by Maria Porges
If women artists live long enough, broad recognition for their achievements will eventually arrive. That, at least, has been true for Joan Jonas, one of the most important and influential figures to come out of New York’s early performance/video scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Jonas, 82, has always been well regarded, but a flurry of major shows and events in recent years have given her a new and well-deserved prominence. These include the Kyoto Prize for art in 2018, a full-scale retrospective at the Tate Modern (2015) and an installation (They Come to Us without A Word) that represented the U.S. at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The latter, reconfigured for Fort Mason Center, runs through March 10.
In five darkened rooms, each loosely organized around a specific theme (Bees, Mirrors, Fish, Wind), visitors can experience Jonas’ complex, multilayered combination of videos, objects and environments. Drawing on many of the motifs she has developed over 50 years, the artist immerses spectators in poetic, non-linear narratives in a dreamlike world populated with strange, beautiful objects and people. Videos show children dressed in white, interacting with other footage projected on walls behind them with voices matter-of-factly telling stories of spirits and ghosts. Mirrors appear frequently, as do masks, animals, sticks, tall paper cones and Jonas herself.
Like poetry, the artist’s installations take time to absorb, which you can do on benches provided for that purpose. Four of the rooms contain two screens – one wall-mounted, the other freestanding — onto which the artist’s videos are continuously projected. In these rooms Jonas has displayed some of the same objects (tall paper cones, ribbons and sticks) that appear in the videos. Other objects, along with drawings, also hang on walls or are suspended from the ceiling. Stories voiced by men and women over some of the scenes are taken from oral histories of the residents of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where Jonas has spent part of the year for decades. The overall experience evokes being inside the artist’s stream of consciousness — slipping from memory into dream, experience into invention. It’s a bit like watching a play from backstage.
In the first room, Rorschach blot-like drawings identify Bees as the theme. A second room dedicated to fish similarly reflects Jonas’ preoccupation with the depredations of the Anthropocene. Between rooms two and four, visitors cross from one side of the building to the other through a long rectangular space lined with mirrors, a prop/motif Jonas has used since 1968. A lightless chandelier hangs from the ceiling, casting trembling, rainbow-tinted reflections
from the faceted surfaces of its crystal pendants onto a wall onto which a video is projected. In the same space, a dizzying beach scene, shot with a GoPro camera attached to the artist’s poodle, plays on a knee-level monitor. (Jonas and the dog show up in other videos as well).
Wind is the theme of a fourth room hung with beautiful kites. These were made in 2013 by master kite maker Magoji Takeushi and painted by Jonas, who first spent time in Japan in 1970, where she saw Noh, Bunraku and Kabuki theater. (It was there that she bought her first video camera.)
In the fifth and final chamber, described by the artist as the “human room,” she alludes even more directly to the intersection of people with the environment. Enigmatically titled Homeroom, it features drawings of strange, starfish-like flowers. These turn out to be the work of the children performing in the videos. Though the stories being told are identified as “family tales rather than supernatural ones,” it is difficult to distinguish them from the narratives that unwind in previous rooms. The overall impression is of looking back: recording and remembering a world, experienced asleep and awake, that is all but lost. At times, it’s as if the children in white are emissaries from the near future, performing mysterious plays they no longer know the meaning of. These are rituals from a lost world that was populated by bees and fish in which folktales communicated handed-down truths.
Jonas’s installations, though clearly related to her performance work in both content and execution, have their own identity as independent works of art. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the performance and video work came first, laying the groundwork for the immersive experience that constitutes They Come to Us without a Word. Although trained as a sculptor, Jonas began doing performance and video within a few years of completing graduate school, often using herself as the subject. Still, her identity remains opaque. Even though a lot of her early work involved mirrors — in one early piece she minutely examines her own body with a hand mirror — she has stated that her work isn’t autobiographical. But why should it be? By making her place in the work clear, Jonas calmly refutes the expectation that video/performance work made by women can only be about women’s issues.
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“Joan Jonas: They Come to Us without a Word” @ Fort Mason Center through March 10, 2019.
Photos: Pei Ketron.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.