Joan Jonas is described on the Tate Website as follows:
“Hero to a generation of younger artists, Joan Jonas is a pioneer of performance and video who has pushed the boundaries of art for the last five decades.” (Tate, 2018)
I went along to see her speak as she shared excerpts from recent pieces alongside jazz musician, Jason Moran, who she has worked with since 2005. The event was a mix between a performance and a talk and it was a little unclear which at times. The presentation style was very loose which was fine as both were amusing, charming and fascinating, but it was sadly ruined towards the end by a technical glitch which no one seemed able to recover from. I felt desperately sorry for Jonas having to manage up there in front of everyone while a technician, who I have to say I also felt very sorry for, struggled to find the relevant working clips on a laptop. I guess if it was a lecture rather than a performance the resulting awkwardness might have been less difficult to sit through. (However, one of the things about live performance is that things can go wrong which is where much of the tension arises from.) If Jonas had been a comedian and able to carry us through the gap it might have been less difficult but that’s a very tall order indeed, especially for a woman, amazing as she is, in her 80s. Nevertheless, it was still incredibly interesting and a joy to learn about this artist as well as hearing ideas which echoed and reflected many of the things I’ve been exploring recently in my own work, and while studying Maya Deren.
I will write more about Jonas’ work after I’ve been back to the Tate to see the exhibition currently on display there.
In the meantime a few notes from the talk:
- Jonas discussed layering and it was exactly the same thinking described in a short clip about Deren by Barabara Hammer mentioned in a previous post – vertical editing
- I had been thinking about the presence of mirrors in art and its significance to us humans – a technological invention which altered our psyche over centuries as they became more ubiquitous. Self-awareness and identity are very much connected to these objects (and so much more besides). It was interesting to see Jonas’ mirror work here
- Moran played an audio of an artist (I can’t remember who frustratingly) who said artists must write about their work as much as they can – which was great to hear
- He also demonstrated how he works with the rhythm of language, improvising on his piano to the cadence of a woman’s speech
- Spaces play a significant part in Jonas’ work – I would so love to have seen some of these performances live in the place they originally took place especially The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things (2005)
- Like Deren, Jonas is interested in mythology, ritual, anthropology, dreams, memory, and the feminine. These are all subjects close to my own heart and I ended my first degree by writing about ritual and communal worship evolving into the theatre we know today
- Jonas talked about her dislike of the term performance artists (me too!) and that she is, in fact, an artist who works across a variety of mediums. I think I have said more or less the same thing earlier in this blog
- Jonas creates work which often has live performance layered against, behind and in front of projections
More to come after gallery visit to see the work there in more detail
Gallery visit: Friday 23rd March 2018
I went along to see the work currently being exhibited after I’d seen Jonas’ talk a few days earlier. The exhibition is situated in the new Blavatnik building on floors 2 and in the basement. I love the basement as a space but felt less connected to the work there as it seemed to overpower it somewhat, in particular, one piece in a small circular room which is like the inside of a drum – I don’t remember what was on the TV screen on a podium showing work, just the space and the other people watching it in there with me. This was a useful experience to consider though. Also in the basement area there were sets which had been used by Jonas, now installations, including several with long cones which are emblematic and feature throughout her work as objects to look at and make sound with.
On the upper floor, as with both spaces, the lighting is kept very low and the atmosphere cave-like. As I think about this I am reminded of the French obstetrician, Michel Odent, who I believe suggests women in labour fare best in a dark space (no glaring light) surrounded by other women rather than men. There is, in fact, something womblike about these spaces, which are predominantly dark with brown/red walls, and flickering lights from film and slides in various corners. Reminiscent of Odent’s advice, Jonas seems to have created primitive spaces where modern straight lines and glaring bulbs have no place.
I spent most of my time with a film featuring Tilda Swinton. The film, called Volcanic Saga, is based on a Norwegian folktale, and contains all the elements listed above and more. Layering, episodic scenes, a home-made feel, “mythology, ritual, anthropology, dreams, memory, and the feminine”. You can see the contributions to this form made by Maya Deren (stepping from one space into another across edits as well as the homemade feel) and also elements recognisable from Martha Rosler’s work, i.e. montage.
In all of Jonas’ work, there is a great sense of play and naivete which I liked very much. And although some of it, quite a lot from earlier years, might seem dated to modern eyes used to the sophisticated techniques available in our decade, it helps to make the work stand out. Actually, this style perhaps because it is enticing and charismatic, is still found on Youtube – Wes Anderson relies on it, and Bill Wurtz is someone my sons follow who puts together ‘amateurish’-looking but very compelling and engaging content. It’s snappier than Volcanic Saga but the naivete is there. I had actually also been to the NPG to see Tacita Dean who I will discuss further on the page I set up for her – but the contrast between the two artists seemed quite stark. I can’t really tell if my reaction is based on some form of envy or is valid but I found Dean’s work a little smug and knowing, perhaps even supercilious (projection perhaps – if you know her current work this seems like an almighty pun!) but this might have felt much more so because I went straight to Jonas’ show on the same day.
I will need to return to Joan Jonas at the Tate as there was so much to see and take in.
I did not see the film below on Friday but I find it interesting and relevant. I had seen it before and I am not sure if this is what has prompted me to play with vertical formats in my own little sketches which I make on my phone, but I have been doing so.