New York

Joan Jonas

Joan Jonas presented two late-July performances of Variations on a Scene (a work in progress in collaboration with Jorge Zontal, an artist member of General Idea) at Wave Hill, the public gardens and former estate on the Hudson River. These were ideal surroundings for Jonas’ commensurately grand and picturesque five-part theatrical, with its cast of seven and various mixed-media effects. The audience, on folding chairs and on the grass, was initially assembled about the perimeter of a great, weeping beech tree. Its shaded, organically-curtained sanctum served as stage one. We were introduced to the diurnal rhythm of a sort of archetypal polyglot family, whose “lineage” was suggested by the roots of the tree itself rather than by factitious reference to any particular nation or class. Jonas created the impression of an eccentric house-museum—of which there are many in the Hudson Valley—come to life: one player seemed to be awakening to bird song, while a second smoothed and folded linens that had been hanging on a branch. An intellectual-looking man stood gazing thoughtfully into space, while another player cited a poem—Fernando Pessoa’s “Um renque de árvores lá longe, lá para a encosta” (There, way over there by the hillside, a row of trees)—and yet another sang the words of a traditional Haitian love song set to a tango rhythm. Essentially a chamber piece, this segment climaxed with the reading of a bracing passage from Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, which addresses the potential tyrannies of majority rule.

Next, the audience was shepherded to a lily-filled reflecting pond where the tale of a water sprite, from a story by Josef Novotny, unfolded through narration and through a wonderfully costumed, Kabuki-influenced pantomime. Jonas, as the sprite, gracefully fished items from the pond with a large net, then wrestled with cardboard boxes, as the artist Kiki Smith—in an aquarian role suggesting a Nereid in a film by Akira Kurasawa—ladled pond-water with a jar. This gentle sequence concluded abrasively, with the barbecuing of books on a backyard grill. The audience was then guided to an enormous field overlooking the river, where the third scene took place. Audience perceptions here were keyed to the effects of long distances and refracted sound. Steamy torrents of words, principally on the themes of exploration and exploitation, from Pessoa’s “Como um grande borrào de fogo sugo” (Like a great blotch of filthy fire), and L. Herrera Luque’s “Los Viajeros de Indias” (The travelers of the Indies) were delivered by Zontal and the actress Jane Smith as they moved slowly about this gracious stadium, periodically addressing the audience and inviting response. Their voices were often electronically bounced about, like pucks on the field. The fixed, repetitive image of Kiki Smith fashioning coils of clay into sculptural, potterylike shapes provided a visual focus, though Jonas was also on the scene, mostly in the distance, manipulating one of her characteristic props—a mirror bouncing light.

The fourth scene, set on a narrow stretch of lawn outside the main house, and viewed from a terrace, was sprightlier and more intense. Two players, a man and a woman, ran back and forth holding banners as Jane Smith and Jonas declaimed poems by Anna Akhmatova, including “Why is this Age Worse than Earlier Ages?” in high-thespian tones. Here Jonas ritualistically arranged tiles of slate decorated with rudimentary chalk-markings that suggested Celtic runes, or early wall drawings by Sol LeWitt. By virtue of the pastoral setting, the engorged narrations, and the artful manipulation of systems, conceits and games, the scenes on the lawn and the playing field were reminiscent of certain films by Peter Greenaway, particularly Drowning by Numbers, and The Draughtman’s Contract.

The final event took place inside the house in a vaulted former dining hall, which looked more like an enormous private chapel. There, several instruments awaited players that included the composer Alvin Curran and the rest of the cast gathered as if for an evening concert. The writer Eduardo Galeano’s “Los tres (ella no se viste mas como un capitán)” (The three [she no longer dresses as a captain]) provided the lyrics fora plangent, quasi-traditional choral piece. The performance ended like a vespers, on a stirring but abstracted inspirational note.

Western identity, it seemed, was the central theme around which Jonas’ opus revolved. Expressed through juxtaposed readings, actions, new-music episodes, Judsonesque dance elements and Jungian tableaux, and conveying such apposite thematic couplings as domesticity and travel, gentility and the primordial, sport and war, and ritual and circumstance, Variations on a Scene left one simultaneously bemused and bewitched. Jonas is a subtle and supremely cultivated artist—an impeccable esthete, as well as an ideal sprite. Many thematic nuances that evanesced in this performance will likely resonate with more clarity in a forthcoming video version of the work. In its present form, the sorrows of conquest, the depths of Akhmatova, and the genius of de Toqueville resounded.

Lisa Liebmann