Intermediate Realm – the Art of Joan Jonas

Happening, event, post-dramatic theatre or simply art? The intangible and fascinating world of performance and video pioneer Joan Jonas.

I was concerned about Joan Jonas. The last time we met was in February in the Swiss mountains, at the Verbier Art Summit. A telephone call was arranged for early March to continue our interview about theatre and visual arts. And then: Silence. No answer to mails, no call back. Why didn’t the now 83-year-old artist get back to me from her New York loft, where she has lived and worked since the 1970s? Did she want to be left alone in the isolation of the quarantine? Or had something serious happened?

Two weeks ago, the all-clear: Jonas is fine. Like so many New Yorkers who can afford it, she had fled the city. But now she’s back at work in her studio. The conversation can take place.

„This is a decisive moment in American history,“ the artist immediately states. „The Pandemic is a terrible disaster and with the Murder of George Floyd by the Police we must honestly acknowledge the reality of systemic racism. The protests are a tremendous positive force.“ Is Jonas, who was already politically aware in the 1960s, reminded of the civil rights movement of that time? „The protests are different from those in the 1960’s, broader and more diverse. They take place around the globe. And last but not least, they represent an serious opposition to our racist, ignorant, authoritarian president.“ That fits.

Actually, Jonas is not one of those political artists who carry their convictions in front of them like a banner. But since she entered the stage of the young New York art scene in the late 1960s, which was rebelling against the generation of the post-war avant-garde, painters like Barnett Newman or Willem de Kooning, she has played a decisive, even trend-setting role. Collective, community, happening, activity were the magic formulas against the establishment and the claims to power of a reactionary state. The protests against the Vietnam War and the black civil rights movement were at their height. Jonas had two main trump cards at her disposal: an excellent network – her circle of friends included the sculptor Richard Serra and the artist Gordon Matta-Clark – and an unmistakable feeling for new forms and media at the interface of action, performance and video.

She was not the only one to experiment with these innovations, but her signature has remained unique. However, Jonas has gone through the same fate as all true avant-gardists: Although her importance was recognized early and unreservedly by the art scene, she was ignored by the major art institutions, the market, and collectors – until, at almost 60, she suddenly became a universally celebrated star.

Art that devotes itself to explicit messages or even propaganda is incompatible with Jonas‘ anti-authoritarian attitude. This also applies, for example, to her most recent major work „Moving Off the Land II“, an extensive multimedia installation created in collaboration with marine biologists and climate researchers. In an exhibition course consisting of showcases, projections and video screens, the artist presents the fragile, alien world of the oceans in beguilingly beautiful, but also ironically broken images. She shows the gracefulness of fish, starfish and even the wisdom of an aquarium octopus, whose appearances are broken with a wink by images of the swimming Jonas in her swimsuit.

Art and nature are inseparable for the artist. A poodle is not only her constant companion, but also a frequent performer in her videos: „Even though he listens to me, he constantly reminds me that nature cannot be controlled,“ says Jonas. „The beauty of nature is based on its absolute strangeness. This experience should lead us to greater humility.“ Art and nature are opposite principles for the artist. But it is still art from which we can learn a more mindful attitude towards nature.

The opening performance of the first round of exhibitions of „Moving Off the Land II“ at last year’s Venice Biennale resembled a triumph. Jonas herself performed for two hours on an improvised stage, supported only by a musician on a laptop and a performer. And the art world aristocracy was sitting in the front row.
As early as 2015, with the Venice Biennale of Okwui Enwezor, performance was already established as an integral part of contemporary art. Jonas performed a solo show in the American pavilion at that time. Even back then, it occupied the sensual-concrete pole in the field of performance art. In 2019 all the more so, while the conceptual-intellectual opposite pole was probably most radically marked both times by Basel artist Christoph Büchel: in 2015 with the Icelandic pavilion „The Mosque“, in 2019 with the project „BARCA NOSTRA“.

Jonas‘ „Moving Off the Land“, on the other hand, was a celebration of maritime elegance. The little old lady, with lounge-white hair and in a white smock, moved through intoxicating video sets, placed opaque discs as irritating projection screens in front of magical underwater landscapes, declaimed text fragments from Emily Dickinson to Herman Melville and painted sea creatures on a paper background with a long brush.

What was that all about? With Joan Jonas, the question is always an irritating one. Was it a „performance“, a „happening“, an „event“, „post-dramatic theatre“ or simply „art“? It is difficult to answer this question, since as the present result of such an art action – to use a word from curator Catherine Wood – only the collective „ritual memory“ stands for the presence of the past event. No video recording, no image, no object, no text is able to transfer this presence into the museum’s world of objects and to catch up with it as a mere document in the memory.

The label „performance artist“, under which Joan Jonas, as a pioneer of the genre, is still viewed and celebrated with scepticism today, actually falls short. She prefers to call herself a „visual artist“.

Processes, movement in space, direct confrontation with the audience are from the very beginning more important to Joan Amerman Edwards, who studied literature and art history at the end of the 1950s and ultimately visual art, than objects on display or framed pictures on the wall. After the divorce of her first and only marriage in 1964, she retained the name of the biblical prophet. This was probably due not only to the smooth alliteration, but also to the Old Testament power of the name, which does justice to the artist’s fateful attachment to the sea and its inhabitants.

Since 1970, the New Yorker has spent her summers on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her first outdoor performance, „Wind“ (1968), moved Jonas to the dunes of Long Beach, a children’s kingdom and no man’s land at the same time. After rehearsing individual sequences of movements with friends in a New York church in the air stream of fans, the camera went out onto the beach in adverse conditions of storm and freezing cold. Shaken by the icy breeze, Jonas‘ actors brace themselves against the adverse conditions, a lost heap in surreal scenery, a picture of the condition humaine between Giorgio de Chirico and Samuel Beckett.

Two years later, she moved out to the beach again. She created „Jones Beach Piece“ and one year later the „Nova Scotia Beach Dance“ on the Canadian coast near Inverness. The two open-air performances sketched out instructions for a reception frame in the open air and at great distances. They were, as it were, the blueprints for an action in New York that suddenly made Jonas famous, „Delay, Delay“ from 1972.

For this work, the artist positioned her audience on the roofs of houses in the New York cityscape instead of on cliffs. The thirteen performers were dressed in white, wearing orange-red headbands, and moved between rows of houses and the Hudson River, analogous to the Canadian beach in a ruined no man’s land.

The scenery is more bizarre, the choreography more elaborate than in the beach pieces. Jonas defines four starting areas, from which props such as cars or bicycle tires are moved individually or collectively. Acoustic signals also play a role: in addition to the accidental blows of horns by passing ships, large wooden blocks are knocked together by the performers, a dramaturgical element borrowed from the Nō theatre. The acoustic signal arrives at the audience with a delay, a delay in which the actions in the wide playing field can only be detected to a limited extent and never all at once. Jonas does not tell a story, but rather stages a land grab. It is about exploring, designing, occupying the intermediate zones of urban space.

Were the distancing and purism of „Delay, Delay“ a reaction to the seriousness of the political situation in the early 1970s? „We were reacting very fundamentally to the urban situation. It wasn’t a matter of putting a new political narrative on top of it, but of making a concrete statement, of perceiving space and movement in a different light.“ Five years later, in December 1977, Klaus Michael Grüber performed „Winterreise“ with the Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer in the Berlin Olympic Stadium and relied on comparable moments of distance theatre. Were these premature models for a post-Corona suitable theatre? Jonas laughs. „That sounds interesting, but hopefully the theatre will live on without social distancing.“

With „Delay, Delay“, however, a new, elusive art genre is emerging: in addition to black-and-white photographs, the live action is also documented by the almost 18-minute film „Songdelay“ (1973). The result is a strange performance hybrid that is difficult to categorize as „performance“, Kaprow’s „happening“ or the German „Fluxus action“. Jonas herself calls her works „Pieces“. Which puts them in a disciplinary direction, one that she feels drawn to from childhood on, to the theatre.

Jonas‘ approach to the stage came about indirectly after his art studies. On the one hand through dance, as practiced in the succession of the dance collective Judson Dance Theater by Trisha Brown or Yvonne Rainer. On the other hand about the Japanese Nō theatre, which she got to know in 1970. „The Nō is very complex, from music to performance. And it’s characterized by a minimalism that seems to me absolutely contemporary even today.“ After this encounter, the trained sculptress no longer treated objects as sculptural objects, but as props. „My Installations, you can say, stage sets, are my sculptures,“ she adds.

In 1970, the artist also brought her first Sony portapak video camera from Japan, which enabled the user to make closed-circuit recordings. This means that recorded images can be played back directly on a screen. Between 1972 and 1974, like an echo of her „Mirror Pieces“ (1969 and 1970), in which portable mirrors reflect and (de-)fragment the bodies of the performers, the performance series „Organic Honey“ was created. Here the artist herself appears in front of the camera for the first time and makes a powerful statement of feminist art. Jonas stages herself in a glamorous performance in an evening gown, with a fantastic headdress and mask – this too is a Nō prop – while at the same time rigid, fetishised sections of her figure flicker across the mirrors and monitor on stage. The result is a puzzle of gaze regimes, oscillating between authenticity and alienated self-dramatization.

With „Organic Honey“, the peculiarity of Jonas „Pieces“ comes to full fruition: the action is not simply filmed and documented, but rather reflects on the medium itself – both in the live event and on the video monitor – thus establishing an errant genre that the artist has expanded, enriched and condensed over the years on stage, in videos and in installations. „My work consists partly of layering, of a ’superimposition‘,“ comments Jonas. Moments in film and the visual arts – especially drawings, which she develops into a vocabulary of her own – are increasingly approaching the moments of the theatre: Stage, narrative, characters, props. Her artistic interventions are situated between live act and documentation, between sculpture and prop, between object and action. Layering is Jonas‘ aesthetic response to the demands of an intensive feminist search for identity.

Until the mid-1970s, Jonas created further performance and video pieces, such as „Mirage“ (1976 and 1977), which function both as live acts and as video work, combining the moving body with drawings created in front of the camera and projected found-footage material on a stage.

In 1976 a new element was added: Jonas staged „Juniper Tree“, a children’s fairy tale based on the Brothers Grimm („Von dem Machandelboom“). The piece toured with a repeatedly modified set from Pennsylvania via New York (1977) to Vienna (1978), Eindhoven, London and San Francisco (1979). The artist, who made a name for herself by avoiding narratives and staging the pure occupation of space, returned to literary myths.

From then on, the starting point for her works was preferably Nordic epics and ghost stories, for instance in the video narrative „Volcano Saga“ (1989) with Tilda Swinton or in „Revolted by the Thought of Known Places … Sweeney Astray“, a piece that was created in 1992 as an installation in the then newly founded Berliner Kunst-Werke. In the 1980s, the phase of a general disinterest in performative art, however, Joan Jonas became quite quiet.

It was only with the brilliant renaissance of performance art that interest in her work began to grow again. In 2015 the time was finally ripe for her complex formats that undermine pure performance. With a labyrinthine video stage set essay, „They Come to Us Without a Word“, a summa of her artistic work, so to speak, Jonas was able to use the US pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. This was followed in 2018 by the „Joan Jonas“ retrospective at London’s Tate Modern, which included reenactments of earlier works such as the mirror piece „Mirror“, installations and an internet-based live performance. „Yes, times have changed. I’m glad that I can pass something on,“ says Jonas.

The exhibition „Moving Off the Land II“ went on tour after last year’s biennial and opened at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid at the end of February. After closing due to corona, it is now open until September 13. What is Jonas working on today? „I am planning a large project at present. I draw a lot, like most people do now. The most important thing is that it continues.“

The German version was published by online 2020_07_08

Photographs Performance Scenes 1970ties © Joan Jonas

Über Max_Glauner

Lecturer, Researcher, Autor & Cultural Journalist Zürich | Berlin
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