View of “Joan Jonas,” 2014–15.

View of “Joan Jonas,” 2014–15.

Joan Jonas

View of “Joan Jonas,” 2014–15.

In the vast, cavernous space of HangarBicocca, Joan Jonas’s videos pop out of the dark like the bright facets of a kaleidoscope. They emerge not in chronological order, but according to a dynamic arrangement that highlights thematic relationships within her work. Time and space, memory and the present converge in an installation with a strong visual impact, emphasizing the process-oriented and narrative character of Jonas’s oeuvre. The show is grand yet intimate.

The pivotal work at the center of the exhibition is Mirage, 1976/1994/2005, an installation comprising multiple forms of media: photos (taken by Babette Mangolte) from Jonas’s historic 1976 experimental performance, videos, films, objects, and a set of metal cones alluding to those the artist used during her performance. Cones of paper also appear at the entrance to the exhibition, forging a connection between past and present. In another video installation, Double Lunar Rabbits, 2010, Jonas combines self-mockery with Kabuki-like gestures as well as elements found throughout her previous work: animals, mirrors, flags, masks. In the last room, the multimedia installation Reanimation, 2010/2012/2013, constitutes the third fulcrum of the show. Composed of sound, drawings, text, and four videos projected onto Japanese rice-paper screens, it encapsulates Jonas’s long-standing connection to nature and her concern for the environment. Films of mountains and glaciers, water and black diamonds, crystals and star dust enliven an almost magical panorama, vast and microscopic at the same time. Water, air, fire, earth, spirit: The primordial elements break apart and recompose incessantly, in a pure and rarefied atmosphere, as it might have been at the genesis of the world.

The corpus of video and film that Jonas has produced since 1968 revolves around these three nodes, with works arranged as if at random, yet in such a way as to create new links between them; fiction, technology, and nature are interwoven with memories and dream states. Props that appear in the videos or were used in the performances—animal masks, a tutu, furniture, sculptures—are scattered throughout the exhibition space, calling into question the boundary between reality and its representation. Together all of these elements provide a sense of Jonas’s nonlinear creative process; she moves back and forth in a sort of timeless arcadia between melancholy and poetry, paradox and irony. The texts in her videos are drawn from literature and history, from Greek and Indian myths and Norse legends, from the everyday and the imagination, without thematic or visual hierarchy. People, animals, and landscapes appear in a collage video (made ​via chroma-key, the technique by which separate video streams are layered to form a single image) that suggests a synchronic perception of reality.

Dreams, imaginative projection, and reality overlap and reassemble. Fragmentation, jumps in time, and out-of-sync effects produce a dynamic space-time universe, while the circle, the spiral, the snake, drawn with an almost obsessive repetition, suggest the endless cycle of birth and death. Jonas’s gestures have the rhythm of poetic verse: convulsive movements that energetically place one image over another, or decisive motions that erase the image, sweeping it away with the detachment of a Buddhist monk erasing away a freshly completed sand mandala. In this spectacular installation, Jonas’s talent for translating from one medium to another finds its ultimate synthesis. She seems to take a deep breath and then dive into a continuous stream of images that re-present her vast repertoire from the 1970s to the present. Jonas historicizes her own work through a constant process of revision in theme, technique, and discipline, to produce for her audience a vivid experience that’s always new. And if the exhibition functions as a full retrospective of her pioneering work in the field of performance and video, at the same time it has the rare characteristics of a total work—in a class of its own.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Jamie Richards.