New York

Right: Joan Jonas, Revolted by the thought of known 
places . . . , 1992. Performance view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1994.

Right: Joan Jonas, Revolted by the thought of known
places . . . ,
1992. Performance view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1994.

Joan Jonas

In her widely influential 1974 Speculum of the Other Woman, the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray condensed a number of badly behaved and highly contested ideologies into one neologism: la mystérique. The term exposed mysticism, hysteria, mystery, and femininity to be deeply entwined bedfellows in numerous representations of “woman” appearing in canonical texts from Plato to Lacan. Yet rather than conjuring the figure of the mystérique in order to dispute or exorcise her, Irigaray took her as figure par excellence of potentially subversive feminine productivity. If, Irigaray argued, women had been historically contained and rendered mute by texts and images created by and for men, one feasible putsch could be enacted, rather counterintuitively, by way of a unique symptom of hysteria: the compulsion to mime. Indeed, by coming face to face, as it were, with predetermined representations of one’s own subjectivity, one could, by way of a kind of radical aping, replace what was taken as natural with an exaggerated simulacrum.

Some thirty years later the mystérique is alive and kicking in Lines in the Sand, 2002, a performance conceived by Joan Jonas for Documenta 11 and included as an installation in “Five Works,” the large-scale Queens Museum exhibition of pivotal pieces from throughout her career (a concurrent performance at the Kitchen in New York City gave viewers a chance to experience Lines live). The piece takes its inspiration from the epic poem Helen in Egypt, written by the Imagist poet H.D. between 1951 and 1955. In H.D.’s retelling of The Iliad, the infamous abductee Helen never leaves Egypt at all, so that she can be considered a cause of conflict between the Greeks and Trojans only as an absence, a needed fiction, a phantasm born of frustrated (male) desire. Jonas, whose work has long followed a kind of myth-based, pathos-driven logic of refractive multiplication, finds in H.D.’s Helen a perfect absent center and, thus, a most revealing, even revelatory protagonist.

Lines in the Sand proceeds by way of myriad displaced, densely layered images that serve only to underscore a base groundlessness. The stage set–like installation at the Queens Museum included props from the performance and a double video projection in which a nonlinear narrative mined—and then mimed—the story of Helen while feverishly reconfiguring its familiar fundamental details in relentlessly unfaithful fashion. Onscreen, Jonas casts a diagonal shadow, pushing a long stick through sand, a dog bounding alongside; black-and-white photographs of Egypt in 1910, framed through a tourist’s wide eyes (Jonas’s own grandmother’s, in fact), are arranged as enthusiastic primers of exoticism, replete with pyramids and sphinxes; a tinny doppelgänger Egypt flashes by in the form of Las Vegas’s Luxor Hotel; and Jonas dances a sped-up, dervish rendition of the seven veils under Nevada’s vast desert sky. These views of a semifantastical Egypt are narrated in a recording of Jonas, who alternates reading excerpts from H.D.’s Helen in Egypt and the poet’s Tribute to Freud, in which she recounts her sessions with the infamous psychoanalyst.

This constellation of images and texts produces a kind of dilating effect; the more there is, the less securely grasped any of it can be. Put another way, Jonas has created a space of focused destabilization, in which the very force behind Lines in the Sand (i.e., Helen qua Helen) comes into a vivid kind of three-dimensional being precisely because the mythically two-dimensional character is unmoored from the literary logic that had for so long assigned her only a stereotypically causal status. If The Iliad’s heroic logic depended on Helen being brought to Troy, while in H.D.’s recasting she needed to remain in Egypt, then by natural progression Jonas’s Helen ends up no place at all—self-consciously pondering the plausibility of a myth that has come to circumscribe, and thus dictate, her being. Jonas, not performing as Helen or H.D. but rather performing toward them both, jams the machine (to borrow another of Irigaray’s notions) of mythology, our oldest form of history, makes it stutter, and then watches the ripple effect unfold.

QMA director of exhibitions Valerie Smith’s smart decision to avoid going the retrospective route probably had something to do with a similar kind of ripple effect. In organizing “Five Works,” Smith seemed to embrace Jonas’s signature method of multiplication and fracture: The exhibition, in point of fact, housed the abundant elements of some eleven pieces (rather than the purported five), each of which demonstrated Jonas’s long-standing involvement with space, representation, the body, and storytelling. These concerns have remained central throughout her years of steady production, yet the means of making her works has varied radically, as she has experimented with different amalgams of theatrical and outdoor performance, textual appropriation, dance, and, perhaps most famously, film and video. Although the problematics of presenting work that often first existed as live performance are innumerable, Jonas’s present a second complication since many of them also already incorporate elements of prerecorded video—there precisely to disturb any smooth conception of continuously unfolding time and perhaps more radically to point to space as a tangible medium, one that might be reoriented or displaced to show its otherwise hidden folds.

The formal logic of such spatial discombobulation shows up most readily in the spare outdoor works Jonas produced in the late 1960s and early ’70s. In pieces like Songdelay, 1973, Jonas took up her extended sculptural concern with space by way of the kind of radically pedestrian movement then used by many of the artist’s friends who were retooling the contours of dance: Ann Halprin, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, and Simone Forti among them. Jonas, too, was interested in the artistic implications of the everyday and in extending the perimeters of “art” per se in order to confound its very definitions. While she shared with members of the Judson Dance Theater a desire to complicate notions of skill (often including repetitions of otherwise banal movements) and performer (sometimes doing away with the distinction between artist and audience), since her earliest works she was most intent on pressuring the relationship between the seemingly binary pair she called “transmission” and “reception” to reveal the ways in which spectatorship was never disinterested but, rather, takes an active part in constructing the meaning of consumable images.

The grainy film footage of Songdelay demonstrates one such experiment in exposing the complicated striations of space. A group of performers congregated in a razed ten-block grid of city streets in Lower Manhattan near the Hudson River; at once intensely urban and intensely not, this liminal site served as a stage for Jonas’s work in situ. An audience was assembled on the rooftop of a Greenwich Street apartment building, while performers, positioned at various distances from the audience, casually carried out lyrically ridiculous tasks: A woman’s dance is restricted (and thus choreographed) by two long poles inserted into her sleeves and pant legs; a performer’s limbs span the perimeter of a giant hoop rolling along the asphalt; people spontaneously clap thick chunks of wood together above their heads in order to produce punctuations of sound. Viewed from a distance, these actions assumed figuration within a kind of flat tableau. The “deep landscape,” in Jonas’s terms, in which they took place complicated any easy reception or comprehension of the actions’ interrelations (and sometimes the actions themselves), while rendering the whole into an unstable, thoroughly contingent image.

Jonas’s decision to make space legible (and illegible) by way of sound beautifully underscored this point. Each performer took up position according to a preplotted distance marked by a large handpainted sign. A performer located by number 66 stood some sixty-six paces from the building on which the spectators were perched and was thus in fairly close proximity compared with a performer posted at 517 paces, visible only as a blur. Some performers stood on humps of ground, others ended up partially hidden by detritus or buildings. Although they slapped their wood blocks together in uniform fashion (an operation Jonas borrowed from Japanese theater), the participants delivered very different versions of the action. Those located nearest to their audience seemed to produce simultaneous image and sound, while those at a distance appeared to unhinge the two, since the sharp clap gave the impression of meandering lazily after the action that had caused it. This subtle, fleeting mode of reframing might helpfully be read alongside more overt spatial interventions of the day: Richard Serra and Michael Heizer, for instance, were enacting monumental markings that, nonetheless, similarly expanded the sculptural field, as it were.

The fundamental difference, though, between Jonas’s outdoor works and, say, Heizer’s, is hardly inconsequential. Jonas has written that, in approaching space as a medium, she looks for “ways of dislocating it, attenuating it, flattening it, turning it inside out, always attempting to explore it without ever giving to myself or to others the permission to penetrate it.” Turning her attention to video in the early ’70s, she found yet another way to enact such transmutations, again by leaning on the conventions of transmission and reception. Douglas Crimp early on named such strategies in Jonas’s practice “de-synchronization,” updating Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt (estrangement or alienation) to include literal fragmentation and repetition and to point to Jonas’s insistence that artwork, artist, and audience become productively, if sometimes queasily, decentered. And indeed, Jonas used video to produce another breed of clefted image, these literally so, as in Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll, 1972. Here, Jonas’s live performance incorporated a prerecorded video (Vertical Roll, 1972), in which a thick black horizontal line nervously bisects a series of images (rendering them both doubled and fragmented). This line—a “vertical roll” in technical terms—disappeared at the bottom of the screen only to reappear immediately at the top (the effect of a monitor’s receiving and transmitting frequencies being desynchronized), rendering everything on the screen a kind of part object. In her series of Organic Honey performances, Jonas exposed and recast representations of “woman” by continually deferring them. The artist donned costumes and masks, consistently utilized mirrors among her props, and engaged in obsessively repetitive (often discomfortingly ritualistic) actions. She rendered every performance as both rigidly mediated and exponentially multiplied: Sometimes concealed behind a curtain, Jonas denied her audience direct access, forcing viewers to watch combinations of “live” and recorded transmissions without letting on which was which; of course, this illusion of excessive access meant that nothing therein could ever be fully comprehended.

A kind of shape-shifter whose constant refiguration destabilized habits of perception, Organic Honey was a mythic being of Jonas’s own making, cobbled together from so many ancient and contemporary representations of woman. The artist has in years past appropriated more explicitly from existing narratives—fairy tales, folk legends, and medieval epic poems among them—fundamentally restructuring each along theretofore unexposed internal fault lines, rendering previously sutured structures as dislocated, attenuated, flattened, turned inside out. Perhaps the artist’s continued drive to strike at foundations and reinvent helps explain the otherwise incomprehensible fact that this is Jonas’s first large exhibition in New York. Her work demands viewers who derive pleasure from the difficult activity of deconstructing and reconstructing otherwise invisible normative codes of reception (among them stereotypical narratives that support clichés of gender, race, and sexuality). And so, if Jonas summons the mystérique—in the elusive persons of Helen, H.D., Organic Honey, and the artist herself, to name but a few—the hybrid figure hardly serves to further classify any of them. Rather, it speaks in each borrowed tongue just long enough to put unexpected words into yet another mouth.

Johanna Burton is a New York–based art historian and critic.