Jonas Mekas, herman de vries, and Joan Jonas have long influenced the art world. While theirs might not be household names—perhaps thanks to their experimental, often uncategorizable practices—each artist has pioneered new approaches to art-making, inspired peers, and played hero to younger artists. This year—at ages 92, 83, and 79 respectively—Mekas, de vries, and Jonas bring new projects to Venice that remind us of their influential, endlessly regenerative work. Here, they step away from the Biennale crowds to ponder what drives their more than 50-year-long careers, namely: curiosity, community, and the allure of everyday life.
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.”
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 Zero movement, de vries’s body of work has since quietly traversed—and seamlessly converged—the fields of art, science, and philosophy. For natura mater, and its complementary exhibition in the Venice Biennale’s 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.
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.”