For over half a century, the artist's arresting, inventive and immersive performances and videos have conjured strange mythological landscapes that upend a viewer's sense of time. Now, as she reaches the height of her creative powers, the art world is finally catching up with her.
SHE STANDS AT an easel, a small but commanding figure with cropped white hair, and draws an intricate geometric shape. Upstage, footage of snow swirling across the surface of a road plays on a large screen. We are moved through this austere yet sumptuous atmosphere, whorls of white on blacktop. As the video cuts to a still image — a torn piece of an old map on which Iceland appears — Joan Jonas crosses the stage to a work table, looks up at the screen and begins to draw the outline of the country. Suddenly, the photograph changes, then keeps changing: horses, mountainous land, ice floes, a volcano. She keeps looking, keeps drawing. An overhead camera films her interrupted and ongoing lines, white chalk on black paper, and projects them onto the same screen as the photographs. Periodically, she discards the paper and begins again. The mood is at once methodical and urgent. Time is passing. One cannot keep up. The last photograph fades out, and a strong abstract drawing remains on the screen.
In this, her most recent performance piece, " Reanimation ," Jonas's image-making, along with Jason Moran's percussive and melodic live music, produce thrilling effects of simultaneity. "Time is the one thing we can all agree to call supernatural," she says later in the work, quoting the Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness, whose novel "Under the Glacier" inspired it. It's true that Jonas's art makes us experience time's strangeness; you could say that Jonas creates her own temporality. "Layered" is not the right term, since she is complicating our sense of what comes first, and of what is below or above. Clothed all in white, she uses herself as a screen and as a surface — moving in the projections, or holding a long sheet of white paper against her body. Her gestures — even the way she crumples a large piece of paper over and over — feel both ancient and utterly novel. Her voice is authoritative and offhand, declarative and inquiring, resonant and flat. I could watch her all night.
Since the late 1960s, Jonas has pursued a category-defying, perpetually exploratory practice that melds performance, drawing, film, video, sculpture, installation, sound and literature. Early on, she developed a recursive method, translating performances into films and videos, using these again in performances, continually reimagining her work. The simultaneities, in other words, are not just within each piece, but also across her oeuvre. "Reanimation" hauntingly reincorporates and revivifies footage from her 1974 video " Disturbances ," a gorgeous study of bodies and reflections moving through and on a swimming pool. Mesmerized by the trajectory of wind-blown snow on a street, I can't help thinking of " Merlo ," 1974, in which Jonas stands on a stone balustrade manipulating a long veil whipped by the wind. But seeing "Reanimation" is like being buffeted by the wind oneself, caught up inside a weather system. It's also a reminder of Jonas's persistence of vision in the face of changing fashions. It is intensely moving to see a woman in her late 70s making some of the best work of her career.
This past winter, in the SoHo loft where Jonas has lived since 1974, there was a palpable feeling of profusion, of everything happening at once. An assistant was editing video footage at Jonas's long dining table, which was covered with computer equipment, papers, books, a scanner and a scale model of a four-room pavilion and rotunda; she was working on her project for the Venice Biennale , where she will represent the United States in May. The work, which is under embargo, derives from "Reanimation." "I'm trying to see it as just another show," she says in her measured way. Last fall, HangarBicocca, a 42,000-square-foot space for contemporary art in Milan, presented " Light Time Tales ," the most comprehensive retrospective of her career. Fittingly, she and the curator had arranged the works not chronologically but all together in the vast space so that, Jonas says, the viewer "kept seeing the whole thing." While preparing that exhibition last summer, she was also working on the performance project "14 Rooms" at Art Basel, training 10 women to perform "Mirror Check" — one of her earliest solo works, in which she used a small mirror to examine her naked body. In the midst of it all, she heard about Venice.
"My friends, when I say that I'm under a lot of stress, say, 'It's always like this, Joan,' " she tells me, sitting at the table. Still, the attention is clearly more intense than anything she has yet experienced. In 2003, when the Queens Museum of Art staged its partial retrospective, the Times critic Roberta Smith noted that its "excellent, long overdue . . . celebration of Ms. Jonas's achievement should be tempered by some humility and embarrassment locally." More than 10 years later, Jonas has still not received a large show at one of New York's major venues. The truly interdisciplinary nature of her work — its refusal to land in one place and its antididactic quality — may help explain why she is in a somewhat odd position: known as a founding figure of performance and video art, but still lacking a wide audience in this country. Jonas creates experiences of collective viewing and interpretation that demand time and attention — at a moment when the art world, after a decade of proliferating art fairs and biennials, has been subject to an acceleration.
But if the idiosyncratic qualities of Jonas's work have made it inscrutable to some, its power is undeniable. In Milan, several people told me that they had been moved to tears at her performance of "Reanimation." Paul Ha, the director of the M.I.T. List Visual Arts Center, and the co-curator of her Biennale installation, believes that the critical attention to her work in Venice and the mass of people who will encounter it there will affect how Jonas's legacy is understood, which to Ha means how art history will be written. For the young performance artist Ryan McNamara — whose live installation "Meem: A Story Ballet About the Internet" involves audience members being wheeled in their chairs between simultaneous dance performances — Jonas is a hero for the way she explores space and time with levity. "It was a revelation that you didn't have to be self-serious to be a performance artist," he says, remembering a work in which she drew around everyday objects on a piece of paper. "Tracing objects really fast. Treating everything as flat. There's a humor to the repetition."
IN ADDITION TO BEING a performance piece, "Reanimation" is also an installation, which, in Milan, had a room of its own. The hangar was otherwise open and undivided, allowing early and later works to communicate in an unprecedented way. What emerged from the 10 single-channel videos and 10 installations was a kind of sensory ecosystem with its own reverberating space-time. Projections — on walls, monitors, shaped screens — shimmered in the air and reflected on the floors. Jonas's old dog, Zina, the subject of many drawings and videos, barked from one piece to another. "I think it was the most fantastic space I've ever been in," Jonas tells me.
Jonas's work is not autobiographical, but it is deeply bound up with who she is. Her wry humor was everywhere in "Light Time Tales" — in the startling juxtapositions of her editing, in how she meets the camera in "Good Night Good Morning," 1976, and its reprise "Good Night Good Morning '06," for which she videotaped herself over a series of days and evenings, her terse, blasé, sleepy or seductive repetition of these greetings gradually becoming hilarious. She has used herself — as well as alter egos in costumes and masks — so consistently in her work that walking through her retrospective gave me a rich sense of a life devoted to making art. Or, I should say, it was a reminder that one doesn't simply make art; one is made by it. "I'm always working," she tells me simply in her loft in New York.
In conversation, Jonas is at once refreshingly blunt and guarded, acutely aware of the performance inherent in everyday interactions. To a video crew filming her drawing practices for a short documentary last year, she explained the artificiality of the enterprise: She had thought about what she'd wear for them, neatened the studio and so on.
Jonas studied art history and sculpture before finding her way to the epicenter of the downtown scene in the late 1960s. "I had an odd self-confidence, on one level," she tells me. "On another level, I was afraid of everything." I ask what scares her now, and she replies that there are two kinds of fear. "One is a warning: You shouldn't do that. And the other is I should do it because I'm afraid. And that's to do with my work." About her first public performance, "Oad Lau," in 1968, she wrote to me: "I had found the thread that I would follow. Like I was on the edge."
Her practice still tends to be discussed in terms of her early artistic milieu: Minimalism's focus on stripped down geometric forms; the investigation of nonexpert movement by the musicians, dancers and visual artists of the Judson Dance Theater. She also immersed herself in the history of cinema at New York's Anthology Film Archives, and, in 1970, went on a long trip to Japan — where she bought her first video camera and saw Noh, Bunraku and Kabuki theater — with the sculptor Richard Serra, with whom she was involved for several years (they are still close). Renaissance painting also fed her interest in framing and illusionistic space. But the way she merges these disparate influences is unique. "The words would be 'creative courage,' " the art historian Ann Reynolds told me. "She trusts her instincts in a way that I find rather formidable."
There's another context, too, says the poet Susan Howe , a friend since they were students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts: "You can't imagine what it was like . . . in the '50s, to be a thinking woman beginning to be an artist." To me, Jonas is part of a history that includes a long line of experimental artists, many of them women, who refuse disciplinary constraints. Watching the rhythmic fragmentation and recombination of Jonas's "Vertical Roll," 1972, I'm always struck by its affinities with Gertrude Stein's playful portraiture and idea of the continuous present. In "Light Time Tales," I heard Jonas quoting the Imagist poet H. D. in two pieces situated across from each other: "Length, breadth, thickness," she said, suggesting the tactile pleasures of drawing. "The actuality of the present, its bearing on the past, their bearing on the future" — a powerful invocation of simultaneity.
I VISITED Jonas three times over the winter, each time stepping in from a snowstorm. With "Reanimation" on my mind, the weather in the streets felt like one of several uncanny blurrings of everyday life and performance. We had met briefly before. At our last encounter, in the vestibule of a mutual friend's building, she on her way in as I was leaving, I realized with a jolt that she is as charismatic in person as she is onstage. That deep voice; the feeling of energy just contained. Her poodle, Ozu, was with her then, as he often is, straining at the leash. (He is a joyfully dynamic presence — running, stopping suddenly, digging madly, taking off again — in the new video she made for the Milan retrospective, "Beautiful Dog," for which she also attached a GoPro camera, upside-down, to his collar.)
In her loft, masks and other props leaned against the wall and sat on a tall bookcase. Jonas is a voracious collector of vintage and found objects — many from Nova Scotia, where she's spent part of every summer since 1970 — and they often appear in her work. She handles these things onstage in ways that are enormously expressive. Sticks, chalk, marbles, mirrors, bells and shadows become like new technologies in her hands. The deft drawing she makes in "Reanimation" — pouring ink on paper, scattering ice cubes on it, then moving them quickly through the ink — is ingenious.
For millennia, humans have been recording what they see by drawing. Dramatizing that act in her performances, Jonas is not telling stories exactly, but she is allowing us to experience the feeling of expressing something in the moment, moving us from one event to the next, connecting the length of a line to the time it takes to draw it. Watching "Reanimation" in Brooklyn last year, I wondered if the chalk would skip or the ice would melt, whether she would be able to sustain that gesture, what would happen next. "I always thought narrative could also be visual narrative, or musical," Jonas explains to me, her hands in poised repose, clasped together in front of her body. As she works, she says, she is often asking herself: "How long should this be? How long should that be?" She means, how do you create rhythm? And when to break it?
Jonas usually works in her loft, where she can make "a little stage set that I can enter into," she says, "and then I'm in the world of the performance." But for the video for the new work, she had hired a studio for the first time, a basement in Westbeth, the artists' building in the West Village. She generally wields the camera herself, but given the high stakes, she enlisted a camera person; this allowed her to "step out of it," to direct other actors, giving herself some distance.
Rehearsing the piece in her new studio, she moved onto and off the small stage, showing the actors what she wanted. She had been spending long days here, and time was running out. At one moment, she gave her performers chalk and small blackboards and asked them to draw what they saw on a screen overhead. As I watched, I remembered the questions she asks herself while working: "How do you begin? How do you end?"
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