Joan Jonas

After her studies in sculpture and art history and dance courses held by Trisha Brown, Jonas turned to performance and outdoor action at the end of the sixties. In 1972, she was among the first artists to incorporate in real time a video camera and monitor (for Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy) in performances dedicated to the theme of female identity.
In that same year, she began to produce videos that investigate the possibilities of the medium in relation to the gestural scores of the performer and to the space of the performance. These works are centered around the connection between the performance and its reproduction on a monitor, which is used not only as a mirror, but also as a means of recording capable of exploring the many dislocations in physical space and of interweaving the representations of female archetypes.
Jonas’ investigations of female subjectivity are structured by a complex and vast repertory of gestures and self-representations influenced by the rarefied stylization of Eastern culture, especially Japanese and Indian theater and dance. Using masks, costumes, veils, and sometimes staging authentic “masquerades,” Jonas has expressed an interest in the representative codes of female gestures through a continuous process of overlapping and interweaving that, over the years, has also included fairy tales and legends.
The use of mirrors and video, which in time were transformed into large video installations, has contributed to visually enriching the sets of her performances, which can be read as a theater of the body and the subconscious.
From her first experiments of confrontation with the audience in which video was adopted as a mirroring technique up to the more densely narrative works of recent years, which reveal a more complex use of audiovisual technologies, the artist has always been a performer in all of her works, inviting the observers to take part in an enigmatic rite of self-discovery and analysis. [F.B.]

List of Works

Wind, 1968
transferred from 16 mm film, black and white, silent, 5 min. 37 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Filmed among snowy fields and the seashore in the presence of an incessant and impetuous wind, the video stages a series of choreographies created by a group of performers who carry out actions hindered and slowed by the strong wind.

Duet, 1972
video, black and white, sound, 3 min. 49 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Face-to-face with her video-recorded portrait, Jonas performs a duet with herself. The work explores the phenomenology of the video image as mirror and “reality.”

Left Side Right Side, 1972
video, black and white, sound, 8 min. 50 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Through a series of inversions and reflections, Jonas manipulates her own image on the screen, thereby addressing notions of representative ambiguity.

Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy, 1972
video, black and white, sound, 17 min. 24 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
In this video, which is based on the performance of the same name, Jonas moves and acts both as the subject and as her masked double: Organic Honey, an alter ego with the face of a doll. The work stages an enigmatic ritual dealing with female identity and archetypes.

Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll, 1972
video, black and white, sound, 19 min. 38 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
In using an interrupted electronic signal as the dynamic modality of representation, the space, the frame, and the image of the video experience discontinuity. This form of disturbance fractures the recognizability of the performer’s body, which exotically dressed and masked reveals itself as an impossible self-portrait.

Songdelay, 1973
re-recorded from 16 mm film, black and white, sound, 18 min. 35 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Filmed with a large cast, the work shows a series of choreographies intended as a theater of space, movements, and sound. The ultimate protagonist is the vast urban landscape of New York.

Three Returns, 1973–1974
video, black and white, sound, 13 min. 14 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
A boy playing bagpipes walks in the landscape and progressively approaches the video camera. Each successive “return” directs the attention of the spectator towards the changes of the sounds in relation to the surroundings.

Barking, 1973–1974
video, black and white, sound, 2 min. 20 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
A car is parked near a house in a rural landscape of Nova Scotia. A dog barks into the distance. Within a suspended atmosphere a woman enters the frame to investigate the dog’s agitation. She then moves away. The action is followed by a panoramic view of the landscape.

Disturbances, 1974
video, black and white, sound, 11 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Like Narcissus, the artist leans over water. Through a series of close-ups the observer only sees reflected and distorted images on the water’s surface. Some figures walking on the edge of the water are perceived as almost abstract shimmerings, shadow figures who appear to be dancing.

Good Night Good Morning, 1976
video, black and white, sound, 11 min. 38 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
During a period spent in New York and Nova Scotia, the artist portrays herself every day, addressing the video camera with a quick “Good Morning” or “Good Night” each time she wakes up and goes to sleep. This self-portrait, filmed over a period of time, evolves into a sort of diary that is both intimate and aloof. This video was conceived for a screen placed at the side of the observer in such a way as to re-create a space similar to a mirror.

Mirage, 1976
transferred from 16 mm film, black and white, silent, 31 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
In this film, from a performance presented at the Anthology Film Archives in 1976, Jonas draws images on sheets and blackboards that she then erases: a continuous process of adding and erasing, transforming and squandering energy.

I Want to Live in the Country (And Other Romances), 1976–1977
video, color, sound, 24 min. 06 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The artist is seen observing private video images that are metaphorically tied to memories read from her diary. The studio images, including still lifes of archetypal objects, are alternated with Super 8 film shots that nostalgically evoke the daily rhythms of the countryside, the rural landscape of Nova Scotia, the ocean, and a farm.

Volcano Saga, 1989
video, color, sound, 28 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Based on the thirteenth-century Icelandic Saga entitled Laxdaela Saga, in a description similar to a reverie, this work narrates the story of a female character, Gudrun, who possesses supernatural powers. In fact, her dreams predict the future. Jonas mixes the story with images of the island’s volcanic landscapes, combined with a first-time use of a series of digital special effects. Thus the artist creates associations between landscapes and psychological states of unusual and striking visual and oneiric force.

Exhibitions