Selected Works 1968–2020
Selected Works 1968–2020
Joan Jonas is a world renowned artist best known for her work in performance, video and installation who has pushed the boundaries of art for the last five decades. After studying sculpture and art history she became one of the founding figures of performance when it first emerged in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Her work often simultaneously brings together images, objects, props, drawings, animals, language, sound, music and performers to address complex tropes found in rituals, myths, and stories while increasingly engaging with environmental issues, the animal world and the precariousness of our planet.
Throughout her career Jonas has constantly experimented with different media as well as the myriad and poetic ways of conveying the content of her works, ranging from the abstract to figurative, from impressionistic to narrational, and continues to influence generations of younger artists. This presentation of work by Joan Jonas features a wide-ranging view of her oeuvre, from her earliest video piece, Wind (1968), to her most recent sculpture, Chandelier (2020), as well as performance photographs, drawings and sculptural videos that fall in between.
"This chandelier is not a lighting device, it does not give out light. It receives light it also sparkles and reflects. So, as I have done before with crystals we projected a video piece through the chandelier and the chandelier itself reflected in all the mirrors around the room. The room was surrounded with the mirrors that I also had made in Venice. And so the chandelier functioned as a lighting device in its own way; although one that was a reflexion and not a giver of light. But in a way it did give light because it reflected light."
First Performance Films: Wind (1968) and
Wind is a 1968 performance film, recently restored. Cutting between snowy fields and a raw seashore, Jonas focuses on a group of performers moving through a stark, windswept landscape. The 16mm film — silent, black and white, jerky and sped-up — evokes early cinema, while its content locates it in the spare minimalism of the late 1960s. As in Songdelay, Jonas is concerned with stripping down the medium and foregrounding the figure and its ritualistic movements in space. Her performers struggle over and over with their fluttering coats, battling the gusts of a wind which, though soundless and invisible, defines the contours of this piece.
Performing with a "cast" that includes Gordon Matta-Clark, Jonas choreographs a theater of space, movement, and sound, with the urban landscape of New York in a featured role. Jonas creates a highly original if enigmatic theatrical language of gesture and sound, as she and her performers play with emblematic props, unexpected rhythms of space and scale, references to painting, and audio delays. At once delightfully improvisational and precisely choreographed, Songdelay resonates with themes and strategies that recur throughout Jonas' performance work.
"My first thought when I stepped from sculpture into performance was that now I can make something with sound. Initially, I made sound in abstract ways--clapping blocks of wood, for instance, like in Noh theater--to sound out space, or silence. I was also interested in sound delay and in creating situations where you saw a sound being made before you heard it."
Performance Photographs (1969–1980)
"When I began performance work, in 1968, I had no experience as a performer in public. At first I simply performed tasks or treated my body as material, carried stiffly around from place to place by other performers. In 1970 I began using the Portapak video system, which altered my manner of performing. I began to perform for the camera. I didn't want to be recognized as myself, so I wore masks, I dressed up, I played with disguise. I developed imaginary characters or states of mind, alter egos. In a way, I found myself in the mirror works and through video transformations."
My New Theater (1998)
The My New Theater series was created by Joan Jonas at the end of the 1990s with the aim of continuing to work with performance but without the artist’s physical presence. While Jonas has for the most part avoided traditional proscenium stages in favor of crafting her performances for a variety of “found” spaces—and has also avoided the word “theater” to describe her live events—the My New Theaters, based on a children’s puppet theater she saw in The Netherlands, offer new perspectives on her changing as well as continuous concerns. As independent, freestanding objects, they return to her earliest interests as a sculptor and were inspired, as many of her pieces are, by childhood games or toys.
Long and narrow, similar to the conical elements utilized in historical performances and installations like Funnel (1974/2019) and Mirage (1976/1994/2005), these structures are designed to rest upon two wooden sawhorses. Inside each theater box is a display with a single-channel video.
Visiting themes of repetition and mirroring, the work features Jonas drawing on a chalkboard, dancing, and having her dog jump through a hoop.
“I play the woman in black who dances her own steps, made more nimble by editing, to fiddle music played backwards. With the performer the wall flips from side to side in an optical play, left and right. A dog jumps through a hoop in slow motion. A nine-foot tin cone from Mirage (1976/1996/2005) continues the play of illusion, appearing to be a tube or a cone as it turns and funnels an early American folk song with the lyric “Look up and down that long lonesome road,” originally sung by Peggy Seeger.
Big Mirror comes from a prose piece by William Carlos Williams (“It was a big mirror…” [in The Descent of Winter, 1928]), which describes a painting that a man does on a mirror as he paints it. Listening, I make drawings of the described landscape around a waterfall."
Ice Drawings (2013–2014) and Body Drawings (1999–2017)
"I am a visual artist. Drawing was important to me before I stepped into performance. I was interested in how to draw and what to draw. When I started doing performance I saw that it could be a place for drawing in a new way. I became interested in what it was to draw in front of an audience and to draw while I was being witnessed. I also make drawings in my studio that are autonomous, but I felt like what I was exploring was how to make a drawing in relation to the particular performance that I was working on, which meant how to make it in relation to the technology or to the subject or the space."
"In the early outdoor works, I purposefully set the audience at a distance, because I saw the gestures and configuration as drawings in space. After I got the Portapak, I started drawing for the camera. I would make small drawings on stage that audiences experienced on screen, as large projections. I had all these different ways of drawing that were influenced by the setup of the camera and the monitor. Draw without looking. Draw while looking at the monitor. Don't look at the paper. You can't totally control drawing in a performance. It gives you a different way to arrive at an image. The result is always surprising."
Joan Jonas (b. 1936, New York, NY) is a world-renowned artist whose work encompasses a wide range of media including video, performance, installation, sound, text, and sculpture. Jonas' experiments and productions in the late 1960s and early 1970s continue to be crucial to the development of many contemporary art genres, from performance and video to conceptual art and theatre. Since 1968, her practice has explored ways of seeing, the rhythms of rituals, and the authority of objects and gestures.
Jonas has exhibited, screened and performed her work at museums, galleries and large-scale group exhibitions throughout the world, such as: Taipei Biennal; Documenta 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, and 13; the 2008 Sydney Biennial; the 2008 Yokohama Triennial; and the 28th Sao Paolo Biennial. She has recently presented solo exhibitions at HangarBicocca, Milan; NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore; the United States Pavilion for the 56th Edition of the Venice Biennial; the Tate Modern, London; Museu Serralves, Porto; Ocean Space, Venice; and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. In 2018, she was awarded the prestigious Kyoto Prize, presented to those who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural and spiritual betterment of mankind.
Installation View, My Theater, 2007–2008
Galleria Civica di Arte Contemporanea, Trento, Italy
Photograph: Moira Ricci
Installation view, They Come to Us without a Word (Mirrors), 2015
The US Pavillion at the 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia
Commissioned by the MIT List Visual Arts Center
Photograph: Moira Ricci
Performance View, Reanimation, 2012
Hangar Bicocca, Milan, Italy
Photograph: Moira Ricci
Producer: Ian Forster. Consulting Producers: Wesley Miller & Nick Ravich. Interview: Ian Forster & Susan Sollins. Camera: Jarred Alterman. Sound: Richard Gin. Editor: Morgan Riles. Artwork Courtesy: Joan Jonas & Electronic Arts Intermix, New York. Archival Images Courtesy: Kino Lorber, The Metropolitan Opera Archives, The New York Times. Theme Music: Peter Foley.
Art21 Exclusive is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; 21c Museum Hotel; and by individual contributors.