person after another, including me, went up and sliced off pieces of the woman’s blouse and skirt, the piece became suffused with an eerie sort of silence.

On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered on the streets of New York, just a mile or two from the World Trade Center. Plenty of rock and rollers had died before, of course, and many have died since; from Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain, pop musicians seem to have mortality rate right up there with suicide bombers. But for those of us who lived through the sixties, Lennon’s death in particular had a terrible finality about it. Even if, like me, you’d found Lennon increasingly irrelevant and artistically disappointing, his death was an affecting moment. There were memories of John and Yoko posing naked for an album cover, John and Yoko in bed for peace, and though Lennon had famously cheated on her with a younger woman, now Yoko-as-widow seemed to be be possessed of a terrible, stoic grace.

Unlikely as it might seem today, when J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t trying on frocks, he spied on John Lennon because of the Beatle’s opposition to America’s war in Vietnam, a war that began, in fact, during the Kennedy Administration. If a psycho’s bullet hadn’t ripped into Lennon’s flesh, who knows what he’d be doing today. Perhaps he’d be a leader in the opposition to the Bush Administration’s plans for war on Iraq. Or perhaps he’d be doing nostalgia tours and, like the Clash, licensing his music for Jaguar commercials. It’s hard to project from a lack, from a space where a body had been.

When I was young, Yoko Ono seemed mostly like a joke to me, a self-absorbed, precious performance artist, and the woman who broke up the Beatles, to boot. But there I was at the museum, deeply affected by her art. For one thing, compared to a lot of the self-referential, theory based art that came after her heyday, Ono now seems as easy to take as Rembrandt. Then too, when you’re young you believe in irony. When you get older you disc over irony has its limits. The show at the museum was unexpectedly jammed with people. And it was full, her art was full, of sweetness. And guess what? Sweetness really isn’t such a bad thing after all.

When I started writing this piece, I’d just been to a huge antiwar rally in the Civic Center. The day before, Senator Paul Wellstone, the only senator up for reelection who’d voted against the Bush war machine, had died in a plane crash. Now he was just another absence. As I walked thorough the crowds, I overheard a young man and woman, young enough to be my kids, singing “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

Maybe give peace a chance isn’t all we’re saying. No, of course not. As a reggae song by Peter Tosh points out, everybody is talking about peace, but we also need equal rights and justice. Oh, the vagaries of fate and flesh and history. By simply sitting on a stage and letting strangers denude her, Ono made herself radically vulnerable, though in a highly circumscribed and theatricalized context. One of the things Cut Piece may say, then, is “Take away my externals, take away what you want, but I, my body, remain.”

Queer men, of course, have always been acutely aware of the vulnerability of flesh. Getting fucked up the butt opens up what we’re told should be kept tightly closed to the outside world. Another man’s cock fills the negative space within the ass, which can be read as a metaphor for the emotional truth of the matter...or not, as you prefer. HIV, the viral version of the World Trade Center attack, has conferred another sort of vulnerability, but that’s all too obvious, now isn’t it? And we queers are also open to the awful vagaries of history. Paul Wellstone dies in a plane crash, the Senate goes Republican, Bush packs the Supreme Court, and queers lose rights, all because of a snowstorm in Minnesota. Well, it didn’t happen just that way, though it did happen. It was both more than that and not really, but you know what I mean. So what the fuck can one do but occasionally sit, impassive as the Buddha, and let loss take its toll?

Well, there are lots of things to do, of course. When the audience had stripped the woman at the Museum of Modern Art down to her bra, one brave but foolish man walked up on stage and snipped a bra strap. The woman immediately folded her arms across her breasts, an unexpected moment of modesty. It wasn’t till later, when I watched the video of Ono’s original performance, that I realized she’d done the same thing, protecting her so-called private parts. Perhaps odd, considering she posed naked for the cover of the Two Virgins album with Lennon. Perhaps not.

From the moment we’re born till the moment we die...before we’re born, actually, and after we die...our bodies are constantly changing. As Lord Shiva never hesitates to point out, having a physical body is all about change. Sometimes I love my body, a sturdy companion, a source of pleasure. Sometimes I hate it: why couldn’t I have been given perfect genes instead of a high waist and hair on my back? How dare my body remind me of how vulnerable my life is, of how little, really, time I have left? And that’s assuming that a Republican-spawned war or some drunken, cellphone talking idiot in an SUV doesn’t bring things to a decidedly sudden end.

Sometimes I feel like crying.

Sometimes I feel like coming.

All we are saying is give peace a chance.

And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Be well.

                                                                                     copyright 2002, Simon Sheppard

cut piece