Critics’ Picks

View of Joan Jonas's “Moving Off the Land II,” 2019.

View of Joan Jonas's “Moving Off the Land II,” 2019.


Joan Jonas

Ocean Space
Chiesa di San Lorenzo Castello 5069
March 24–September 29, 2019

Within the dreamy grotto of Joan Jonas’s exhibition “Moving Off the Land II,” one appropriately feels swallowed up by a gigantic fish. Towers of skeleton-like metal scaffolding mask the inner walls of the sixteenth-century church that is now home to Venice’s Ocean Space, an interdisciplinary venue with a focus on marine research and advocacy. These remnants of the Chiesa di San Lorenzo’s renovation, kept in place by Jonas for this inaugural exhibition, obscure the structure’s sacred context while retaining its grand scale and cavernous echo. High above hang enlarged images of sea creatures rendered by Jonas in two styles: careful colored drawings fit for a taxonomical study and expressive sublimation prints brushed in dripping calligraphic strokes.

At the center of the exhibition is a series of five videos, each shown in a custom wooden box (some the size of a home aquarium, others large enough to enter). Set to the sighing, extraterrestrial sounds of composer Ikue Mori and given titles like Whale and Octopus, they act as episodes in a kind of psychedelic nature-documentary series. Projections of underwater scenes fall upon the bodies of Jonas and her young collaborators, as they perform subtle choreography and read from oceanic texts by Rachel Carson, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and other authors. In Mermaid, 2019, Jonas follows the projected movements of a sea lion with her own body, her white canvas coat catching the image of the animal as the two seem to merge in an interspecies ballet.

Heavy issues—among them climate change, overfishing, and animal consciousness—run throughout this show. But Jonas’s work is buoyed by her deft play between the depth and flatness of cinematic space, and her intuitive, nondidactic approach to the literary works she cites. Jonas charts a sea of many surfaces, from the ecological to the mythological, while drawing few conclusions. So much of the ocean remains unknown.