Newsmaker // Joan Jonas
Modern Painters, October 2014
Since the late 1960s, Jonas has been one of the foremost innovators in video and new-media art. Her work shifts nimbly between performance and installation, incorporating multi-screen projections, complex sound design, and theatrical elements to create poetic narratives about female identity, historical allegory, and environmental devastation. This year will be especially busy for the 78-year-old artist: A survey exhibition of her work, entitled “Light Time Tales,” will open at Milan’s HangarBicocca on October 1, and next summer the New York–based Jonas will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Modern Painters senior editor Wendy Vogel spoke with her about the retrospective and her past work.
WENDY VOGEL: Tell me about the exhibition at HangarBicocca.
JOAN JONAS: It’s the biggest show I’ve ever had. When I designed the installation, I built a model in my studio and very carefully arranged the sequence of the works because the viewer will see more than one at a time. The only walls serve as screens for projections, and there will be overlapping sound. I’ve never shown multiple works in one big, continuous space like the Hangar, so it will be a new kind of viewing experience.
WV: You’ll also be staging a performance with artist and musician Jason Moran.
JJ: It’s related to Reanimation, my most recent work. Jason performs live for that piece. It’s based on an Icelandic novel called Under the Glacier that is about melting glaciers and the situation in nature at the moment. But it’s not a didactic piece.
WV: You’ve always been forward-thinking in your use of new technology. At the same time, your work is invested in history and allegory.
JJ: Many of my works reference history: Volcano Saga, 1989, is based on an Icelandic saga from the 13th century, and a piece called Sweeney Astray, 1994, is based on a medieval Irish poem translated by Seamus Heaney. I’m interested in bringing these stories into the present, and one thing that does that is technology—the fact that I work with video. This show represents different moments in my use of technology. Mirage, 1976, for example, is the last black-and-white piece where I worked with Portapak, the first video camera that artists could use on their own in their studios.
WV: You’re also constantly investigating the corpus of your past work to create new ones.
JJ: In Reanimation I used footage from a 1973 piece that was shot in a swimming pool. I’m interested in relating the subjects to the present. For instance, Lines in the Sand, 2002, is concerned with Hilda “H.D.” Doolittle’s poem “Helen in Egypt.” It involves the illusion of war, the reason that we fight: The public doesn’t know why the war is being fought. Helen was not the cause of the war, but they blamed it on Helen in order to fool the public and also themselves. Also, H.D. was analyzed by Freud and she wrote a book called Tribute to Freud. So I intercut the “Helen in Egypt” text with Tribute to Freud in order to make the piece more contemporary.
WV: In your earliest works, like 1972’s Vertical Roll, were you more interested in gestures or an exploration of the video medium itself?
JJ: Before I started working with video I made a couple of films, although I didn’t shoot them personally. The technology of video was very attractive because I could do everything myself. Vertical Roll is a comment on the difference between video and film. It looks like the frames of a film going by. I very consciously experimented with the qualities peculiar to video. That also influenced my performances working in front of a monitor. My work has gotten more layered and complex, and video enabled that.
WV: Reflection and response are important themes in your work. In Glass Puzzle, 1974, you and another performer are looking at yourselves in a video monitor and responding to what’s happening. Meanwhile, Babette Mangolte has a film camera and she’s creating compositions and making framing decisions based on a series of movements.
JJ: I built a set and then we arranged things in a careful way. For that piece it was very important that Babette do the camera work because I always did the camera work myself. It freed us to perform in a different way. I thought of the monitor for Glass Puzzle as a box in which I would make a structure. Even though I project the piece, you see us in that space made for the monitor.
WV: What’s your relationship to feminism?
JJ: The Organic Honey piece, 1972–76, was of it as an exploration of the female image. I was interested in the idea of dressing up and disguising myself, creating an alter ego, which would be a different kind of female image. After the Organic Honey project, I continued to be interested in the roles that women play and in the roles that I could play in my work. One example would be Glass Puzzle, which is based on E.J. Bellocq’s photographs of New Orleans prostitutes. The whole visual setup is based on his images, with the curtain behind the figure and so on. It was the idea of women waiting alone in a space. Volcano Saga was based on the only Icelandic saga I know that’s about a woman. Of course I got Tilda Swinton to play that role. I was interested in the roles that women play in fairy tales. For instance, in The Juniper Tree, 1976, I played all the different female roles.
Since then, I have begun to deal with other issues besides that of the female. The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, 2005, is based on the writings of Aby Warburg about his visit to the Hopi reservation in the Southwest. I had gone to see the Hopi Snake Dance in the 1960s, but I never made anything about it because I didn’t think it was appropriate. In that piece I was able to deal with my own relationship to mythology and to that aspect of America. I’m very interested in working with ideas from other cultures. I always have been.
WV: Have your interests shifted from explicit questions about female identity to ones about cross-cultural dialogue and colonialism, and humankind’s colonization of nature?
JJ: That’s what I was getting into in Reanimation. That is totally an important issue for me. I’m not thinking in terms of feminism. It’s a bit broader than that—not that feminism isn’t broad or important. I do think my work is about the world we live in, and that’s one aspect of it.