Joan Jonas’s "They Come to Us without a Word" is presented at the 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia. Jonas, a pioneering figure in video and performance art, is occupying the entirety of the Pavilion’s five galleries with a new video installation involving drawings and sculptural elements.
"They Come to Us without a Word" evolved out of an earlier work, Reanimation, first presented as a performance in 2010. Reanimation was partly inspired by the writings of Icelandic author Halldór Laxness and his poetic depiction of the natural world. They Come to Us without a Word evokes the fragility of nature, with each room of the Pavilion employing specific elements, such as bees or wind. Fragments of ghost stories sourced from an oral tradition in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, form a nonlinear narrative linking one room to the next. “Ghosts are very much alive there, as in all parts of the world,” Jonas states. “We are haunted, the rooms are haunted.”
In each of the four rooms of the Pavilion there are two video projections—one presenting the main motif of the room and the other the ghost narrative, a continuous thread running through the exhibition spaces. Free-standing rippled mirrors, handcrafted in Murano specifically for this project, are placed in each room alongside Jonas’s highly distinctive drawings and kites, as well as a selection of objects that were used as props in her videos. This arrangement creates the sense of a stage set. Similar mirrors cover the panels of the Pavilion’s rotunda beneath a chandelier of old Venetian crystal beads suspended from the ceiling—a place where the architecture reflects the viewer and the surrounding vegetation.
Jonas developed the videos in New York in winter 2015, with children ranging in age from five to 16 performing against video backdrops of landscapes shot by Jonas mostly in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Brooklyn, New York. Sources also include several early videos by Jonas. They Come to Us without a Word is animated by a soundtrack designed by Jonas, using excerpts of music by Jason Moran and songs by the Norwegian Sami singer Ánde Somby. The customized lighting is conceived by designer Jan Kroeze.
Jonas’s work developed out of her art-history studies and sculptural practice, and expanded to performance and film in the 1960s through her involvement with the New York avant-garde. Jonas has employed an interdisciplinary approach throughout her career, being one of the first artists to explore the potential of the video camera as a tool for image-making and the TV monitor as a sculptural object. At the same time, she has experimented in developing her own visual language in relation to the figure and physical space. Her installations, video works, and performances bring these components together with drawings, props, objects, and language, reflecting her research into how the image is altered through the mediums of mirror, distance, video, and narrative. In Venice, she pursues this research in relation to figure and ground, working with new themes, like the ghost story, while integrating all the diverse aspects of her practice.
Joan Jonas (b 1936, New York, New York, USA) is a pioneer of video and performance art, and an acclaimed multimedia artist whose work typically encompasses video, performance, installation, sound, text, and drawing. Trained in art history and sculpture, Jonas was a central figure in the video and performance art movement of the late 1960s, and her experiments and productions in the late 1960s and early 1970s continue to be crucial to the development of many contemporary art genres, from performance and video to conceptual art and theater. Since 1968, her practice has explored ways of seeing, the rhythms of ritual, and the authority of objects and gestures.
The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Jonas’s most recent solo exhibitions include those at HangarBicocca, Milan (Fall 2014); Centre for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu Project Gallery, Japan (2014); Kulturhuset Stadsteatern Stockholm (2013); Proyecto Paralelo, Mexico (2013); Contemporary Art Museum, Houston (2013); Bergen Kunsthall, Norway (2011); and Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010). She has been represented in dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany six times since 1972, and has had major retrospectives at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Galerie der Stadt Stuttgart, Germany; and the Queens Museum of Art, New York.
Joan Jonas is a New York native and she continues to live and work in New York City. She received a B.A. in Art History from Mount Holyoke College in 1958, studied sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and received an M.F.A. in Sculpture from Columbia University in 1965. Jonas has taught at MIT since 1998, and is currently Professor Emerita in the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology.
Joan Jonas | filmed by Out of Sync | Venice May 2015
Interview | Jesper Bundgaard
Camera and edit | Per Henriksen
Producer | Out of Sync
Artworks courtesy | Joan Jonas
© Out of Sync 2015