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Joan Jonas: Bridging Performance Art and Video Installations

Updated: Oct 26


Early Life and Inspiration

Born Joan Ammerman Edwards in New York City on July 13, 1936, American visual, video, and performance artist Joan Jonas is a major pioneer in the contemporary art scene that came out of downtown New York City in the late 1960s and ’70s. Focusing on performance, visual, and conceptual art, “her practice has explored ways of seeing, the rhythms of ritual, and the authority of objects and gestures”.


Joan Jonas grew up on Long Island, and her parents separated when she was six. Jonas’ father was a “failed writer,” and her mother brought her to galleries and the opera when she was young. In addition, she had creative step-parents. Her stepfather, in particular, was “a jazzman who was also a talented magician”. She attended a “progressive school” on New York’s Upper East Side and has been quoted as saying, “I knew I wanted to be an artist from the age of five or six….And my father encouraged it, perhaps because he had been disappointed with himself artistically.”


Mount Holyoke College – Art History Studies

Jonas attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, graduating with a B.A. in Art History. She studied sculpture and drawing thereafter at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The artist married Gerry Jonas and returned with him to New York City, where they would get tips about the art scene from Gerry’s friend Calvin Trillin. The marriage ended in divorce.


Columbia University

Joan Jonas received an MFA in Sculpture from Columbia University in 1965, and had begun to immerse herself in the burgeoning downtown New York art scene. She studied dance with choreographer Trisha Brown and worked with modern dance makers Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. The couple would attend the “happenings” of such creators as Robert Whitman and Claes Oldenburg, Jonas supported herself during these early years with occasional grants and by working in a gallery and as a proofreader for the New York Review of Books.


She told Artforum in 2015: “I decided to switch from sculpture to performance, having been inspired by works I’d seen by [The] Living Theater, Lucinda Childs and Claes Oldenburg, among others….The switch didn’t seem like a big change because, like other artists in that era, I became interested in combining different aspects of the time-based arts — for me, dance and film — to create my own language.”


The Growth of an Artist

According to curator Dorine Mignot’s notes for the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum program for the artist’s 1994 retrospective: “At the end of the sixties, Joan Jonas was one of the first artists to explore ideas of perception in space and time. The conceptualization of forms: minimal art, process art, body art, to name a few. Jonas’ early performances were at the core of these movements”.


“In 1968 she started to perform with friends and acquaintances in the street, on the beach, in her loft or in alternative spaces.” In a 1994 conversation with Mignot, Jonas said, “When I started to think about performance in 1966, I went to Crete because of the Minoan culture. I went to a wedding ceremony in the mountains that lasted for three days. It was a ritual. I was always interested in folk culture, because it is part of everyday life, and anybody can be part of it. You don’t have to be special to do it. My performance came from trying to communicate this experience with my friends”.


Then-Soho resident, critic and playwright Daryl Chin remembered: “Joan was really enchanted by Lucinda’s [Childs’] work, and wanted to work with her, but Lucinda was strictly a solo artist in those days, and so Joan ended up working with Trisha Brown. Trisha was then doing group pieces, but a lot of her work involved “multimedia” (or “intermedia”)….Joan started thinking about doing her own performances, and she knew people who had video equipment and that brought [it] to her own performances, where she used video to provide alternative perspectives on what was being performed. Simple things like she’d sit on the floor, drawing a picture, but the video camera is placed above her so that the audience can see the drawing on the monitor.”


Joan Jonas First Installation

The Juniper Tree (1976)

Sometime in the mid-seventies, Joan Jonas’ work began a shift away from private spaces toward the gallery space. The first work to qualify as an “installation” was “Stage Sets”, which was at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1976-77. “Stage Sets” was the setting for two Jonas performances, “Mirage” and “The Juniper Tree”. Because the latter was created specifically for the installed space, a portion of the ArtNews review by Ann Jarmusch, is worth revisiting: “The Juniper Tree” was based on the Brothers Grimm tale, which was read throughout the performance by poet Susan Howe…it had a startling and fantastic plot. Jonas’ own gift for splendid and startling imagery placed a singing board (played by one of three additional performers) at the top of a wooden ladder representing the tree. As the father in the story climbed the tree his jacket, made of tiny mirrors, reflected a flurry of light specks on the ceiling, suggesting a snowstorm. Jonas in various roles, gave dramatic birth to a child (played by a live rabbit) and sat on one of the pine stools to knit twine with nine-foot “knitting needles”.


Volcano Saga (1985; video 1989)

First presented in live performance, and in a later video featuring Tilda Swinton, “Volcano Saga”, as described by Doreen Mignot, “is a multimedia performance based on a 13th-century Icelandic saga which tells the story of a woman and her dreams. After going to Iceland to record the landscape, Jonas developed the ideas into a solo performance….”


In Susanna Davies-Crook’s 2011 review of the video’s screening at London’s Wilkinson Gallery in Dazed, she wrote: “[the video] is displayed as an immersive installation combining sculpturally arranged objects and drawings in a darkened room with projections. Based on the 13th century Icelandic Laxdeala Saga, the work explores myth and dreams in the artist’s signature visual style, blending seemingly simple gestures and actions with high technology.”


Revolted by the Thought of Known Places…Sweeney Astray (1992-94)

While staying in Dublin preparing for her first European retrospective, “Works 1968-1994” at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, Joan Jonas turned again to epic myth, using Seamus Heaney’s translation of the 12th-century Gaelic tale “Suibhne Geilt” (Mad Sweeney).


Described by the artist as a “work in progress”, she wrote in the piece’s proposal: “I see this as a music/theater performance taking place in an electronic setting transporting the theme of the guilty, displaced artist (person) into a disintegrating post-modern world. The tradition in which

the individual, stressed beyond endurance by war, retreats into the wild, can be related to what might occur in the particular chaos of the present.”


“On another level, the piece describes shamanistic flight as Sweeney sings praises of trees, animals, birds and other ecstatic experiences. These rather mystical expressions in forms of early Irish nature poetry are musical and potentially magical in possibilities of visual and aural representation.”


Venice Biennale 2009

In her first exhibition at the Venice Biennale, Jonas chose to create a multi-media work called “Reading Dante”, “the result of her long-standing fascination with “The Divine Comedy”. In keeping with her diverse practice, the installation featured sculptural elements alongside film, performance and drawings”.


Teaching

Beginning in 1993, Joan Jonas has spent part of her time teaching, first at the UCLA School of the Arts, where she taught a course in New Genres. Subsequently, she taught at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart, and, since 1998, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is currently Professor Emerita in Art, Culture and Technology within the School of Architecture and Planning.


Museum Retrospectives and Exhibitions

Joan Jonas has had solo exhibitions and/or retrospectives at the following museums and major galleries: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1994); Queens Museum of Art, New York (2003); Pat Hearn Gallery, New York (2003); Rosamund Felson Gallery, Los Angeles (2003); HangarBicocca, Milan (2014); Vienna State Opera, Vienna (2014-15); Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York (2017); Tate Modern, London (2018); Ocean Space, Venice (2019); and Pinacoteca de Sáo Paulo, Brazil (2020).


Joan Jonas Awards/Recognition

Joan Jonas has received recognition and/or awards for video, choreographic and/or visual arts from the following: The National Endowment for the Arts; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Guggenheim Foundation; the CAT Fund; the Artist TV Lab at WNET/13 (New York City); the WXX1 Television Workshop (Rochester); the Deutsche Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD)

Germany; the Hyatt Prefecture Museum of Modern Art Prize at the Tokyo International Video Art Festival; the Polaroid Award for Video; the American Film Institute Maya Deren Award for Video; Lifetime Achievement Award from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (2009); Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon (2016); and the Kyoto Prize for Art (2018).

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