Joan Jonas, Jonas Mekas, and Herman de Vries Bring Lifetimes of Experimentation to Venice
Behind the Biennale: The Internet Saga
As 92-year-old experimental film pioneer Jonas Mekas sits in front of his 1997 video Birth of a Nation, an intimate yet encyclopedic visual rolodex of the avant-garde film community in 170 portraits, he discusses the common thread that runs through his half-century-long career: reality. “Everything that I do is from real life. My own life, the lives of my friends, what I see around. I don’t select—I react with my camera,” Mekas explains. “I’m interested in the invisible daily life, which takes place in places like Burger King.” Burger King is the unlikely home of one of Mekas’ two exhibitions—together titled “The Internet Saga”—on view during this year’s Venice Biennale.
Mekas, with typical candor and a glimmer of mischievousness, has encroached upon Venice’s first and only Burger King (located in a splendid 16th-century palazzo) with a series of new works that draw from his everyday experience with the internet. Videos comprised of footage from Mekas’s daily online journal flash across the fast food chain’s existing display screens as patrons go about eating their burgers, reminding us of his mantra: “All my work is a celebration of reality. Everything is important.”
Behind the Biennale: to be all ways to be
herman de vries
The 83-year-old Dutch artist herman de vries leads us to Lazzaretto Vecchio, an abandoned island in the Venetian lagoon, where he has installed a nearly hidden installation called natura mater. As de vries sits in the overgrown landscape, his sunhat shading his face but without diminishing his signature white beard, he recites a poem that reads something like a summation of his long life and pioneering conceptual oeuvre: “I see, I smell, I taste, I hear, I feel, I think, I eat, I drink, I breathe, I piss, I shit, I love, so, I am.”
Educated as a biologist, and actively involved in the mid-20th century Dutch Pavilion, entitled “to be all ways to be,” de vries has gathered and rearranged natural and manmade objects as a reminder of life’s fundamentals: “You walk over the earth, and you don’t realize that you have colors under your feet,” the artist says.
Behind the Biennale: They Come to Us without a Word
Since the 1970s, pioneering video and performance artist Joan Jonas has called Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, her second home. There, far away from downtown New York, where she has lived since the 1960s, Jonas draws inspiration from the arcadian landscape and local ghost stories. In “They Come to Us without a Word,” Jonas fills the Venice Biennale’s United States Pavilion with an immersive installation that explores the transportive, albeit ephemeral, qualities of nature and myth. “The most important thing I’m dealing with right now is the fragility of nature,” says Jonas. “Things are disappearing, and so ghosts also relate to memories of creatures that are becoming extinct, so those ghosts are here too.”
In the pavilion installation, swirling projections, glowing video monitors, spinning mobiles, and uncanny assortments of objects come together in an otherworldly environment that suggests exploration into uncharted lands, the existence of ghostly apparitions, and the sublime effects of nature. To some, the environment might resolve as a dreamland; to others, an eerie post-apocalyptic after-life. To Jonas, her work is whatever you want it to be: “I don’t want to explain it, I don’t have to describe it, it’s what people bring to it—just experience it.”
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