Montreal

Joan Jonas: From Away at DHC ART

As psycho-historian, I try to diagnose the schizophrenia of Western civilization from its images, in an autobiographical reflex. (Joan Jonas, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things)

Joan Jonas’ retrospective exhibition From Away occupies two buildings at DHC/ART in Montreal. Arriving at the basement’s miniature cinema felt like entering a cauldron of the Jonasian universe, and moving up and down in the tightly vertical first building is like inhabiting a literal corpus of Jonas’ oeuvre. In the second building, a more traditional set of gallery spaces shows a field of dreams: installations, objects, drawings, paintings, and snippets of Jonas’ recent performance at the Venice Biennale.

Installation view, Joan Jonas: From Away, 2016, DHC/ART. Joan Jonas, They Come to us Without a Word (Wind), 2015. Multimedia Installation (site-specific adaptation). Originally commissioned for the U.S. Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale by the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy of The Kramlich Collection, San Francisco. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Joan Jonas. They Come to Us Without a Word (Wind), 2015; multimedia installation (site-specific adaptation); installation view, Joan Jonas: From Away, 2016, at DHC/ART. Originally commissioned for the U.S. Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale by the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy of the Kramlich Collection, San Francisco. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

The central motif is a diaphanous fan. Think of a poised hand sturdily holding a fan, moving with intention and gravitas, the fan fanning away—and from away, so to speak. One might imagine the fan’s literal and metaphoric textures: brittle, translucent, spectral. In From Away, the diaphanous fan exists as a metaphoric cipher and temporal emblem, appearing in the form of always-moving bodies, translucent billowing fabrics, and passing poetic stories in the video-projection performances. From Away maps Jonas’ continuity in building and perfecting a mis en abyme technique, from the 1970s to the present, using mirrors, video, a video-monitor playback of live action, and drawings. Inherent to Jonas’ technique is her refusal to confront her subjects head on, and recurring elements that add to her “ideas of the diaphanous and the opaque” are “the motifs of wind, wand, water, mirrors and crystals.” [1,2]

Installation view, Joan Jonas: From Away, 2016, DHC/ART. Joan Jonas, Organic Honey Artist Archives, 1972-1980. Courtesy of the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, photos: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Joan Jonas. Organic Honey Artist Archives, 1972-1980; installation view, Joan Jonas: From Away, 2016, at DHC/ART. Courtesy of the Artist and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

The diaphanous “diapositive” (a positive photographic slide or transparency) and its opaque opposite are present in Disturbances (1974). The video shows a vertical reflection of two women in white dresses at a river’s edge—think Maya Deren. One woman dives into the water and swims in the reflection created by the standing woman and the mandala-like reflection of her billowing dress. In Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll (1973–1999), Jonas appears as her alter ego Organic Honey, wearing a feather headdress and ceramic doll’s face, peering in a mirror, and fanning herself. Her laughter is expressionless and static, since her face is covered by the ceramic doll’s face. On the monitor, video loops merge her real face, the doll face, and drawings of her dog’s face. She hits the mirror ritualistically with a spoon, dances naked, and howls. The performed ritual becomes real; it has the feeling of being a conduit or invocation that recaptures a lost feminine essence and challenges the portrayal of the female.

Installation view, Joan Jonas: From Away, 2016, DHC/ART. Joan Jonas, They Come to us Without a Word (Homeroom), 2015. Multimedia Installation (site-specific adaptation). Originally commissioned for the U.S. Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale by the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy of The Kramlich Collection, San Francisco. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Joan Jonas. They Come to Us Without a Word (Homeroom), 2015; multimedia installation (site-specific adaptation); installation view, Joan Jonas: From Away, 2016, at DHC/ART. Originally commissioned for the U.S. Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale by the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy of the Kramlich Collection, San Francisco. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

They Come to Us Without a Word II (2015) juxtaposes the ever-present fan with a young woman, Rorschach-like paintings of bees and fish, and the other Jonas familiars: wind, circular hoops, a mirror, and the dog companion. The title evokes Jonas’ grave but oneiric concerns about loss and extinction. Jonas speaks of being able to roam and create in empty, unconstructed lots in 1970s New York City: “We improvised in the streets of Wall Street… that’s all gone, you can’t do that anymore… that playfulness is gone.” [3] What might be seen in the show’s title From Away is that this fan may not just push things away, but also fan things into being, to bring back “from away,” to pull into being. In Reanimation (2010), there is Jonas’ signature drawing onto other media. The drawing onto has intentional leanings. Jonas pushes to “reanimate” things. She says, “under the glacier, take a tree and mirrors…shapeshift”; tracing and dotting lost life, letting it go, splicing into the litany of her personal memories.

Installation view, Joan Jonas: From Away, 2016, DHC/ART. Joan Jonas, Reanimation, 2010/2012/2013. Courtesy of the Artist. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Joan Jonas. Reanimation, 2010/2012/2013; installation view, Joan Jonas: From Away, 2016, at DHC/ART. Courtesy of the Artist. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

In The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2004/2006), Jonas emerges on stage like a forlorn traveler, spectral dog on rolling skid in tow (see Joseph Beuys and his coyote). From Away’s various vistas posit Jonas’ belief in the need to continue “to wait,” but also to dig, explore, no matter the times. The Aby Warburg character in this piece says, “…in this epoch of chaotic decline, even the weakest has the duty to strengthen the will to cosmic order.”

Seeing Jonas as a “daughter” of the Yoruba orisha Oxum (Oshun) [4], one might imagine her white-spotted and feathered, with a bouquet of origami flowers, in a children’s procession, with watery arms, in water waiting for and also offering a gift, dancing into the drift, head bowed down, a shining glare in her face, immersing herself with an indescribable animal spirit. From Away directs viewers to the geyser of Jonas’ imagination.

From Away is on view at DHC Art through September 18, 2016.

 

[1] “Although the idea of the work involves the question of how the world is so radically changing, I do not address it directly or didactically.” Joan Jonas, press release for the Pavilion of the United States at the 56th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, http://joanjonasvenice2015.com/press-release/.

[2] Barbara Clausen, Joan Jonas: From Away (Montreal: DHC/ART, 2016).

[3] Gordon Matta-Clark and Steve Paxton (among others) were part of those avant-garde groupings frequented by Jonas in 1970s New York. Songdelay (1973) is characteristic of this formative period.

[4] “Oxum goddess of fresh waters, the most reflexive of the orixas is given a brass fan…hips sway…torso ripples gently…the fan at eye level…watches herself…as though looking into a mirror…” Barbara Browning, Samba in Resistance (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995), 65–66.

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