ART iT: We were just discussing your relation to the feminist movement. You have previously described Organic Honey as an alter-ego who is erotic and sexy. My initial interpretation is that this is a re-appropriation of the commodified image of woman that circulates in the male-oriented mainstream media, but was that really the case?
JJ: I can see how you would say that. I don’t have any control over how you see my work, so it’s fine that you say that. But it wasn’t my intention exactly. It was more a process of discovery through working with video while considering theatricality. It had a great deal to do with the technology of video, sitting in front of the video, which was like a mirror, and altering my appearance and therefore my persona. I was more involved with the idea of exploring the persona of something that was not me, but was me, through making disguises and costumes. Of course, I was also taking control of the construction of an image.
My other idea of Organic Honey was that I was exploring the idea of female identity and the question of what is female. At the time people were exploring the idea of male and female in different languages and questioning what that means. My question was, is there such a thing as female imagery, and does it have to come from a so-called woman? At the same time, I was looking at the films and performances of Jack Smith, whose imagery is very “feminine.” I was interested in actually constructing a so-called “female” identity. So there were all those questions, and then at the end of the period I went on to explore other issues, although I continued to consider in my work the roles that women play in our culture.
ART iT: Would you say Organic Honey actually developed from an intuitive process of experimentation?
JJ: Yes, I started with nothing. Or, I started with video. To work with the medium of video alone was radical. You can’t imagine what it was like then, to sit in front of a TV and see yourself, and be able to make your own films in your own home, and to edit and do all kinds of theatrical things and record it and make a film. I called it film because I was also looking at film and very influenced by underground film. It wasn’t based on theory, but it was based on ideas from literature, in particular, poetic structure. It was also based on the idea of montage as expressed by early filmmakers, as well as ideas of the relation of sound and image.
ART iT: Do you have the sense it could have been anything?
JJ: No, it was definitely directed. I began to work with my own figure, my self, objects and references I had collected; also, from the idea of feminism, I was working with myself as a woman – who am I? What am I? What does this mean? So that was the starting point. And then I had just been to Japan, where I actually bought my Portapak, and so I was very influenced by the Noh drama. You don’t see it necessarily, but it was there as another influence.
Top: Mirror Piece II, performance, Emanu-el YMHA, New York, 1970. Photo Peter Moore, courtesy Wako Works of Art, Tokyo. Bottom: Joan Jonas ‘Mirror Check’ 1970 from Kaldor Public Art Projects on Vimeo.
ART iT: Of course you did the mirror performances, and used the video as a mirror, and people writing about your work tend to associate these projects with narcissism, but in Shinto shrines mirrors are put in the shrine to represent the gods, which suggests almost the obverse of narcissism: a mirror you can’t identify with. Was there any similar element of dissociation from your own image that you experienced in the mirror pieces?
JJ: I think so, because I saw the image as a separate thing, yes. But I was also responding to a kind of anti-narcissistic tendency in the minimalist performers of the time, who were rebelling against dancers like Martha Graham. I wanted to question that idea of narcissism. I didn’t know about the Shinto mirror, although I do have a photograph of a mirror in a shrine, reflecting my face, from that trip. I’m pretty sure I still have it.
Another thing I find interesting, which didn’t initially register, is the idea of the mirror room in Noh theatre, where the performers enter their characters before going on stage. So I know there are a lot of mirror references in Japan. But I was already working with mirrors before I came to Japan, so really it came out of that, and then moving to video as a mirror.
ART iT: Previously you’ve used the word “erotic” to describe a number of your pieces. How did you understand the erotic in the context of doing these performances?
JJ: I don’t think I consciously set out to make an erotic piece. I think my work seemed to have the flavor of eroticism because of the imagery I worked with and the feeling about it and of the time, when it wasn’t a subject for other people. However, I was interested in developing my own language. Carolee Schneemann’s work is rather erotic, I would say, but I didn’t know about it at the time because she was living in London. Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) is certainly erotic in a gentle way. I was interested in playing that up, actually, in going to certain limits of representation. I was really interested in the richness of imagery, the possibilities of color, texture and fabric, and a certain languid feeling.
ART iT: Formally, too, did the erotic show you a series of movements or a way of relating to objects and space?
JJ: No. I don’t think it’s necessarily erotic, but the only thing I can say is that I really enjoyed this reggae song that I used in Organic Honey. The words are, “You look / so radiant / standing there tonight.” It’s just a very beautiful reggae song, and I really enjoyed coming out with my headdress and my mask and my costume and dancing. I don’t know if you would call it erotic or not. It’s a little bit of an overreaction. It’s a natural thing: a woman who’s dancing to music – maybe it’s erotic. I didn’t plan on being erotic, it was just, I’m going to enjoy behaving and moving and looking this way.
ART iT: At the same time you were breaking up the field of the performance.
JJ: Yes, there were several things going on at the same time. It was about dealing with structure, and form, and the medium of video, the way the audience saw several different realities at the same time. There were all those things going on at the same time. I built up my pieces slowly with all that in mind.
Joan Jonas: Reflections from the Mirror Room