They Come to Us Without A Word
United States Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia
by the MIT List Visual Arts Center
By Deanna Sirlin
Installation and performance artist Joan Jonas was chosen as the United States representative to the 56th Biennale Arte di Venezia. Jonas's exhibition is a triumphant moment in an artistic career that has spanned more than fifty years. At 78, Jonas is a seminal figure in performance and video art. At the press conference for the US Pavilion, she spoke about her work and history. Her complex installation at the Biennale, They Come to Us Without A Word, is composed of layers of imagery created from telling and retelling others' stories derived from her time spent at her summer home in a part of Nova Scotia, Canada where nature and myth has a strong hold on the people who live there. That Jonas's background includes studying painting and the history of art is evident from her work is built up in layers like the overlays and glazing over the grisaille layer in a painting. Jonas has transformed ideas from painting into physical installations, performance, and video. This work was in some ways decades in the making, as Jonas both revisits all her essential themes and remakes them anew.
Last winter in New York City, Jonas asked the children of friends to come into her studio for a workshop over several Saturdays to help her create the video part of this work. The children, aged 6 to 16, were dressed in white clothes, some wearing white conical or floppy hats. They moved and interacted with each other in the space as directed by the artist. Jonas projected her videos over the children as they moved within the tableau. Jonas then re-videoed this complex scene to make a new work. Jonas presents both videos in the rooms of the United States pavilion.
Jonas's work speaks to her passion for nature and the places she has lived and worked. Certain themes present themselves in this multi-room installation. You enter from the left-hand door into a darkened space that somehow feels light in the sense that illumination emanates from ideas, thought, and process. In the first room, the story begins with tales about honey bees and fish and horses and ghosts. Nature is in peril, we know this--honey bees are disappearing, fish are dying. Thanks to television, the Internet, and other media, the real world constantly inhabits our minds and spaces. But Jonas, who is certainly concerned with the loss of the natural world and its beauty and transcendence, transfigures these issues compellingly into a choreographed and multi-layered visual complexity that rises above the ruckus that always attends the opening days of the Biennale.
They Come To Us Without A Word is a compilation of many of the themes and props from Jonas's earlier performances remade with new stories that she has gathered from her summertime residence in Nova Scotia. From this region she has gathered tales of horses that swim in the sea with riders on their backs (this is done to exercise the animals), their long manes mysteriously and secretly braided every night; of ghosts that the locals still believe in presented by Jonas using very theatrical masks; ink drawings of fish (one to a page) and bees (also drawn one to a page). Jonas makes these drawings with a single color of ink that fills the page with a clean and simple calligraphic stroke. These are hung in the space alongside the videos and props used in the performances as well as a recorded narration in the artist's voice.
Jonas has used mirrors and other reflective materials in many previous performances and video work. For They Come To Us Without A Word she made chandeliers with old crystal beads that shimmer as they refract the light. There are also rippled mirrors made specially for this installation on the glass making island of Murano near Venice. The ripples are like the gentle movement of water in a calm ocean or pool and change our vision. In them we see both ourselves and the world differently.
The artist is present in the video--we see Jonas, small in stature and using a walking stick, but still a powerful presence, as a shadow. At one level, this work is a self-portrait for which Jonas weaves together many of the narratives and strategies she has employed since the start of her art-making life more than 50 years ago. This culmination expresses Jonas's passion for nature, myth, magic, history and the present, as well as her reveling in the physical act of making, all presented with clarity and a knowing eye for how one can experience and read the work.
In Jonas's work, the influence of the New York experimental art scene of the 1960s, of which she was a part, is remixed with that of the early performance art of the European Dadaist and Surrealists and her own personal story-telling and iconography. This layering of imagery calls up the work of her contemporary, the artist Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg superimposed his images one upon another in translucent layers to make complex paintings and prints. Although primarily a maker of objects, Rauschenberg is also known for his performance work Pelican, 1963, where he roller skated with a parachute on his back, and for the sets he designed sets for dance performances by his friends Trisha Brown, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham. Both Rauschenberg and Jonas cite the influence of John Cage and his relationship to chance in their work. Of course, Surrealism also opened the door to many of these artists' working with juxtapositions of different images that give new meaning to their narratives.
Surrealism is also clearly important to Jonas. Her work recalls the early performance artist Hugo Ball, one of the founding members of Dada (although he split with Tzara later). In one of Ball's famous performances from 1916 he wore a white costume with a cap with a pointed hat similar to those worn by the children in Jonas's workshops. Many of his performances had a sort of tableau-like quality—they were presented on a stage with drawing behind and involved sound and movement combined into a complex presentation. It is clear that Jonas knows this work and is channeling it into her own, remaking it with her own subject matter but honoring it as well.
They Come To Us Without A Word is a work by an artist at the top of her game. Jonas knows her artistic language and her history and brings them into an opera that reverberates in the viewers' minds with stories real and imagined.
© Deanna Sirlin July 2015
Joan Jonas's They Come To Us Without A Word is on view at La Biennale di Venezia through November 22, 2015
Deanna Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section. She is an artist.her recent book is She's Got What It Takes: American Women Artists In Dialogue Published by Charta Art Books 2013