PRINT November 2006



IT WOULD BE DISINGENUOUS to say that Joan Jonas is not a performance artist, but I don’t think of her that way. When she started in the 1960s, she sought bare land for building; these neighborhoods expanded around her only much later. She goes outside, generally.

Jonas’s newest work, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, 2005, was commissioned by Dia:Beacon, and premiered there last year, with a reprise this past October. It tells stories, it’s representational, but, as with many aspects of her work, this is deceptive. Not cunningly so, but in the way of distances: You’re fooled easiest if you’re impatient to get someplace particular. Jonas works with distance, she knows all about it. Mirrors, masks, fairy tales, knots: These themes, recurrent in her work over the years, seem both entirely familiar and fully symbolic, and thus somehow reassuringly close at hand. But while an artist works with what’s at hand, what’s manipulable, that doesn’t mean the audience can grasp these things, though it may seem so. Watching from the audience, you might nod at something you think is feminine, or feminist, maybe both. Look to the use, not the meaning. Jonas has a care for tools, she draws ideas tight, condensed for best use. Such compression can be brutal: When she draws for an audience, in real time, it cuts through the heart of performance and drawing alike.

Abstraction is rare in the art world, unless you’re talking about abstract pictures, but sometimes a whole way of working is abstracted. Why do some artistic forms stay outside, stubbornly resisting the sweep of commerce, industry, art world? Poetry, say, or experimental theater and dance, “underground” film. The work isn’t easily represented, it’s hard to get the picture, there’s no “Stand back, let me get a look at you!” An artist like Jonas, who brings such resistant forms to an audience that prizes the image above all else had better address translation. Like it or not, the audience will translate what it sees, wresting ideas from abstraction, bending them from use to meaning. Jonas’s work allows for generous translation, but you’ll have to perform it yourself. She can bring you to understand that the term “performance art” is a kind of translation.

Seth Price

I WAS FIRST DRAWN to Aby Warburg when I read Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America, in which the German art historian describes his trip in 1895 to the Southwest desert, where he visited with the Hopi. I went to that area as well, in the ’60s, and my experiences there have stayed in the back of my mind all these years—seeing the Hopi snake dance profoundly affected me—though I’ve never referred to them directly in my work. This points to another affinity I felt with Warburg: It wasn’t until thirty years after his journey to the desert, while recovering at a Swiss sanatorium after a breakdown, that he could actually talk about his involvement with the Hopi.

I also felt close to Warburg’s way of thinking about culture and art history. One reason Warburg waited decades to write about the Hopi was that his contemporaries perhaps wouldn’t have been receptive to what he was thinking about—the links between Hopi ceremony and Renaissance ideas of spectacle, for example. Methodologically, Warburg was less concerned with traditional linear progression in art than with a cross-cultural, paralleling approach. He actually considered himself to be a cultural historian. This category, however, didn’t really exist at that point. Contemporary anthropologists like Franz Boas, whom Warburg met, were working in a similar fashion in the late nineteenth century, but they hadn’t related their research to art history as Warburg had.

The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things is about an aspect of Warburg’s writings, a space I enter. Made with a musical score composed by Jason Moran, it centers around the text of a speech Warburg gave at the sanatorium to prove to his doctors that he was cured. I didn’t want to simply illustrate the writing, so when I decided that the cavernous basement of Dia:Beacon could represent the sanatorium, the whole problem of juxtaposing my imagery against his words was solved: The strangeness of the images would work when placed in a psychiatric institution. It seemed natural that I could almost enter that context. I’ve always been interested in the fact that people like Warburg or Adolf Wölfli produced writings, drawings, and paintings out of their experiences in sanatoriums. I love that work and refer to it often. When Warburg writes about wanting to dance or speak with the moths, it doesn’t sound crazy, it sounds poetic.

When I started out, I didn’t want to be in a known place. At the time, it felt like I was on the edge, making strange, weird things the outside world wouldn’t understand. After finishing my first major work, Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy, 1972, I myself needed two years to understand the content of the work. My sources back then were American Imagist poetry and early French, Russian, and Italian film. Poetry and film are similar in the ways image is constructed and metaphor is made. Poetry is the general underlying structure of our experience, and it became my way of entering into making art. The fragmentation in my work came from looking at film. I like producing a shock, a cut, making people uncomfortable. Instability is necessary; it’s productive. I recently had a conversation with Simone Forti about Butoh dance, which is very simple but very powerful; a friend of mine described it as being on the edge of nothing. That’s a place I like to be.

In the ’60s and ’70s I often worked alone in my studio, but in the ’80s and ’90s I became more interested in using popular culture. Fairy tales are part of popular culture. I’m not interested in period pieces, but in how myths relate to the present. For Lines in the Sand, 2002, based on the poet H. D.’s “Helen in Egypt,” I shot in Las Vegas at this casino called Luxor, and mixed that imagery with the myth of Helen of Troy. The Trojan War is referred to constantly these days, and looking at how Rome fell is something we’re dealing with. In The Shape . . . , I used the Salton Sea Motel, a modernist ruin in California, to represent the American landscape. From Lines in the Sand to the new piece, it was like I went from the city at the edge of the desert out into the desert itself, which in a sense is the real American landscape.

It’s important to make art, particularly in our culture now. The Greeks thought war was necessary, but it drives people mad. My piece Revolted by the Thought of Known Places, 1994, is based on a medieval Irish epic poem about a king who goes mad in battle. The people in the White House are crazy, the world is crazy. Artists actually represent a bit of sanity. I don’t think art is therapy, except in a context like a sanatorium, but making art allows you to translate your thoughts, feelings, concepts. Warburg thought that Western society itself is incurably schizophrenic, a culture that splits at the line between the rational and the magical. It is an implicit critique in his work. Although he was critical of America, as far as I know he never referred to America’s appropriation of lands and attempted eradication of indigenous people, and I decided not to deal with that directly in the piece. But it’s there, lurking under the surface.