In 1968, in a downtown loft that doubled as studio and sleeping quarters, Joan Jonas held an impromptu performance for a small, unsuspecting audience. As Richard Serra (the lone viewer) lounged on the floor, Jonas shape-shifted from familiar to unrecognizable with the flip of a switch. As Serra recalled, “A theatrical persona had appeared, a new creation of sorts was striding towards me with a lighted candle in a makeshift candle holder. The personality of Joan was long gone, a fiction. In her place was a magical invocation.”
Since the 1960s, Jonas has explored the metamorphic possibilities of new mediums at a fast, visionary clip. Early on, her mind-and-space-altering performances embodied the radical spirit of the New York avant-garde—she collaborated with Serra, Simone Forti, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Yvonne Rainer. Over time, her practice expanded to incorporate video, electronics, and, most recently, the internet. To her peers and younger artists working across mediums, she is a hero of experimentation and an apt storyteller for an age in which humanity and technology coexist.
Perplexingly, though, international attention has come slowly. When a major retrospective at Milan’s HangarBicocca opened last year, a wider audience began to take notice. It is this year, however, that Jonas is pushing firmly beyond regional recognition with her Venice Biennale solo debut at the United States Pavilion—an exhibition that will give a bigger (and, I imagine, more-than-willing) audience the opportunity to fall under her spell.
On the night she rehearsed for Serra, Jonas was in her early 30s. She had received her M.F.A. in sculpture from Columbia several years before, but felt confined by the static medium she studied. Inspired by Jonas Mekas’s art-house film screenings and Rainer’s conceptual choreography, Jonas began testing materials that not only occupied three-dimensional space, but actively altered it.
For Jonas, who has described herself as shy, the stage—and its costumes, masks, and mood lighting—provided a platform for somewhat anonymous experimentation. After using performance to engage themes of body politics, ritual, and myth for several years, she began to incorporate video into her work. Projections and monitors amplified Jonas’s performative gestures, conjuring surreal images and unexpected narratives.
In Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972), Jonas’s first performance to include video, she donned a mask and feathered headdress to become her flamboyant alter-ego, Organic Honey. As her body interacted with masks and mirrors, footage of female archetypes flashed onto the wall behind her and through onstage monitors. Movement and video unfolded simultaneously, reflecting off of each other in a tumult of references (palm trees, folding fans, Bengali goddesses, Japanese erotic drawings, and Jonas’s own face in instant playback). While each gesture and cinematic cut was bold and purposeful, it became difficult to distinguish between live action and video, reality and mirage.
All of Jonas’s work calls upon this charged interplay between authenticity and illusion. She combines accessible, lo-fi, sometimes kitschy materials (like mirrors, masks, plastic globes, feedback static, rough cuts, and surreal overlays) to create illusory effects. “I wanted to make a magic show,” she has said of her work. “But I like to reveal the way the illusions are made.” It is with this honest mantra in mind that I anticipate Jonas’s U.S. Pavilion installation. In usual Jonas fashion, she plans to transform the space—a five-room neo-classical building erected in 1930—by immersing viewers into a multi-dimensional environment of cascading images, sounds, and movement. In particular, the installation will draw inspiration from the literary work of Halldór Laxness, who wrote on the spiritual, sublime qualities of nature.
Further details won’t be revealed until later this week, when Jonas’s presentation is unveiled. Though, when I spoke with Paul C. Ha, pavilion commissioner and curator, and director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center (Jonas is a professor emerita at MIT), he emphasized the artist’s unique aesthetic—and her ability to consume any space she inhabits. “The U.S. Pavilion is a modest space, in a way, but it’s amazing how ambitious this project is,” said Ha. “When people are walking through the exhibition there will be no doubt that it was Joan who created it. Video, installation, drawings—she’s really transformed the pavilion in a fantastic way.”
Ha went on to tell me that, in the months leading up to Jonas’s trip to Venice, she relocated elements of her studio practice to a new space in downtown Manhattan because she needed more room. It was the first time, since the 1970s, that her New York studio expanded beyond the walls of her loft. It’s easy to wonder how this kind of shift will affect her work. My guess is not at all. Or maybe for the better. As Jonas’s long list of pioneering works reveals, nothing seems to stop her from making magic. If anything, the prospect of spreading her ideas, images, gestures, and sounds through new spaces will likely bring an added dose of currency to her five-decade, perpetually reimagined project.