Joan Jonas

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body, gender, identity, myth, perception, process
Performing Arts (general, video performance)
America, North
United States of America
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June 10, 2008
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Joan Jonas
Joan Jonas (Photo: Jochen Wermann, 2008)


The videos are still dancing

For a long time Joan Jonas was forgotten. This is amazing in view of the fact that she was one of the pioneers of performance art. For other genres too, like concept-art and drama, her experiments and productions of the late 60s and early 70s pointed the way ahead. The revival of performance art in the 90s renewed public interest in her work and brought it the esteem which it deserves.
After studying art history at Mount Holyoke College (1954-59), sculpture at the Boston Museum School (1958-61) and visual art at Columbia University (1961-64), Joan Jonas, born as Joan Amerman Edwards in New York in 1936, began her professional life as a sculptor. In 1968 she moved onto new territory in developing her first performances, in which she combined various forms of artistic expression like film, video, drawing and acting. She also used folksy requisites like masks and costumes and text-fragments taken from fairy tales and myth. Her work is mainly about perception, like the ways in which one´s feelings about one´s body change according to its surroundings, the media in which it is mirrored and viewers´ reactions. She resorts to camouflage and deception through onstage masquerades and transformations, and her works are processes.
Jonas manages to create live actions which are as rich in symbolism as they are in layers of meaning. She splits the apparent continuum of space and time up into language, motion and objects. She is herself an integral part of many of her performances and reflects again and again on herself and her roles as a woman and artist.
In her later works Jonas has become more intensely involved with a person´s rituals, masks and masquerades. Her aim is not to peer behind the masks but to find out how a person is changed by the masks worn. Accordingly, her work´s ´theatrical´ aspect has come more and more to the fore.
Jonas´ earliest work based on live-performance was the film ´Wind´, showing folk standing on a snow-covered beach, walking up and down and repeating actions, like taking their coats off or pulling them on in response to the wind, while a couple with mirrors in their clothing walk stiffly towards a faraway sea. In this film Jonas was exploring the human body, its ritual movements and the space which it takes up. This work was also one of the earliest in which she used mirrors. In ´Mirror Pieces´ (1969, 1970), ´Mirror Check´ (1970) and others, the mirror becomes a centrepiece, which she uses to transform and fragment space for the sake of mingling reflections of actors and viewers.
In the early 70s Jonas began at the same time to make and distribute videos. Her first experiment of this kind was ´Organic Honeypot´s Visual Telepathy´ (1972). In the influential video ´Vertical Roll´ (1972), based on a performance, she explored both the structural and performative nature of the medium. The video shows interference on the monitor in the form of images continually slipping down from the screen. They move in a rather indeterminate fragmentated space. At times the face of a woman (Jonas) is to be made out, but the face is sideways like a head ear-down on a pillow and is alienated by masks. The video is also accompanied by the harsh sound of two metal objects beaten against each other.
Jonas´ outdoor performances (1970-90) were mostly in landscapes and industrial areas. The film ´Songdelay´ (1973) for instance, which was based on a performance, was filmed using telephoto and wide-angle lenses. From afar, viewers see the performers, which at times seem to be beating blocks of wood together above their heads. Viewers hear the percussive sounds but only after a slight delay.
In 1976 Jonas accepted a commission for children and resolved to use the medium of fairytales. ´Juniper Tree´ tells the tale recorded by the brothers Grimm of the wicked stepmother and her family. In looking at the role of women, it also became another look at the artist herself. Further versions of this performance followed, augmented by colour symbolism and shamanistic symbols.
Jonas´ ´Volcano Saga´ (1985/94) is another work using fairytale and mythical material and retells the Icelandic Laxdeala saga. In it the dreams of a woman (played by Tilda Swinton) reveal the future. The film is complex and uses multi-layered digital effects to reveal the young woman´s dream-landscape, wishes and fantasies.
In 2004 Jonas first showed her video-installation ´The Shape, the Sense, the Feel of Things´. Since then she has developed the work further, as she tends to do with many of her performances and dramatizations, and has included for instance extracts from video-recordings of her performances. The installation is based on an essay by the German art historian Aby Warburg about his stay in the southwestern states of the USA at the end of the 1800s. Here Jonas works on some of his and some of her memories of this region, especially of her joining in the Hopis in doing a snake-dance. The installation includes several video-projections of a performance and includes sounds, music, images, movements and objects set up in the room. It shows her continuing exploration of the performing body and its interaction with media and space, transformed through drawings, photos, video-projection and other things. Nowadays the artist works with a small and light camera, letting her move around more in filming. ´The fact is the videos are still dancing and making music´. (Quote: Jonas, in: J. Malloy & P. Bentson (Pub.) (2003). Women, Art and Technology, MIT Press, p. 130).
Author: Katharina Koschorreck


Born Joan Amerman Edwards in New York in 1936, Joan Jonas studied art history at Mount Holyoke College (1954-59), sculpture at the Boston Museum School (1958-61) and visual art at Columbia University (1961-64). She was also taught to dance (1967-69) by Trisha Brown, Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, all members of the legendary New York Judson Dance Theatre. She began working as a sculptor but then turned to the medium of performance, which she has since developed and left her mark on indelibly. Jonas has been awarded diverse fellowships and grants for choreography, video-art and visual art from sponsors including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the CAT Fund, the Artist TV Lab at WNET/13 (New York City), the Television Workshop at WXX1 (Rochester) and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD)/German Academic Exchange Service. Jonas has received the Hyogo Prefecture Museum of Modern Art prize at the Tokyo International Video Art Festival, the Polaroid Award for video-art and the American Film Institute Maya Deren Award for video-art.
Since 1995 she has been teaching at the Art Academy in Stuttgart and since 2000 has been a professor for visual art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Various museums have exhibited her art. For instance there have been big retrospectives of her work in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1994) and in the German Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (2000). She was represented at Documenta V, VI, VII and XI in Kassel. A work commissioned for Documenta XI, ´Lines in the Sand´, was recreated in the Tate Modern in London and in the Kitchen in New York. In 2004 the Queens Museum of Art was the first New York museum to hold a big exhibition of her works in showing ´Joan Jonas: Five Works´. Her works have appeared singly or in solo exhibitions in The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, The Kitchen in New York and the Pat Hearn Gallery in New York.


The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things

Production / Performance,

Lines in the Sand

Production / Performance,

My New Theater series

Production / Performance,

Woman in the Well

Production / Performance,

Revolted by the Thought of Known Places …

Production / Performance,

Volcano Saga

Production / Performance,

The Juniper Tree

Production / Performance,

The Juniper Tree

Production / Performance,

Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy

Production / Performance,


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.


Singularities | Einmaligkeiten

(11 June 08 - 21 June 08)


Video trailer

Video trailer of the performance "The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things"
The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things
The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things