5 April–18 May 2008, Wilkinson Gallery, London
As the feminist art movement swung into action out of New York in the early 70s, Joan Jonas delivered a series of performance works, ‘Mirror Pieces’, that would challenge the representation of women in the arts and precipitate possibilities for all makers in new media. The importance of Jonas’ contribution to art history is also defined by her radical anti-European narrative stance in which all forms of cultural expression are perceived as equal and acknowledgment of how the mode through which one experiences the art work, such as the video monitor or performative prop, influences both the shape and perception of the content. There is little doubt of Jonas’ pioneer status in the realms of video, performance and installation art, but in an attempt, perhaps, to contextualise her current practice, this confusing collection of old and new props and film footage appears, conversely, little more than a fragmented archival tribute.
The exhibition is comprised of two multimedia works with literary starting points—‘The Juniper Tree’ featuring documentary evidence of Jonas’ seminal 1976 performance and a new installation, ‘Infernal Paradise’. The first, originally a reworking of the famous Brothers Grimm tale that Jonas conceived and first performed to children in 1976, is of particular significance to the artist’s career, as it marks the start of her investigation into the performative possibilities of written narrative. There is no film footage of the actual performances to view, but framed posters of the time inform us of Jonas’ three venues, including London’s Whitechapel in the 80s. An evocative array of cultural props—including many crude, lupine drawings on silk—set the scene, while slides of original photographic footage offer seductive, temporal windows onto the proceedings as disembodied narrative voices describe the action. The play between archival facets, to recreate a past event, sets up an interesting dialogue around what constitutes ‘the work’ today, but ultimately one leaves this survey-style room missing the human element and the rest of what would be a very interesting show.
The new work, in the bowels of the building, meanwhile, takes its cue from Dante’s Circles of Hell. With such a dark and difficult narrative hinge, this installation was always likely to present a challenge, but the sensorial chaos created here by five large video screens, a mini closed-circuit camera installation, wall-based text work, video monitor with headphones and abstract orchestral audio, is difficult to assimilate. A girl in a green slip holds up etched hand mirrors towards the sun; there’s a dream-like trip around a toy museum; shadows of people appear to play several instruments to death (which provides a testy, but at times, emotionally gripping soundtrack); a partial tour of Mexico City by car; a mythic triangular symbol featuring as the subject of real-time camera surveillance and several drawings; an early black and white Jonas performance on the gaseous late night streets of NYC—most of these elements are beautifully shot, some smack of self-parody and at points the experience is rather hellish. Yet, even with access to Jonas’ selection of Dantean quotes (hand-printed on paper and pinned to the wall) it’s hard to fathom what connects his Underworld with this otherworldly body of contemporary imagery.
Subjectivity and a lack of chronology are now pretty much taken for granted as art constructs thanks to the exploratory path through such interdisciplinary territory that Jonas herself has helped pave. But, for the most part, this work appears to conform to preconceptions of the experimental as a visual language as opposed to signifying a developmental transition. Given the specificity of Jonas’ own points of conceptual departure—previous works and a dense metaphorical text—in the eye of this technological storm, one is loath to abandon all attempts at logic and become litmus paper in a virtual sea of possible references and interconnections. Sadly, neither of the works here, though littered with interesting evidence of the past, help one to frame Jonas’ maverick sensibility in context or reveal her contemporary significance to new media and performance art debate.
Rebecca Geldard is an art writer based in London