Volcano Saga, photograph, Iceland, 1985. Photo Joan Jonas. All images: Courtesy Wako Works of Art, Tokyo.
ART iT: You mention how in dealing with structure and form and the medium of video, your early performances allowed the audience to see several different realities at once. For me, that’s one aspect that connects the older works to the later narrative projects.
JJ: Definitely. I’m more or less working in the same way, it’s just that I’m older. In the 1970s I started working with fairytales and found that in representing these stories, there was a similar abstraction to the previous work in which there were hidden myths. Later, I became interested in these big, epic pieces, and I spent a good part of the 1980s exploring how to work with a narrative. My work has been an exploration of how to tell a story through the layering of image and text.
ART iT: You hit upon a unique way to do this, by pulling apart the story into fragmented parts linked together by a bit of text as an intertitle or a voiceover that orients the viewer in a general direction.
JJ: I really chose to work in a more poetic way and not in a Hollywood or filmic way. I’m still interested in the idea of making a narrative film, with a story told in a detailed way, but so far in my kind of work, I limit how much text I use to tell the story because the work is visual. In The Juniper Tree (1976), I used almost the entire story, but later on I started to edit stories and text and experiment with how I could rearrange them.
ART iT: Was Volcano Saga (1985) an important leap in that sense?
JJ: Yes it was. But this is one of two pieces that I consider problematic, Double Lunar Dogs (1984) and Volcano Saga. People liked Volcano Saga, but in both of these pieces there is perhaps too much fragmentation. I was experimenting with how to integrate my performances with sections shot in the studio. These were works made for television. I think they’re interesting because they were made in the 1980s, when artists suddenly had access to TV studios. We got big grants, so we could do things that we couldn’t do before. You had to work after-hours at night with an editor, but you could really experiment with special effects, so it was very different from the 1970s. I was exploring that situation.
Volcano Saga has different levels. It includes elements of the performance and footage of Iceland and combines these in the studio with actors. These two pieces are the first time I worked with professional actors. This could be the strength of these two works.
Top: Volcano Saga, installation, Queens Museum of Art, New York, 2003-04. Photo Ari Hiroshige. Bottom: Volcano Saga, performance, The Performing Garage, New York, 1985/87. Photo Gabor Szitanyi.
ART iT: Yet from the viewer’s side, there’s a very stimulating sensation of all these different media and sources intersecting in the site of the installation. When you’re working on a piece and putting it together, do you imagine a space where all these things cohere?
JJ: Sometimes artists are very critical of their own work. I’m always critical. I think it’s the way that you move on to the next piece. When I’m working on a piece I’m inside the piece and figuring out how to make it work from the inside as well as looking at it from the outside, taking the position of the audience.
Now, because of digital technology you can do everything at home. In the 1970s I had to have it all planned out so that it could be edited in a studio in one or several nights. Now I spend weeks editing my work, considering the computer space. I find editing to be one of the more interesting parts of the process. Space has been one of the most important elements I’ve considered in my work from the very beginning. I always work with a specific space in mind. Either the physical space of a stage set I design or a site that I’ve chosen like the inspiring indoor space of Dia:Beacon or the equally inspiring outdoor space of Jones Beach. Parallel to these physical spaces, there is the space of the monitor and the space of the camera, what the camera sees.
ART iT: My impression is that, at the same time, the works spill over into each other, as in the progression from The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things to Reading Dante (2008) and Reanimation (2010-12). For example, the image of the woman, Melancholia, sitting with the dog, makes recurring appearances.
JJ: There is some overlap, yes. I’m interested in some ideas and I extend them because I feel I didn’t fully explore them, or I’d like to continue exploring them. The woman with the dog appears in The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things and in Reanimation, although not in Reading Dante.
I made this image of Melancholia for The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things because for many generations of art historians, it is a major focal point. This is certainly true for Warburg. Obviously there are many levels of interpretation; I am interested in how an image or a concept is altered by placing it in various contexts: in this case, my different works. Another reason for my inclusion of Melancholia, was to show a certain sadness in relation to the natural world. My work often includes quotes from earlier work. My recent piece Reanimation is titled after a chapter in the Halldór Laxness book, Under the Glacier. There’s a piece I made in 1973 with people swimming in a pool that hardly ever gets shown. I integrated it into this piece because as soon as one considers the glacier, the concept of melting ice also has to be considered. I was interested in going back into my work to find that watery world. I liked the way it worked in the context of this glacial melting. I’m interested in how you can alter the meaning of something by using it in a different way. This is also reanimation.
Joan Jonas: Reflections from the Mirror Room