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  • Writer's pictureKATY HOWE

Joan Jonas : Woven Narratives through Poetic Performance at Tate Modern

Updated: Apr 26, 2018

Image from "Stream or River Flight or Pattern", Joan Jonas, Tate Modern

I first came across Joan Jonas when I was studying contemporary dance at the then, Laban Centre for Movement and Dance (now, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Movement and Dance), in the late 80's, early 90's. We looked at her work in the context of other experimental dance practitioners such as Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk and Lucinda Childs. Born in Manhattan in 1936, Jonas is today lauded as a pioneer of performance and video art and installation, with a career spanning 50 years. She first started making experimental work using various media in the 1960's and 70's, after studying sculpture and art history. Jonas says, she destroyed all her sculptures when she became more interested in dance, music, films and the happenings that were taking place at that time in Manhattan, by artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Robert Whiten. Having no formal dance training herself, Jonas began to experiment with everyday pedestrian movement. This gave her the premise to explore movement and performance without feeling the need for formal dance training, believing that anyone can be a dancer, because even pedestrian or untrained movement is a valid form of movement to be explored. Fast forward fifteen years and I found myself taking a much greater interest in her works as I was now studying fine art and beginning to make video work myself.

Although Jonas has been less known outside of the United States until 2015, when she represented her country at the Venice Biennale, we currently have the opportunity to see the largest exhibition of her work ever to be shown here in the UK. What strikes me almost immediately, is that yet again we have an artist, who happens to be a woman, who is over 80 years old, and is finally getting the international recognition she deserves. This is reminiscent of the British artist, Phyllida Barlow who, having worked successfully as both artist and art teacher her entire life, was asked to represent the UK at Venice Bienale in 2017, at the age of 73. And the British painter Rose Wylie who was “discovered” when she was in her 70's and who had her first a solo exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries in 2017, at the age of 82. It seems that women must graft for much longer and arguably much harder, to receive the recognition that many male artists received years before. So, this week I was able to visit the Tate Modern's Blavatnik Building, where the Joan Jonas exhibition is being held. It includes works from the 1960's alongside new work and gives a fascinating overview of the processes, ideas and concepts that underpin her practice.

As I walk into the gallery I am immediately confronted by a wall hung with masks. The masks have been collected from various places around the world and have been used as props in Jonas's performances. Her interest in masks came in the first place from a trip to Japan in 1970 with Richard Serra where she saw Noh Theatre and Kabuki Theatre for the first time. This was also where she bought her first video camera, which came to have a huge influence on the ways in which she would begin to work. She developed an interest in theatre from Eastern cultures where masks are commonly used, and she liked that the action of covering her face enabled her to become another persona. For most of us masks have the ability to transform, to make us begin to imagine and play, to pretend and even to perform a different story. So a wall of masks sets the scene for the beginning of a show that transforms the gallery space and draws me into its multi layered story, as both viewer and participant.

"my New Theatre Series I: Tap Dancing" Joan Jonas at Tate Modern

Sitting opposite the masks is the first in a series of works called “My New Theatre Series”. These are portable video/movie theatres in miniature, made of wood with either a monitor or projected video playing. They are truly enchanting miniature worlds and this one immediately draws me in, as it is a poetic documentary video about a tap dancer complete with miniature props.

"My New Theatre Series I: Tap Dancing", Joan Jonas at Tate Modern

I enter the next room and I am aware of gentle sound, all around, pulling me further into an experience made up of many elements, intertwining and overlapping with each other, just as Jonas's practice draws on many influences and utilises many different mediums. I see photographic images from Jonas's early experiments with mirrors, perception and space. Her fascination with mirrors originally comes from reading Jorge Louis Borges's descriptions of mirrors as being mysterious, evil and beautiful, where she subsequently developed an interest in how mirrors alter our experience of space, and the ways in which they break up space by multiplying and reflecting. Her curiosity extends to the ways in which mirrors would make people uneasy during a performance, providing a certain kind of tension between the viewer looking, and the viewer being seen to look, and an anxiety because of the very real possibility of the mirror breaking! The video camera continues this fascination with mirrors as a natural extension. Equally she draws an analogy between props used in theatre, and the forms that sculpture takes, exploring the ways in which props can generate movement. It is at this point in the show that we are introduced to “Organic Honey Visual Telepathy”. Organic Honey was her alter ego from the early 70's. This was a period where she had joined a women's group and discovered feminism and Organic Honey was a way for her to explore looking at herself, looking in mirrors, being looked at, looking at herself looking. She uses a feathered headdress, mirrors and masks, to reflect the fragmentation of her own experience as a woman. She says of this period that in the women's group they would examine themselves very intimately. Having been dictated to by patriarchy for so long women wanted to know about themselves, their own bodies and their position within culture and society, because up until that point, they had few reflections of themselves other than those in the roles of motherhood and domesticity.

The show progresses and I find myself being drawn further into another world. A world contrived by Jonas but based on familiar elements from the everyday. It is simultaneously strange but familiar and I am able to connect with the works on many different levels. I have the impression that the gallery is subtly transforming into another place, or is it me who is being transformed? Soft sound gently fills the space. It is the sound of Jonas's voice and it leads me through the gallery, overlapping from work to work, increasing the layering effect that is omnipresent throughout her work and throughout the show. The works are interwoven with stories and poems. Quite mundane everyday, pedestrian gestures and movements, that when repeated, take on the air of ritualised movement, add to the often vibrant and visually intriguing videos, particularly when her use of drawing becomes a ritualised motif, which is then echoed throughout the show.

Joan Jonas Drawing on herself in her video work "My New Theatre III: In the Shadow a Shadow"
"My New Theatre III: In the Shadow a Shadow", Joan Jonas at Tate Modern

In the majority of her works, Jonas performs to the camera. Today I am sure people would say that her works pre-empt the selfie generation. As humans we are often transfixed by our own reflections. We seem to be searching for who we really are and equally, we are perhaps striving to see how others see us, constantly re-evaluating which self to project for others to see. But with Jonas's videos, I have the sense that she is negating this urge that many of us have. Her video installation, “Stream or River Flight or Pattern” demonstrates a straight forward simplicity in the ways in which she enters and exits the screen, time and again . In this, as in most of her works, she performs to camera. She has filmed herself in front of an already projected moving image, increasing the mirroring effect that she is so fascinated by. She is wearing different incarnations of peculiar props, seen winding a ball of wool, wearing massive sunglasses, engaging in a series of two dimensional frontal movements, wrapped in yellow plastic, then she disappears behind a piece of white fabric or paper that makes her instantly invisible in the projected image stream coming from the projector that she is filming. Her gestures and actions are mirrored in the other two screens in this installation, in the form of their content and of the imagery, like imaginary threads linking them all together. She manages to show refreshingly unselfconscious gestures, and I am aware that she is performing, not herself, but snippets of many different things that she is interested in, she is giving me, as the viewer, the elements so that I may build my own narrative out of her work and make my own connections. The layers are infinite.

Installation view of "Stream River Flight or Pattern", Joan Jonas at Tate Modern.

In the exhibition notes I read that Jonas is influenced by many different sources, as diverse as fairy tales, essays, myths and local folklore, which she then adapts, relating them to contemporary life. It is clear to me throughout the exhibition that the action of drawing, the environment, theatricality and her use of gesture, are but a few of the threads running through Jonas's works. I am personally delighted by her use of her own dogs in her videos. Jonas believes that animals are incredibly important, especially now, with our planet's diminishing wildlife numbers and the many species becoming extinct. She alludes to the fact that in much mythology there is always an animal helper, and while I am immersed in looking at the show I find myself thinking of the multiplicity of nature, biology and history and the interconnectedness of everything. I am lost in thought while I consider notions of both personal and collective experience, and of theatricality alongside the plain everyday. I am aware of a feeling of “everything” in her work and I am reminded of the social fabric that women are said to weave around their lives, and through the lives of others. Jonas seems to successfully weave multilayered, interconnected elements into the fabric of her works, where she, or her dog, or the things around her, are the performers, and I find I have images of threads and weaving murmuring through my mind. Add to this the sound and vision, the mirroring, the video loops and the gentle spatial navigation of the exhibition, guiding my physical self and my senses, and I find I am taking the time to look, really carefully and deeply at the layered nature of all the elements of the works on show. There is no beginning and no end, it is all connected.

"Stream or River Flight or Pattern" #Joan Jonas, Tate Modern.

The final work in the show is another of Jonas's compellingly delightful “My New Theatre Series”. This one is called “Good Night Good Morning” where she has filmed her reflection in a convex mirror every morning and night over a number of days, each time changing the angle or view saying “good night” and “ good morning”. Her dog is there with her and she looks like an everyday person doing her everyday things. This repetition of the mundane and the ordinary succeeds in highlighting our everyday rituals and is quite life affirming. In fact the entire exhibition is an unpretentiously gentle and soothing experience, that is as complex and thought provoking as it is intriguing. Jonas's continuing experimental approach to her work, means that she is able to negate the high production values so often associated with the current practice of contemporary video art and touch upon something much deeper . By building upon a non linear narrative, she highlights a landscape that is constantly shifting, while still making sense. She mirrors the ways in which we experience our own lives, and the ways in which we interpret what we experience. She seems to be gently fitting it all together, calmly and holistically. She is providing me as the viewer a kind of soul food in an art show, gallery format. And as I walk, I weave my own path through this show. I have become an element within it, relative to Jonas's works. She has managed to choreograph me and all the other visitors into the fabric of her work . Along with all the other visitors, I have become part of a ritualistic and poetic performance about life. We have all become performers in her show.

"My New Theatre Series IV: Good Night Good Morning", Joan Jonas at Tate Modern

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