This is the first retrospective exhibition in Spain of the work of one of the pioneering artists in performance art, experimental film and video installation. The exhibition consists essentially of four installations that are representative of her career, together with a series of films, single-channel videos, drawings and photographs, that between them present a reading of her work that draws a connection between her practice of performance art and the origins of video installation as a genre.
Timelines: Transparencies in a Dark Room
This is the first retrospective exhibition in Spain of the work of Joan Jonas (New York, 1936), one of the pioneering artists in performance art, experimental film and video installation. The exhibition consists essentially of four installations that are representative of her career, together with a series of films, single-channel videos, drawings and photographs, that between them present a reading of her work that draws a connection between her practice of performance art and the origins of video installation as a genre. The selection has not been chosen in response to an exhaustive programme but is an attempt to draw thematic circles that reveal the various typologies into which her work has been developing and organising, from pieces as far apart in time as the magnificent Mirage (1976) and Lines in the Sand (2003-2004), which are brought together and occupy the theatre space of the MACBA Capella, to equally emblematic works such as the screening of Volcano Saga (1985-1989), accompanied by photographs and drawings, and the installations Revolted by the Thought of Known Places… Sweeney Astray (1992) and her latest piece so far, The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things (2006), presented in the museum’s exhibition rooms.
Jonas’ innovative explorations using ‘new media’ and the works she made in the late 1960s and early 70s played an essential part in the development of performance as an artistic genre. Her influence has been crucial to the emergence of numerous art forms today associated with video, conceptual art and theatre, and younger generations of artists, such as Cindy Sherman and Matthew Barney, are indebted to her.
Having completed her studies in sculpture, Jonas then went on to take seminars taught by Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton and became interested in the work of Simone Forti, Lucinda Childs and Deborah Hay. Her first films, made in the years from the late 1970s to the early 1960s, reveal the influence of the language of dance. Even so, the atmosphere surrounding her work was dominated by Minimalist art, to which she reacted by turning to a certain extent towards Pop Art and its revival of the object and conditions of everyday life, above all everything around the actions by artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Robert Morris and Robert Whitman. This for Jonas was a new artistic context, one that was powerfully influenced by music and pursued by artists whose goal was not to become a new kind of theatre. Perhaps it was this lack of definition that attracted the young Jonas when she went to the “Process” exhibition, curated by Maria Tucker at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969, which endorsed her search for a kind of creation far removed from the artistic object but one focused on action, the ephemeral and the audience’s engagement in the live experience.
Jonas’ work is notable for its combination of a technological formulation—advanced in its day—with a complex conceptual and meditative approach indebted to the pre-modern trends and linked to the Romantic vision of nature, British and American poetry of the late 19th century, rituals and the sacred. Strongly intuitive, Jonas’ modus operandi often begins with a piece of writing, a poem or a story, with elements taken from legends and myths as well as the work of writers such as Eduardo Galiano, James Joyce, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges and William Carlos Williams. Her interest in semiotics has a correlate in her layering of time and space in her performances. In her early days, the themes of her work were connected to the artist herself, her body, her ups and downs, transformations, distortions and reconstructions through her alter ego, abstractions of the feminine or the contrast of gender roles. Later, the dramaturgy of the text harks back to historic events as recorded in fables and epics. The selection of pieces shows how Jonas’ work has remained faithful to a system of expression and a range of themes that are extraordinarily coherent as a body, to the extent that the various installations and videos that she has produced from the early 1970s to the present day seem to all form part of a single programme.
Most of her installations, apart from Lines in the Sand, which is frontal in structure, are enveloping and unfurl around the viewer. In her theatre actions, Jonas uses numerous screens and projection surfaces, various sources of sound and objects that are thus transformed into simulacra of sets in which we ourselves seem to merge with the images shown. Other characteristics of her process of work are series of live actions influenced by feedback, her documentation on video and subsequently her translations in the form of an installation. We thus come across fragments taken from earlier filming sessions that she incorporates here and there according to the needs of each presentation or her intuition. The action is not exhibited but occurs; it cannot be visited but is instead experienced.
Performance presents us with an anachronistic landscape that combines technology and craft: from her earliest filmed pieces to her latest installations, Jonas seems to work ‘by hand’, in other words, using the measure and economy of her own body. It was above all from her video performances onwards that Jonas began to combine and exploit, with all their consequences, the logics of two complementary yet opposing languages: theatre action on the one hand and film/video material on the other. Her initial works in this realm, Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy and Vertical Roll (both 1972) and Mirage, are performance first and foremost. Using this process, Jonas manages to stage—to externalise in a physical and tangible manner—micro-readings of otherness (the otherness of the landscape, of the animal, of the sign, of the history of the recollection, of the present) in a language that harks back to the archaic using universal elements of the desire for representation, of the need for imagination.
In her work, Jonas reconsiders the clichés of femininity and rebuilds the image of women and their stereotyped behaviour. Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy, for example, shows the transformation of the artist into a fictitious subject, a theatre character who develops and builds a series of images and gestures that accumulate thanks to the use of mirrors, simultaneous video screenings and the effect of closed-circuit video. This work, with her alter ego, Organic Honey, disguised behind a doll’s face, reveals Jonas’ debt to Oriental theatre: the use of the mask and the sound of the pieces of wood, the costumes worn by the artist’s alter ego and her postures on the stage seem to emulate a non-Western dramatic construction. In Volcano Saga, an installation based on an Icelandic epic, she began to draw together her development of the female character.
In the MACBA Capella, Jonas is showing photographs of her first performances in which her use of the mirror manipulated the perception of space and movement by introducing a new kind of visibility between the performer and her audience, as demonstrated by the video Wind (1968), an outdoor performance that centres around the fragmentation of the real and the illusory space. In addition to Mirage, she is also presenting her installation Lines in the Sand (2002), which recounts the myth of Helen with numerous historical, geographical and psychological shifts. Jonas based her performance on the volume of verse Helen in Egypt by H.D.—a poet and a patient of Sigmund Freud’s before the Second World War—using it to create a collage of scenes on Helen’s psychological and political power. This piece served some years later as the starting point for the performance and installation The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things, a collection of images and writings compiled by the historian Abby Warburg for a talk he gave in 1923, when he was recovering from a nervous breakdown in the Kreuzlingen sanatorium in Switzerland. In his talk, he told of his observations of the ritual dances of the Hopi Indians, though in fact he never saw these for himself. Jonas, however, did witness these ritual dances during a trip she made in 1970 and accords these experiences a crucial role in the creation of her artistic grammar.
Works as remote in time as Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy and The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things explore the notion of ritual through two ancient forms of theatre: the elaborate Noh and Kabuki from Japan and the ancestral forms of Indian ceremonies, which are very distant both geographically and culturally but nevertheless resemble each other in their search for a specific relationship between the actor, the message and the onlooker. The notion of ritual refers to a form of interaction between individuals in which the content of the action is already known to those officiating and those attending the ceremony. Rituals are irrational: they represent a form of understanding or portrayal of a magical nature.
In most of Jonas’ works, the use of loops increases the sense of remoteness from the spatial present of the installation and transports us to an ambiguous, thought-provoking temporal space. Her installations are contained in themselves and we can perceive them as fully formed, complete cycles that are constantly repeated like a litany, like this gesture of the hand drawing a never-ending circle with a piece of chalk so that it can be erased and immediately begun again. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth: the artist constantly reworks and reinstalls each one, adding and removing, distilling new meanings and compositions for every one of her works as if they were live pieces.
Produced by: Exhibition organized by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) and co-produced with the Centre d’Art Contemporain de Genève
Opening: 20 september 2007
Plaza de los Angeles, 1 Barcelona