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Joan Jonas: Five Works

For the first time in New York, the Queens Museum of Art is presenting a large-scale exhibition of the artist Joan Jonas. In art history texts, Jonas usually falls into the category of “video artist.” A pioneer of experimental video, her contribution to the field was properly acknowledged by the prominent inclusion of her work in last year’s Video Acts at P.S. 1. However, as anyone familiar with Jonas knows, the videos—while compelling in their own right—are just one element of a bigger project. Jonas made them for, or as part of, large performances that she put on throughout the early seventies, hybrid explorations that involved dance, theater, sculpture, painting, and drawing.

Joan Jonas, Organic Honey's Visual Telepathy; Organic Honey's Vertical Roll, Installation, 1972/1994. Collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

She came to New York in 1965 with a background in poetry, sculpture, and art history. In the early years, she danced with Judson and worked at the Green Gallery (where Oldenburg, Whitman, and Morris, among others showed), and generally befriended the downtown avant-garde scene. It was a time when the strident divisions between disciplines were breaking down, and from the beginning Jonas’s work was a fusion of multiple mediums. In particular, she created staged performances where video was a defining element. Sometimes previously made videos were shown; frequently, a camera would capture the artist and relay the image on a monitor set on stage. The audience was confronted with a double reality of two simultaneous live performances, one in three dimensions and one in two.

Often, as in the P.S. 1 show, viewers are given only the video half of the experience, a record of an event that is simultaneously tantalizing and frustrating. The Queens show aims to rectify this situation. Five Works (though in fact there are more) reunites some of the more familiar early videos with the props, costumes, mirrors, and sounds of the original performances. In addition, more recent works—which are based around linear narratives (folk tales and poems)—are recreated as theatrical tableaux. Jonas considers her work to be an evolving project, and sees each installation as an organic re-contextualization of the first viewing state. She designed the entire Queens installation and achieves, improbably, the vitality that must exist in live performance. Each installation feels like an active event of today, not a relic from an untouchable, nostalgia-filled past.

Moving from work to work, each scene is guarded by heavy curtains. Props are clustered in groups of differing sizes, and at differing heights. Photographs, paintings, and drawings vie for attention on the walls. Videos or tapes act as soundtracks to enliven the sculptural masses. And mirrors serve as the integral, binding element, turning the spectator into performer. All of this makes for a constantly shifting pace, and dynamic, animated looking.

As example, in “Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy” (1972), one small mirror, perhaps 8” x 10”, leans against the wall. Its skewed angle captures a scene that includes drawings of Jonas’s dog Sappho, the green silk dress that Organic Honey wore, video cameras, monitors, and photographer’s lights. The frame captures the usual retinue from Jonas’s early days—Organic Honey was her “erotic electronic seductress,” a sexily clad, ultra-feminine mystic who was the antithesis of the boyish, low-key attire of Joan’s everyday and the star of her early work. Today, the symbols exist at two levels. One as a series of elements to be explored by the viewer individually, and two as the concise essential scene of the past captured in the mirror.

Moreover, stuck in the middle of the room, the viewer is caught by the mirror’s reflection: physically, he or she is drawn into the staged environment and becomes part of a narrative that is both shared (with the artist) and unique. The creation of a space where performer and viewer alike could coexist in parallel worlds was an important element of Jonas’s earliest works. Her first formal pieces were dance series titled the Mirror Pieces, in which performers either carried or wore mirror panels while they moved. The costumes from these—a spare black suit and Amish-like dress with small mirror panels affixed—are on display, as are a series of wonderful still photographs from the outdoor performance. Inspired by the process dances of the Judson group, but engaging more directly with the audience, these projects explored the role of the spectator by turning their reflections into the subject of the work.

Joan Jonas, Revolted by the thought of known places, Installation, 1992/2003. Collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Inviting the viewer into a parallel world of performance continues in “The Juniper Tree,” (1976) a work based on a Grimm Brothers’s fairy tale. Set like a stage, red and white flags painted with hearts and animal heads hang along the back wall, while pieces of cloth strung up on thin timbers are dramatically lit. The scrims create micro-environments, and shadows dance across the space like players. Music playing overhead—a curious mix of organs and gypsy and folk sounds—coaxed movement out of me, and I started to twirl and spin, my reflection coming back at me from another large mirror.

There is a freedom and exuberance in these two installations that is more repressed in the other three. “Volcano Saga” (1985-1989) and “Revolted by the thought of known places…”(1992/2003) feel more like reconstructed theater sets. Video panels are bigger and in color, growing increasingly complex in “Revolted…” where some amazing freestanding screens divide the room. Although they are aesthetically astute and visually compelling, the draw is more from the architecture of the formal relationships than the content of the individual parts. The stories feel weighed down by their own complexity: “Revolted…” for instance, incorporates pages of the poem’s original text. Stories are always present in Jonas’s work—early works draw on Borges—but in “Volcano Saga” and “Revolted…” they took too much of the spotlight, so that the live performers were missed. This left little space for present day re-engagement.

More inspiring was “Lines in the Sand” (2002), a reinterpretation of feminist poet H.D.’s story of Helen of Troy in which her tale of abduction is presented as myth. The film, set behind a banana-yellow stage of sand and psychiatrist’s bench, juxtaposes images of the pyramids in Egypt with the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas. Periodically, Jonas appears in an industrial Nevada landscape, dancing like a lunatic. It is a disturbing probing of myths about cultural creation and it is filled with open ends like the man and woman debating as they lie in bed stroking one and other, captured on a film in a small box set off-stage left.

The Saturday I ventured across the East River to view the retrospective, I noticed the purple horizontal label of my train car was marked a “7 Special.” Although strange and circumstantial, this idiosyncratic demarcation of an ordinary journey created the perfect transition into the parallel world of Joan Jonas. For forty years, she has played with a simple assemblage of themes and references—entropic landscape, disguise and transformation, animal instincts, everyday magic—to make her contribution to the continuous history of myth-makers. Like those who inspire her, her stories, at their best, create zones of free expression and exploration that push against the boundaries of normative existence and offer an expanded way to engage with the world.


Katie Stone


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2004

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