New York

Joan Jonas

Yvon Lambert New York

Joan Jonas did not read The Divine Comedy until 2007, whereupon she began a series of pieces inspired by the epic poem. As with much of her oeuvre, the multiple iterations of the resulting work, Reading Dante, ultimately do not evidence mastery or even legible competency of its ostensible subject; instead, proceeding as a dreamlike, long-term experiment, Jonas’s Dante isn’t bound to readily resemble itself. The core of the project, rather, is the development of a kind of contemporary translation—a giving voice, as it were, to a Dante for our time. Yet Jonas’s Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise are of an altogether different texture from what one might expect, delivering neither direct cultural critique nor updated fire-and-brimstone allegory. Indeed, for all of the fourteenth-century original’s emphasis on the afterlife, Jonas’s own retelling is astoundingly grounded in the magical material potential of the here and now.

Reading Dante was presented first at the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, and subsequently that same year at the Yokohama Triennale in Japan; a related reading was given that fall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I saw none of these, but I did see Reading Dante II, an installation included in the International Pavilion during the 2009 Venice Biennale, as well as a performance, also titled Reading Dante II, at the Performing Garage in New York during Performa 09. Although these various stagings and events overlap with one another—with, for instance, footage taped during performances being incorporated into subsequent installations—each version of Dante can nevertheless be experienced very much on its own. The rendition in Venice, for instance, was a kind of anti-epic collage, a room whose walls were covered by Jonas’s trademark chalk drawings and video projections of various readers and readings of Dante’s words, as well as of Jonas, her frequent collaborator Ragani Haas, and other performers engaged in half-mystical, half-dancelike movements, the whole suffused with musical accompaniment and iconography culled from ancient and present-day sources. The performance in New York, too, was a dense (but giddily so) weaving of fairy-tale-like scenarios, including projected hand-drawn animals in a hand-drawn forest, and Jonas and Haas carrying out rituals both haunting and slapstick.

Reading Dante III, 2010, the installation under discussion here, puts on view a constellation of videos included in or recorded during this earlier performance, as well as props and objects associated with it. This description risks making Reading Dante III seem an evidentiary storehouse for the “actual” works that came before, but, in fact, the show worked in quite the opposite way, offering up elements of Jonas’s work to be read individually, still suffused with the tenor of their previous use as signs freighted with fragmentary symbolism, but operating very differently in a new context (a tactic Jonas has long used in her work). These pieces—a chalk drawing of a multitiered house; a wedgelike wire sculpture, illuminated on one edge; tables whose surfaces were covered with drawn animal shapes; and, of course, video of Jonas and others engaging overtly or not at all with Dante’s words—lead in new directions when set apart from the work they also reproduce. A theater set, a group of sculptural propositions, a way of manifesting not a piece but instead a practice: Jonas’s Reading Dante asks that we consider seriously the process of meaning creation as it takes place across bodies, objects, and time, and look at the after- math of a work as more than what’s left over, without rendering those remains precious. (The proposition is one that plays out in interesting ways as well in an exhibition currently on view at Location One in New York—a mini-survey of Jonas’s oeuvre that emphasizes her decades-long use of drawing within and as integral to nearly every aspect of her undertaking.) In an interview, Jonas says one of the main attractions of The Divine Comedy was that Dante was the first Italian writer to use the vernacular in his work. Something like that might also be said of Jonas—if we think of vernacular as precisely that which offers a new way to communicate, one reaching out from an intimate relationship to a certain place and time.

Johanna Burton