Joan Jonas: Pt I

By Andrew Maerkle

The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, performance, Dia:Beacon, New York, 2005. Photo Paula Court. All images: Courtesy Wako Works of Art, Tokyo.

ART iT: From your early performance pieces in the 1960s to the recent multimedia installations, one continuity seems to be that your works all have very dispersed elements, while also communicating some kind of narrative experience. For example, when you presented The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2004-05) at the Yokohama Triennale in 2008, I wasn’t aware of it when I was inside the piece, but somehow I walked away with an understanding of Aby Warburg’s trip to the American Southwest in 1895 and melancholia. How do you approach the idea of the message in the work? Are you trying to find different ways to communicate something like a message, or deconstructing the idea of the message?

JJ: I don’t really think of it in terms of a message. I think of it more as a kind of translation of the information into a visual representation – in this case, the text by Aby Warburg. I wasn’t interested in illustrating it in his terms, using his images. I was interested in translating it into my imagery, based on what the text inspired in my life.
I felt a very personal relationship to Warburg’s text because in the late 1960s I visited the American Southwest and saw the Hopi Snake Dance, so I was very moved when I found his own writing on the ritual. That’s how the whole thing started. I had a direct relationship to his essay about his experience in the Southwest, and so I could refer to this indirectly through Warburg.
So I’m not thinking about message, but I am paying close attention to the text. I edit and use quotes from his text, and I hope that if one listens to his words, one will understand his ideas through my interpretation. This is my translation in image and sound, which may be difficult, but I ask the audience to stay with it and allow themselves to enter into the piece. There’s something about Aby Warburg’s method I feel very close to because of his way of referring to other cultures and the way he assembled and rearranged art historical images on large boards. I identify with his way of thinking about art history cross-culturally.

ART iT: In that sense the work collapses several moments across time or history into one, from Warburg’s initial visit to the Southwest to his nervous breakdown and the present that we inhabit. But the work also has a very delicate connection to these different moments.

JJ: I’m sure it does. The text by Warburg was written while he was in a psychiatric institution about 30 years after his visit to the Southwest. It describes his impressions and was addressed to the doctors in the hospital to demonstrate that he had recovered from his nervous breakdown, in the same way Jose Blondet, who plays the part of Aby Warburg in my piece, addresses the audience in the performance.
But I don’t have any way of experiencing what you experience, because I am so much a part of the process. I can only hope that the audience understands it. I thought of the basement space at Dia:Beacon as a kind of sanitarium. For the installation, which I developed after the performance, I included a highly edited version of the performance that was playing in one space adjacent to another with the other five projections playing simultaneously. The soundtrack for the entire installation consisted of Warburg’s words spoken by Blondet with music by Jason Moran and various sound effects. Each scene of the performance had a highly edited video backdrop, a parallel narrative to the action. I extracted certain of these backdrop sequences that I felt were the most emblematic of what Warburg was thinking and of my experience of his work and my own experience with the Hopi Snake Dance. It also relates to my interest in animals and the spirit of nature and ritual that predates my interest in Aby Warburg.

Both: Lines in the Sand, performance, documenta XI, Kassel, Germany, 2002. Photo Werner Maschmann.

ART iT: Yet in works like Lines in the Sand (2002), you have drawn more direct parallels between historical and literary references and the current political context – in this case, the specific situation in the US following the invasion of Iraq.

JJ: Yes. Lines in the Sand happened to be very directly related to what was going on as I was editing parts of HD’s poem, “Helen in Troy,” upon which the work was based. I didn’t choose it for that reason, I chose it for other reasons. But 9/11 happened as I was working on the piece, and as I read the poem it became more and more clear that it related to the way America is, or was, at the time.

ART iT: Going back to the older pieces, how did the social climate affect you when you started doing things like Organic Honey in the early 1970s, or when you started bringing the performances out into the landscape and choreographing the landscape? For example, your first film, Wind, was made in 1968.

ART iT: I think there was a certain atmosphere around 1968, not just because of what happened, but it was the situation. The art world was very different in the 1960s and ’70s, smaller and not so involved with the commercial aspect of the market and galleries. There was more of an idea of experimentation and exploring new ideas and new territory. It was very open, and the world was small enough that you sort of knew everybody and other artists participated in your work, so there was more interaction going on. Of course, I’m speaking from my generation’s point of view. Maybe younger artists have a similar situation now, it’s just that I’m of an older generation.
The other part of the 1960s and ’70s was that the Vietnam War was going on, and there were many artists protesting and doing politically oriented art. My work was not directly involved with that kind of politics, but it was directly affected by the feminist movement, which was politically important for everybody, and it was something that everybody talked about and was involved in. All of my work from maybe 1970 on referred to the feminist movement, but indirectly. I wasn’t interested in making political art, but from the very beginning I’ve always been interested in how my work relates to the present situation. It felt then that one was on the edge of something. I don’t want to make something that exists only in the past. It has to exist in relation to the present.

II | III | IV | V

Joan Jonas: Reflections from the Mirror Room

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