Joan Jonas

AFTER A CAREER OF SOME THIRTY YEARS, Joan Jonas is being rediscovered. True, in 1994 the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam gave her a retrospective, but although other artists have always thought highly of her, the general public took little notice. This time it's different: Following her enthusiastically received retrospective in Stuttgart, where she has taught at the local art academy, her films were shown at the Kunsthalle Basel; the Stuttgart exhibition then went on to Berlin, where it was shown in the Neue Gesellschaft & Bildende Kunst. And so one might ask, how did it happen that this artist was overlooked for so long? Was it the ambivalent nature of her engagement with themes of femininity? Was it because she crossed the lines between performance, film, and video?

Andrea Jahn, the curator of this exhibition, attempted to reconstruct Jonas's creative path in collaboration with the artist herself. Jonas's early performances were documented with the help of photographs and video clips, themselves sometimes part of the performances, and of objects that were used as props. Her films from the end of the '60s and the beginning of the '70s were shown, and later works, like The Juniper Tree, created in 1976 as a performance for the ICA at the University of Pennsylvania, were expanded and turned into installations. In fact, Jonas understands her installations, which incorporate film and video, as “works in progress” that can be staged anew for each situation. Thus the Stuttgart exhibition was not just retrospective, but also gave insight into Jonas's current artistic practice.

Jonas's first performances, around 1968, were closely connected with New York's Judson Dance Theater, which consisted of students of Merce Cunningham and, indirectly, of John Cage as well. She shared with this group an interest in the displacement of perception, the fragmentation of movement, and the interaction of language, sounds, movement, and objects. In her first performances she employed mirrors, for instance Mirror Check, 1970, which consisted of the artist observing her own naked body in a small round mirror. The mirror as likeness, as the doubling of the real—but what does this likeness show or conceal? Performances with masks and disguises followed: in Organic Honey's Vertical Roll, 1972, she appears in a seductively beautiful feminine mask, cloaked in feathers, and holding a fan. Her scenes have since become more “theatrical,” and the older the artist grows, the more emphatic the theatrical dimension of her work becomes. Fairy tales, sagas, and folk songs are now the starting point for her performances, and she incorporates traditions from many cultures, drawing particular inspiration from the sounds and masks of Kabuki theater.

Masks, rituals, and the disguising of the self become ever more clearly Jonas's central theme. In the process, she is not concerned with unmasking, as one might think, but rather with the question, How does the mask affect the wearer's behavior? For the wearing of a mask—to put it in the words of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek—“actually makes us what we feign to be. . . .The only authenticity at our disposal is that of impersonation, of ‘taking our act (posture) seriously.'” Jonas transforms herself, and the situations of the later works, into what they pretend to be: characters and scenarios from a Grimms’ fairy tale in The Juniper Tree, an Icelandic saga in Volcano Saga, 1985–89, and so on. Along the way are moments strongly marked by tension between illusion and reality, seduction and distance, disguise and nakedness. These works never admit of an unambiguous interpretation; they attract and then repel. Perhaps it was this tension that has, over the years, made an understanding of Jonas's work so difficult to achieve.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.