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Joan Jonas as Interpreter, Guide, and Ghost at the Venice Biennale

Joan Jonas, 'They Come to Us without a Word' (2015) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Joan Jonas, ‘They Come to Us without a Word’ (2015) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

VENICE — For more than five decades, performance has formed the center of Joan Jonas’s illuminating artistic career. In the 1970s, her incorporation of video art — a recent invention — into performance was groundbreaking. Whether responding to closed-circuit footage of herself that was recorded and presented instantaneously, or using video as a projected backdrop, Jonas has used the technology to heighten the stakes of her body-centered practice.

For her multimedia installation They Come to Us without a Word, for the US Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Jonas has constructed a cryptic and elusive show, in which nothing is explained and everything is seemingly at stake. As the installation slips between video, painting, mixed-media, and their competing temporalities, it also takes on the enormous themes of nature, childhood, and the desire for preservation in the midst of change. The work lacks a beginning and an end, and with the sheer amount of stuff Jonas has chosen to show, it’s easy to feel lost. Fortunately, Jonas reemerges from behind the camera to perform the role of a guide through the work’s conceptual vastness. She creates an enchanting space in which to lose oneself without ever being actually lost.

Jonas has braided together the artifacts of this show so tightly that its messages resonate beautifully across its many rooms, media, and narratives. Environmental themes connect the four rooms of the US pavilion and each room has a distinct motif, such as insects, fish, or starfish, which Jonas indicates with watercolor paintings pinned to the walls.

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Joan Jonas, ‘They Come to Us without a Word’ (2015)

Two video projection screens also invoke the environment. In one screen, a regional ghost story is told by a resident of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where Jonas has kept a studio for many years, while the other screen shows videos Jonas developed in the winter of 2015 in New York City through a series of workshops with children, who perform against footage of landscapes. The way Jonas layers her videos, such that the children respond to and perform against prerecorded videos even of themselves, is masterful. She fragments their performances in ways that send the children and their actions sailing across time as salient motifs that carry over from one room to the next. Her choice to display the children’s props, such as paper hats, bundles of tree branches, and nautical ropes, as objects in the installation extends the children’s performative space into the pavilion itself, transforming the exhibition into a makeshift stage set for yet another, unspoken performance.

Part of what makes this installation so mysterious and compelling is the degree to which it is self-referential. Jonas’s relatively low-tech approach to video does not yield seamless illusions, but rather calls to mind the hand of the artist. She uses video layering and split-screen technology as strategies for interpreting and re-articulating the documented performances of others. She straps a go-pro camera around her dog’s neck to capture his perspective while running down a beach, but pairs the film with an audio recording of her own slow walk down its rocky shores — a scene that is later referenced in a film of her shadow traveling with a walking stick across the rocks. Even the makeshift wooden projection screens in the installation recall those against which the children perform in her New York studio. Jonas haunts the show as much as the ghosts whose stories it tells.

Jonas also includes a few images of herself in the video footage, although none offer a glimpse of her straight-on. She appears in the videos either masked, in the reflection of a mirror, or as a shadow, as if to challenge the stability of her presence — as interpreter, guide, or ghost — and to emphasize fragmentation and instability as organizing experiences in this work. In this way, the installation is both insular and sweeping: beneath this dynamic landscape of audio, lighting, and juxtaposed images of the environment, children, and animals, Joan Jonas is quietly present.

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Joan Jonas, ‘They Come to Us without a Word’ (2015)

All around the pavilion, videos and sounds reverberate back and forth with one another. They spark moments of exciting dissonance, such as when Jonas pairs the chaotic noises of a crowd with footage of children as silhouettes playing behind a screen. These juxtapositions also allow for stunning convergences, such as when Jonas strings together videos of a seaside pasture, a cottage interior, and a woman in this cottage drawing a circle on a window overlooking the pasture. In this fleeting moment of harmony, Jonas pulls together interior and exterior worlds. Walking through the exhibit there is a similar tension between where we are and where we could be; she compels us further into the show, as we’re drawn like magpies to the sparkling white light of a crystal chandelier and roused by the competing sounds of video around the corner. 

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Joan Jonas, ‘They Come to Us without a Word’ (2015)

For each room, Jonas designed freestanding rippled mirrors, which were handcrafted in Murano, Italy specifically for the project. Since her earliest performances, such as “Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy” (1972) and “Mirror Pieces” (1968–1971), Jonas has used mirrors to engage audiences and mobilize them as constitutive forces in her work. Here, she uses them to push the installation space into the realm of performance, by allowing audiences to envision themselves as actors in an otherwise dispersed and highly variable environment.

There is a prevailing sense when moving through They Come to Us without a Word that the rapidly changing relationships between its sounds, imagery, and performers — whether Jonas, the audience, or the children — are fragile. Between its self-referential tactics, theatrical setting, and use of mixed-media, this installation brilliantly builds upon and extends many tactics of Jonas’s performance-based practice. In referencing the seams of her creative process, and thus her embodied presence within it, Jonas traces a private journey through the exhibition’s vast conceptual landscape. In so doing, Jonas brilliantly manages to encase themes of mysticism and environmentalism, and her care for future generations as precious and deeply personal objects of pursuit.

Joan Jonas’s installation They Come to Us without a Word at the US Pavilion continues at the Venice Biennale through November 22. 

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