Joan Jonas: “I understood why people must have gods and myths”

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At Dia Beacon, a converted factory 90 minutes up the Hudson River from New York City, the sprawling 300,000-square-foot building is only lit by occasional rays of sun falling at an angle from tall windows and skylights. In the lower gallery, a gray cement floor is partitioned by sealed cracks that run like map lines along the surface. Only one of the concrete walls has a row of windows: it is a dark and strange place.

It is the sepulchral home of three site-specific installations by renowned New York multimedia artist Joan Jonas. Two of the performances in the exhibition, curated by Kelly Kivland, have not been seen since 1976; the third was commissioned in 2004 by Dia and last seen in 2006.

All three are spread across the giant gallery – an overload of sound, sight, and feel that gives a haunting invitation to step back into Jonas’ creative history from the 1970s to the present day.

Even at 85, Jonas still incorporates physical movement as part of the performance in some of his layered works. But in these installations, the performance aspect is entirely video, where Jonas recites writings or engages with props or with his dogs. Some pieces are images projected with voiceovers or musical collaborations. Thus, the idea of ​​”performance” in this exhibition is a comprehensive way of describing Jonas’ interest in the combination of different forms and structures, be it literature, music, sculpture, drawings, videos of body movements or projected images of places and space.

‘After Mirage (Cones / May Windows)’ at Dia Beacon, New York. The artwork, first created in 1976, features 9-foot cones and a video monitor on which Jonas’s fuzzy form sometimes appears © Bill Jacobson Studio / Dia Art Foundation

“After Mirage (Cones / May Windows)” displays two large circles, each made up of a circumference of 9 foot steel cones and cotton paper. Cones were one of the first shapes Jonas designed when she started creating performance pieces. A small sideways monitor sits just outside the circles showing footage of Jonas’ performance in 1976 May Windows. It’s an organized mix of sounds from the outside world: a barking dog, the artist in his studio, whistling. Sometimes we see its shape, blurry on the screen, creating the illusion that it blends in with its surroundings.


The day after my visit to the exhibition, I meet Jonas in his studio in Soho. The light pours down on the long worktables, the stacks of books and the stacks of accessories as if someone had knocked over a bucket of sunshine from the sky. It has been Jonas’ studio for 47 years.

She begins by telling me about her last performance before the pandemic, in Madrid. At the Prado, she performed a piece on the oceans entitled “Moving off the Land II” in collaboration with the composer Ikue Mori. Performance paintings of the piece are currently on display in the exhibition Wilderness Grove at the Amanda Wilkinson Gallery in London.

From the start, says Jonas, it was the customs of art that particularly attracted her. “I have always been very interested in how art started as rituals in different cultures. I watched the work of filmmaker Maya Deren, who went to Haiti and filmed religious rituals. . . Many people and cultures use drawing as a performative ritual. I thought I could do it without copying any of these other traditions, that I could have my own ritual.

Born in New York City in 1936, Jonas received her MFA from Columbia in 1965. She began working with figurative sculpture, experimenting with materials such as plaster and cement. She views her installation work as a form of sculpture because it exists in three dimensions, and her work incorporated performance after being drawn to the Judson Dance Theater, the famous 1960s group that redefined aspects of dance. to include daily non-theatrical movements. .

Joan Jonas, pictured in her thirties in 1979, is on all fours on a wooden floor, next to a human skeleton hanging from a pole beside her.  There are drawings on the white wall behind

Jonas playing with a human skeleton in 1979: “Sculpture back then was just objects, but here I could include sound and movement with drawings” © Allan Tannenbaum / Polaris / Eyevine

“Back then, sculpture was just objects, but here I could include sound and movement in the drawings. The multidisciplinary aspects attracted me.

At the start of her career, she envisioned the role of props, especially mirrors. “One aspect of mirrors was my previous concern for perception. I wanted to change the audience’s perspective, to affect the way they saw something. I first used mirrors as a performance element, with 17 women wearing large mirrors, 5 feet by 18 inches, so that the audience could see the reflected and fractured space.

“[I started] think of the sets as my kind of sculpture. . . and work with video backgrounds shot in different locations. To tell the story, I used a certain landscape or a certain scene.

For the current exhibition, Jonas created the 1976 props assemblage: a series of sets she had made for performances developed into an installation without her bodily presence. Now there is a row of five chairs, replicas of an old accountant’s chair that Jonas found many years ago. She originally used it in her 1972 identity performance ritual piece, “Organic Honey,” when she played the role of a woman who could change her identity with masks and costumes.

In the darkened exhibition space, we see several large screens, arranged at an angle to each other.  One shows buildings with red roofs, another shows a woman sitting on the grass, wearing a pink dress

The 2004 video work ‘The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things’, in which Jonas draws inspiration from the landscape and culture of the American Southwest © Bill Jacobson Studio / Dia Art Foundation

The chairs face a row of six 9-foot steel cones, suspended a few inches from the floor; a light under each creates a light on the ground. Four long sheets of kraft paper walls, a steel hoop and beams are also suspended: it reminds me of a circus device to tame a lion to jump through a hoop. There are other pieces to install, drawings on paper, chalk drawings on the wall, an assortment of accessories. All were used in different performances from 1972 to 1976, including his first performance of Juniper by the Brothers Grimm, in 1976, who marked his interest in working with stories and fairy tales.

As Jonas’ work has evolved over the years, certain themes have remained consistent around the merging and overlapping of forms and structures in the contemplation of ritual, myth, narrative, identity. , landscape and space – “elements superimposed over time,” as she puts it.

In 2004, when she was commissioned by Dia to create the performance piece “The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things,” which is the third installation in this exhibition, she worked with jazz composer Jason Moran. It was her attempt to respond to an area of ​​the United States where the landscape – as well as the rituals and traditions of Native American people – greatly influenced her.

'Como Butterfly II', a large scale image of the insect in loose black lines on a white background

‘Como Butterfly II’, 2007, one of the large scale drawings included in the ‘Fawn Grove’ exhibition in London © Courtesy of Joan Jonas and Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London

“When I saw the Southwest, I understood why people must have gods and myths to explain it. It’s so beautiful and fantastic. I was also very interested in shamanism. So I did a lot of research on the ritual, and saw the Hopi serpent dance. Out of respect for the indigenous people, I would never show any of this, but it had a profound effect on me. ”

She returned to a Hopi reservation for two weeks and consulted with an anthropologist at the Getty Museum on how to handle the material. She eventually decided to use the southwest landscape as a physical representation of her experience and added a projection of her recitation excerpts from the work of early 20th-century German art historian Aby Warburg, who had studied the Hopi snake dance. For each performance during the 2005-06 race, Jonas created a large snake painting. The paintings now hang in various places in this iteration of the artwork, along with smaller drawings and images of snakes and dogs.

Jonas is careful with the way she talks about shamanism as she does not consider herself a shaman in any way. But she is drawn to “people who affect certain situations, calling for energy and expressing energy.” Here, Jonas reconfigured the room, mixing props such as a taxidermy coyote with parts of the original performance video, mixed with music, vocals, and lyrics. She also added images of ecological ruins, such as the now poisonous Salton Sea of ​​California, overlaying them on Woody Guthrie’s idealistic song “Pastures of Plenty”.

The works draw on her current themes of exploring cultural rituals, myths and experiences of womanhood, and how certain types of energy can be created through performances. Together and separately, these three installations offer a glimpse into Jonas’ work over the past 50 plus years.

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