CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It is a dark room that seems like nothing much — a cave, an aside to the larger exhibition spaces at MIT’s List Center — until you immerse yourself in it for any length of time.
Then you’re within something akin to one of Joan Jonas’s worlds: a place where your consciousness is drawn from one set of images to another on this and then the other side of the room. Where snippets of additional imagery wink at you through cracks in the divider between the room’s sections.
In this world, audio is free to wander past what it is synched with or expand beyond the video it’s attached to. Your ear combines voices from several decades and stories from all over (and beyond) the planet that start and stop and start again.
In particular, you hear one voice speaking through four decades. And begin to notice that the voice, Jonas’s, does only a few things: make declarations, ask questions, and narrate. It also sings and hums …
Jonas is known for making — as she has done at the US pavilion in the current Venice Biennale — work that is itself and also contains an echo of itself. In Venice, for example, each room has a “main motif” and a “ghost narrative.” In an effort to find two similarly parallel tracks in the collection of video at MIT, let’s zoom in on one moment of the lush, watery, chroma-key-heavy “Volcano Saga” (1989)
Based on the Icelandic Laxdæla saga, “Volcano Saga” — which features, among other uncanny images, Tilda Swinton’s disembodied head and widespread hair — holds the most explicit piece of biographical information about Jonas of any of the videos here (save perhaps “Good Night Good Morning” , where we see the artist in her natural environment for a second or three every day and night).
“Volcano Saga” — and the performance it re-presents — adds a prologue to the traditional tale. The prologue, related by Joan, is the story of a woman whose car is blown off the road in Iceland by the wind. The woman, after crawling from her overturned car, is taken to the crossroads by a passerby. When she arrives at the crossroads, there is nothing there.
At least the first part of this action occurred in Jonas’s real life. She was blown off the road by the wind in Iceland.
In the film, we never find out what happened to this kneeling woman — played by Joan — with her sheep-measuring and storytelling yardstick held out loosely in her right hand, who “trembled and leaned into the wind” as she moved towards the crossroads.
Though it looks like a “main motif” of Jonas’s work, this might actually be its shadow: trauma, the inability to find a “there” where it should be. This theme is also explored thoroughly in the other piece in the show from the same era, the sci-fi-esque “Double Lunar Dogs” (1984). In both, the void or trauma of nothingness is resolved, sort of, in the giving over of oneself to the moment — or the force of the observable world — without regard for its endless capacity to create new voids and traumas.
If emptiness, then, is the “ghost narrative” of this show, perhaps the “main motif” is the failure of language and other well-established modes of communication to symbolize a wide enough range of possibility. From all corners of the gallery, symbols whose meanings we can’t quite grasp flicker relentlessly. Despite not standing for anything we recognize, they start to sink in simply because Jonas repeats them so emphatically.
In each era of art making seen here, she seems to be trying to transmit, via pure vigor of expression, something along the lines of poetic tools for the activity of sense-making. Across each film, decade, and narrative, she performs exercises — the rituals involved in making sense — with the sense subtracted from them. By doing so she manages to hint at something amorphous but also repressive in the superstructure of language.
She undertakes a similar project with gesture. “Hoop,” she teaches us, by virtue of the ways that she and her characters interact with hoops in “Songdelay” (1973), “Mirage” (1976), and “Volcano Saga,” is something you can roll within or something you can climb through — either by stepping lightly or stuffing yourself through.
By extension and juxtaposition, what Jonas demonstrates while showcasing the many facets of hoops tells us about other parts of the reality we all share.
Everything she does with hoops, she does with the frame line in video. She rolls within it, steps through it, stuffs herself through it — pointing out that it can be vertical instead of horizontal if you flip the monitor or camera on its side (as she does in “Mirage” and “Good Night Good Morning.”) Jonas uses similar methods to undermine the one-dimensionality of projection surfaces, which are broken up or through in one way or another in every piece here. Through one gesture after another, other accepted conventions for transmitting meaning are outed in the same way that language is, as hiding some parts of themselves from view in their more typical, institutionalized usages.
So, language and the flatness and horizontality of video are brought under scrutiny, and then other symbols and patterns recur across time and space too: characters wrestle with a rope in “Double Lunar Dogs” and “Lines in the Sand” (2002–05); long sticks get carried/danced with and bricks clapped together in “Songdelay” and “Lines in the Sand”; mirrors and hammers and rounded glass objects and blackboards and chalk drawings (circles, moons, stars, numbers) repeat and repeat and repeat until syntactic patterns seem to emerge within and across the videos. But the patterns don’t index anything.
Assembled here, we have not new words or choreography, but expanded, arguably feminist, vistas of expression. Ones that insist on excess wherever there appears to be limitation.
Jonas’s stalwart elements, along with her intelligence in choosing collaborators and the many lovely tributes to other artists contained in these works, likely all trace through to the present Venice project, They Come to Us Without A Word. But MIT’s Bakalar Gallery decidedly contains her past.
And yet, since time is another seemingly inflexible structure that Jonas explicitly inverts and distends within her experiments, drawing such a sharp distinction between her past work and her present might not much matter.
Joan Jonas: Selected Films and Videos, 1972–2005 continues at MIT List Visual Arts Center (20 Ames Street, Bldg E15, Cambridge, Massachusetts) through July 5.