Art Dictionary

Joan Jonas

Joan Jonas

Biography

The American artist Joan Jonas was born in New York City in 1936. She is considered a pioneer in the fields of performance and video art. Jonas grew up in New York and first studied art history from 1954 to 1958 at Mount Holyoke College. She followed this up by studying sculpture from 1958 to 1961 at the Boston Museum School, and then painting from 1961 to 1964 at Columbia University in New York. Her initial works of art, produced in the early 1960s in New York, were influenced by the non-linear works of John Cage and Claes Oldenburg. She has been represented several times at the Documenta and the Venice Biennial.

Book related to this subject

The Work of Joan Jonas

The Work of Joan Jonas
In the Shadow a Shadow

available
ISBN 978-3-7757-3961-0
» More information

€ 78.00Order now

Mirror in the Mirror

I also felt a desire to work outside the conventional spaces of museums, galleries, and  theaters, and to question the point of view of the audience. I step in and out of my work in order to direct its perception. Other references for me, as I thought about the nature of  illusion, were the circus and magic shows that I had seen as a child, and the idea of alchemy, the transformation of material or of the psyche.

Joan Jonas (*1936 New York) is a pioneer in the fields of performance and video art, who will represent her country this year at the 56th Venice Biennial. In the early 1960s she developed her first Happenings, in which she employed the female body, either nude or clothed, as “sculptural material” in the space, carefully fragmenting and reflecting it in mirrors. The body becomes actor and material, subject and object. With these works Jonas became an icon of New York’s avant-garde art scene. With Organic Honey, one of her first great videos (1970), she created a feminist art classic. In 1994, Rudi Fuchs, the former director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, called her the “Grande Dame of performance—one of the few artists that already in the sixties defined the nature of that flexible artform and also one of the few that kept the form gloriously alive.”

Besides her exploration of the themes of femininity, the guiding of the view, and space, Jonas’s action art and later, her videos, were primarily about the tense context of reality, illusion, and myth, the person(a) and identity, about the production of images. The audience has special significance for her. In Left Side, Right Side (1972) she integrates the audience into a fundamental investigation of spatial relationships, while questioning the relationship between physical and visual perception. Like a high priestess, she guides the gaze via a split screen, offering only shards of images. It is a game of uncertainties, recalling a cultish sort of action. The artist as shaman? It could be understood as an experiment with the question of how an audience can really experience art. About Mirror Check, one of her early pieces, she says, “It’s the shamanistic idea—the performer goes through the actions so that the audience can experience them also. It takes you into a space that you wouldn’t otherwise be in.” Jonas confronts her audience with an enigmatic depiction of self-exploration, by always combining different collage-like forms of artistic expression, such as film, video, music, photography, drawing, or even chess and dance. Through elements of deconstruction, irritation, and the inclusion of the audience, she creates complex perceptual and spatial situations that oscillate between transformation and fragmentation.

In Reading Dante (2007–2010) and Reanimation (2010–2012), two outstanding works in progress, Jonas continued to develop her kind of installation performance, incorporating the interplay of sounds, song, and texts in a space defined by paintings on the wall and layers of overlapping video projections. On Reading Dante, which, like Reanimation or Under the Glacier, is regarded as an exploration of the various forms of narrative, she says, “Obviously I’m translating Dante into my own eccentric, very personal visual language; I’m not attempting to illustrate the text . . . I called this project Reading Dante because it gave me freedom to work with the text on an everyday level. I refer to the process of reading while being in one’s own world of associations that might relate to the text.”

Jonas has continued to develop her video/sound installation Reanimation for various sites, including the dOCUMENTA (13), where she turned a little wooden hut into a kind of miniature theater for the performance in the middle of the Karlsaue in Kassel. The literary source material for Reanimation is a novel by the Icelandic winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Halldór Laxness, Under the Glacier. Between 1972 and 2012 Jonas’s work was seen a total of six times at the Documenta in Kassel, and for the first time at the Venice Biennial in 2009.

Her artistic work has broken the genre barrier to influence both Conceptual Art and the theater. Some of her teachers were Trisha Brown, John Cage, and Claes Oldenburg, whose influence on her “research work” is palpable when we think about her non-linear narrative structures and the forms of her work.

April 1, 2015 Caroline Schilling

Your Wish List is empty

Your Shopping Cart is empty

Recommend this page