Joan Jonas

What I would give to have seen things at The Kitchen or Judson Memorial Church in the early ‘70’s!

Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Robert Rauchenberg, Yoko Ono, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Vito Acconci … so many of the great talents who created the traditions of video and performance art in America were there.

The extraordinary Joan Jonas was there too.
Jonas was and is a visionary. No one was more central to the early, avant-garde experimentation that made the human body not just the subject of art, but the very thing art could be made of.

And Jonas continues to push boundaries between dance, theater, film and visual art in her films, performances and installations. In fact, the very blurring between art forms that Jonas has so brilliantly explored is probably the main reason she isn’t better known. Jonas has never rested with a style; she’s never focused on an exclusive technology or medium.

Some of her work has involved nothing more than a camera, a mirror, herself and us. Other works have been phantasmagoria of drawings, costumes, masks, swinging stage props, samplings of sound and found image, texts from Homer, Emily Dickinson or the Brothers Grimm, gestures from Noh theater, Nordic myth, belly dancing and African creation stories. Whew!

Her work has been as austere and violent as Bruce Nauman and as layered and lyrical as Laurie Anderson. If Robert Frost was right that poetry is what’s lost in translation, then Joan Jonas’s complex, philosophical and non-linear work is definitely lost in description. And for a long time, that’s the only way I knew about it: what I read in monographs and surveys of the ‘70’s or what I could piece together from a few still images of seminal performances or the occasional video I might catch at a European museum.

That all changed when I walked into Pat Hearn’s gallery in 1997 and saw these beautiful, strange videos playing inside plywood sculpture/viewing boxes on legs that were placed around the gallery like miniature Trojan horses with flickering images instead of Athenian soldiers hidden inside. Then in 2000, Dia had a one-night (only one-night!) program of some of Jonas’s early videos and performance pieces such as Wind, Veil, Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll and Mirage. I was mesmerized and I began seeking out Jonas’ work whenever I could.

I came to see how countless artists – from Nan Goldin to Kiki Smith and from Robert Wilson to Robert LePage – have been influenced by Jonas. On the one hand, Jonas has undertaken intimate, minimal and remorseless investigations of the unstable, fractured self. And on the other, she has created uncanny tableaus of magic, myth and theatricality. For more than 40 years, Jonas has wended between austerity and extravagance to brilliant effect, constructing and deconstructing quests of self-understanding, the tropes and gestures of heroism and villainy, the methods of enchantment and seduction in storytelling.

In all of her work, Jonas is the artist as skeptic. Like Beckett, like Duchamp, like Derrida, she believes it’s her duty to strip our stories bare, to make art that looks at the internal workings of art – not to find Truth with some capital “T” but to make sure we understand that in our creative impulses, we’re always constructing illusions in our attempts to understand ourselves. Jonas wants us to know that we don’t know. She wants us to act, but she wants us not to lie to ourselves.

Perhaps that sounds rather bleak. Jonas’s work has certainly been stripped bare at times, and watching its rigor and repetition is sometimes not the easiest pleasure. But it’s definitely not the art of despair. Jonas trusts the basic wonderment of story and spectacle, and her work summons the forces of humor, pratfall, beauty, magic and restrained pageantry. It’s just that she shows us the wheels at work behind the curtain while the show is going on. And then she holds up a mirror to us looking at ourselves looking. It’s like a whitewater rafting trip down an infinite regress of performative ideas and images – dizzying, but dazzling.

The fact that even now you deliberately need to seek out Jonas’s work proves how much better known she should be. (But you can now find some seminal works on You Tube!) Wherever you find it, give Joan Jonas’s work the prize of your attention. In an art world seduced by money, slickness and celebrity, I am more mesmerized than ever by this self-proclaimed “electronic erotic seductress” who holds a mirror to the complexities of our self-invention.

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