Joan Jonas, Mirage, 1976, scene from the performance which combined
video, performance, objects, and drawings. Anthology Film Archives,
Photo: Babette Mangolte
Joan Jonas, Mirror Piece 1, 1969, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson,
Photo: Joan Jonas
Joan Jonas, Lines in the Sand, 2002, installation,
screen shot of "Pillow
Talk", Documenta 11, Kassel.
Photo: Werner Maschmann
Joan Jonas, Lines in the Sand, 2002, performance, Documenta 11, Kassel.
Photo: Werner Maschmann
From America: Joan Jonas
by Carolee Thea
new strategies and languages for negotiating artistic expression,
critique, and concern continue to evolve, some older models are
holding their ground. Performance art, for example, has been a
volatile art form in which artists have responded to current concerns.
It is a strategy that generates ideas and reexamines the contemporary
from new viewpoints. In the sixties, performance was considered
a permissive activity for formal and intellectual excursions to
reveal new layers of meaning. In the words of RoseLee Goldberg,
the curator and historian of performance, “performance art …retains
a tentativeness that allows the obsessions of our cultural moment
to seep from the edges.” (1) Considered transgressive, performative
works counter the familiar, formal and social goals with their
assumption of a non-material primacy over the aesthetic. In many
cases, the work explored various realities across the divide of
high and popular culture while, through enigma and ephemerality,
it aimed to upset routine bourgeois thinking.
For several decades, in inquiries using the body gender, sexuality
and materials from other cultures, the pioneering artist, Joan Jonas
has continued her work, often out of view. At present, teaching media
and performance at MIT she has been frequently invited to do exhibitions,
mostly in Europe. Recently, however, she was invited to compose a
new work for The Moore Space in Miami, Florida and to participate
in her first USA retrospective at the Queens Museum in New York City.
As well, Jonas’ first New York performance in over a decade
revisits the myth of Helen of Troy at The Kitchen, a space that since
the seventies has been a leader in presenting performance, dance
and multimedia visual culture.
In her complex installations that include drawing, poetry, sculpture,
film, video, performance and dance, Jonas analyzes and re-synthesizes
the action and interaction of the performing body and its transformations.
In her own words, “I didn’t see a major difference between
a poem, a sculpture, a film or a dance. A gesture has for me the
same weight as a drawing: draw, erase, draw, erase—memory erased.
(2) A storyteller or rather a picture-builder, she imbricates cultural
and mythological epics with personal narrative, video, and other
media. In most of her work, as early as MIRROR PIECE (1967,) Jonas
examines space and perceptual phenomena while merging elements of
dance, Japanese Noh and Kabuki, drawing and sculpture.
By employing live projections, single channel video, and asynchronous
picture and/or sound sequences, Jonas reveals the manipulative potential
of film and video techniques. In her groundbreaking video, VERTICAL
ROLL (1972,) an interrupted electronic signal causing a vertical
roll on the monitor was transformed into a formal device to dislocate
space and fracture recorded image. For WIND, a 1968 work, Jonas focused
on a group of performers moving through a stark, windswept landscape.
Her performers struggle over and over with their fluttering coats,
battling the gusts. The 16-mm film, silent, black/ white, jerky and
sped up evokes early cinema, while its content locates it in late-sixties
Minimalism. (The camerawork and editing was done in collaboration
with Peter Campus.)
In SONGDELAY (1973), another early performance film, Jonas is concerned
with stripping down the medium and foregrounding the figure and its
ritualistic movements in space.
VOLCANIC SAGA (1987,) begins with rituals of the everyday that the
artist links to myths, sagas, and fairy tales. Based on the thirteenth-century
Icelandic Laxdeala saga, the work is a narrative reverie, a televisual
retelling of a medieval myth about a young woman (played by Tilda
Swinton) whose dreams foretell the future. Shot in the dramatic natural
landscapes of Iceland and in New York, the performance-based work
uses ancient dream analysis as a starting point for a densely textured
tale in which the young woman’s interpreter (played by Ron
Vawter) hears her dreams and sees their meaning. Jonas employs multilayered
digital effects to create a ritualistic dreamscape of the young woman’s
imagination and desires. The ghostly overlays of otherworldly images
and mythical text imbue this work with a haunting beauty.
The principal structuring element of Jonas’ work has been the
simultaneity of live performance and video imagery; by switching
back and forth and shifting the gaze, one mode or object supplements
the other. Borrowing narratives or poems, objects, cameras, bodies
and movement, the artist creates a patchwork of the esoteric and
mundane to reveal symptoms of the present.
Continuing to accommodate a widening inquiry into familiar patterns
of narration, in 2002 Jonas created a work for “Documenta 11” based
on an epic poem in confrontation with the disjunctive tensions of
our postcolonial world. While much of the artwork in Kassel concentrated
in a documentary mode, a significant number of artists sought ways
of translating the moment into the kinds of languages necessary for
shaping the production of new and different forms of knowledge to
complement the contemporary upheaval of received realities and ideas.
In that work, LINES IN THE SAND, the artist took as her starting
point “Helen in Egypt, “ an epic poem by H.D., the Imagist
poet Hilda Doolittle. The canonical Helen myth, based on the tale
of war fought at Troy for a woman stolen from the Greeks, has for
centuries been preferred over a lesser-known version in which Helen
remained in Egypt the whole time and never set foot in Troy. The
true cause of the war was thus disguised by a more romantic, appealing
and palatable idea that dissimulated the actual reality of a brutal
In H.D.’s poem, Helen continually questions the reality of
her own myth, and Jonas questions the cause of wars in general. In
the case of Troy, Jonas surmises that the likely reasons for the
war could be found in the more mundane ongoing tensions between Greece
and Troy over access to trade routes in the Black Sea.
More material for the weaving of LINES IN THE SAND was found by Jonas
in H.D.’s writing sessions during her analysis with Freud,(as
recorded in her book, Tribute To Freud,) in which the poet examined
with Freud, aspects of her “peculiar” experience of writing
on the wall while recuperating in Corfu from her divorce from the
poet Richard Aldington. In her performance, Jonas entwines the performative
act of wall-writing with the Helen myth, while also incorporating
a text from yet another culture. Within this text, as a play within
a play, the artist inserts the ancient Irish epic, the Tain, a tale
embedded in the larger hero-cycle of Cuchulliain. Building her own
narrative, she incorporates a multilayered reality alongside the
Helen myths—a shadow of a shadow. For example, in the segment
titled Pillow Talk, a newly wed Irish king and queen are in bed discussing
which of them has the most possessions. Their often humorous dialogue
echoes the trade wars between Greece and Troy while demonstrating
how personal arguments over possessions begin at home. In drawing
these two myths together, Jonas enacts the political and the personal
while intimating the contemporary.
The performance aspect of Jonas work embroils us in the mirror world
of vertiginous realities. Jonas develops her own emblematic and striking
visual and theatrical vocabulary by synthesizing ritualized gestures
and objects like masks, costumes and mirrors. The back-and-forth
of the artist drawing on the ground or walls with chalk attached
to a branch, and performers in masks and costumes enacting stylized
dance-like repetitive moves, contrast with the monitors projecting
a glut of oversized imagery which includes; digital patterns, shadows,
sarcophagi being pulled by trucks (in a reference to Egypt as a postmodern
Las Vegas.) and audio contrasts between Erik Satie and rock music.
Combining past myths with the present, Jonas juxtaposes time and
idea to create more tensions for the viewer who, meandering through
a set comprised of monitors, drawings and objects, gradually untangles
Paralleling the interactivity of modern life, as in the play of virtual
reality or cyberspace, Jonas’ work offers the illusion of constant
movement and refocus, as an implied action between gazer and other,
to create restless motion in a fragmentary dream. As a participatory
game, the artist’s work involves us in ways that are subliminal,
challenging and assaulting. Yet, within her systematically constructed
grounding, the multi-layerings gain directness, as their intensity
and uniqueness transport us through time and place.
Finally, LINES IN THE SAND, plays out a kind of scenario in an intelligible
format and political language that attempts to highlight the political
upheavals in contemporary society. While Jonas’ signature contribution
is ephemeral, it enhances re-cognition of ideas that intellectuals
and artist, both inside and outside the “advanced” economies,
continue to grapple with.
1. RoseLee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art since 1960 (New York:
Harry Abrams, 1998, p.11.
2. Joan Jonas, Scripts and Descriptions 1968-1982, ed. Douglas Crimp
(Berkeley: University Art Museum/Eindhover:Stedelijk Van Abbemusuem,
1983 p. 137