Joan Jonas: They Come to Us without a Word, United States Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

For the 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, the MIT List Visual Arts Center commissioned Joan Jonas, a pioneering figure in video and performance art, to create a new multimedia installation that occupied the entirety of the U.S. Pavilion’s five galleries.

The installation incorporates Jonas’ iconic blend of performance, video art, drawing and sculpture to create an immersive, multipart journey that addresses the fragility of the natural world.

For five decades, Jonas has been at the vanguard of interdisciplinary art forms. Her pioneering integration of video, sculpture, and performance creates expansive environments shifting traditional models of image making and story-telling. Considered among the most influential video and performance artists emerging from the late 1960s, Jonas continues to create new bodies of work that consider subjects like the figure in the landscape, the ritual use of object and gesture, and the fragility of the natural environment in the age of the Anthropocene. Her work was recently the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate Modern, and she is a recipient of the 2018 Kyoto Prize, which acknowledges global achievement and contributions to humanity.

Inspired by Jonas’s earlier examination of Halldόr Laxness’s fantastical novel Under the Glacier, her summers in Nova Scotia and the wonder of nature, They Come to Us without a Word integrates video, drawings, sound, objects and performance to construct five immersive galleries, each organized around a central image (Bees, Fish, Mirror, Wind and Homeroom). Fragments of ghost stories sourced by oral traditions from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, form a nonlinear narrative that links each gallery with the next. Through the interplay of disparate mediums, They Come to Us without a Word mirrors human interference with nature’s ecosystems, creating an experience where the impact of each artistic element reverberates throughout the room. Taken together, these elements form a highly complex work depicting a fractured yet interdependent chain of life.

Joan Jonas (born July 13, 1936) is an American visual artist and a pioneer of video and performance art, who is one of the most important female artists to emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jonas’ projects and experiments provided the foundation on which much video performance art would be based. Her influences also extended to conceptual art, theatre, performance art and other visual media. She lives and works in New York and Nova Scotia, Canada.

Jonas was born in 1936 in New York City., Electronic Arts Intermix, Retrieved August 13, 2014. In 1958 she received a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She later studied sculpture and drawing at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and received an MFA in Sculpture from Columbia University in 1965. Immersed in New York’s downtown art scene of the 1960s, Jonas studied with the choreographer Trisha Brown for two years. Jonas also worked with choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton.

Though Jonas began her career as a sculptor, by 1968 she moved into what was then leading-edge territory: mixing performance with props and mediated images, situated outdoors in urban or rural landscapes and/or industrial environments. Between 1968-1971, Jonas performed Mirror Pieces, works which used mirrors to as a central motif or prop. In these early performances, the mirror became a symbol of (self-)portraiture, representation, the body, and real vs. imaginary, while also sometimes adding an element of danger and a connection to the audience that was integral to the work. In Wind (1968), Jonas filmed performers stiffly passing through the field of view against a wind that lent the choreography a psychological mystique.

In 1970, Jonas went on a long trip to Japan — where she bought her first video camera and saw Noh, Bunraku and Kabuki theater — with the sculptor Richard Serra. Her video performances between 1972 and 1976 pared the cast down to one actor, the artist herself, performing in her New York loft as Organic Honey, her seminal alter-ego invented as an “electronic erotic seductress,” whose doll-like visage seen reflected bits on camera explored the fragmented female image and women’s shifting roles. drawings, costumes, masks, and interactions with the recorded image were effects that optically related to a doubling of perception and meaning. In one such work, Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972), Jonas scans her own fragmented image onto a video screen. In Disturbances (1973), a woman swims silently beneath another woman’s reflection. Songdelay (1973), filmed with both telephoto and wide-angle lenses (which produce opposing extremes in depth of field) drew on Jonas’ travels in Japan, where she saw groups of Noh performers clapping wood blocks and making angular movements. In a video interview for MoMA, Jonas described her work as androgynous; earlier works were more involved in the search for a feminine vernacular in art, she explains, and, unlike sculpture and painting, video was more open, less dominated by men.

In 1975, Jonas appeared as a performer in the movie Keep Busy, by the photographer Robert Frank and novelist-screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. In 1976 with The Juniper Tree, Jonas arrived at a narrative structure from diverse literary sources, such as fairy tales, mythology, poetry, and folk songs, formalizing a highly complex, nonlinear method of presentation. Using a colorful theatrical set and recorded sound, The Juniper Tree retold a Grimm Brothers tale of an archetypal evil stepmother and her family.

In the 1990s, Jonas’ My New Theater series moved away from a dependence on her physical presence. The three pieces investigated, in sequence: a Cape Breton dancer and his local culture; a dog jumping through a hoop while Jonas draws a landscape; and finally, using stones, costumes, memory-laden objects, and her dog, a video about the act of performing. She also created ‘Revolted by the Thought of Known Places… (1992) and Woman in the Well (1996/2000).

In her installation/performance commissioned for Documenta 11, Lines in the Sand (2002), Jonas investigated themes of the self and the body in a performance installation based on the writer H.D.’s (Hilda Doolittle) epic poem “Helen in Egypt” (1951–55), which reworks the myth of Helen of Troy. Jonas sited many of her early performances at The Kitchen, including Funnel (1972) and the screening of Vertical Roll (1972). In The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things, produced by The Renaissance Society in 2004, Jonas draws on Aby Warburg’s work on Hopi imagery.

Since 1970, Jonas has spent part of every summer in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She has lived and worked in Greece, Morocco, India, Germany, the Netherlands, Iceland, Poland, Hungary, and Ireland.

Jonas’ works were first performed in the 1960s and ’70s for some of the most influential artists of her generation, including Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Dan Graham and Laurie Anderson. While she is widely known in Europe, her groundbreaking performances are lesser known in the United States, where, as critic Douglas Crimp wrote of her work in 1983, “the rupture that is effected in modernist practices has subsequently been repressed, smoothed over.” Yet, in restaging early and recent works, Jonas continues to find new layers of meanings in themes and questions of gender and identity that have fueled her art for over thirty years.

Jonas’ performance inspired by the writings of German anthropologist Aby Warburg, The Shape, The Scent, The Feel of Things, was commissioned by Dia Beacon and was twice performed between 2005 and 2006. This project established an ongoing and continuing collaboration with the pianist Jason Moran.

For the season 2014/2015 in the Vienna State Opera Joan Jonas designed a large-scale picture (176 sqm) as part of the exhibition series Safety Curtain, conceived by museum in progress.

Jonas’ was also featured as a choreographer for Robert Ashley’s Opera titled Celestial Excursions in 2003

From 1993, the New York-based Jonas spent part of each year in Los Angeles, teaching a course in New Genres at the UCLA School of the Arts. In 1994, she was made a full professor at the State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, Germany. Since 1998, she has been a professor of visual arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she is currently Professor Emerita in Art, Culture, and Technology within the School of Architecture and Planning.

Jonas has been awarded fellowships and grants for choreography, video, and visual arts from the National Endowment for the Arts; Rockefeller Foundation; Contemporary Art Television (CAT) Fund; Television Laboratory at WNET/13, New York; Artists’ Television Workshop at WXXI-TV, Rochester, New York; and Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD). Jonas has received the Hyogo Prefecture Museum of Modern Art Prize at the Tokyo International Video Art Festival, the Polaroid Award for Video, and the American Film Institute Maya Deren Award for Video.

In 2009, Jonas was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

In 2012, Jonas was honored on the occasion of the Kitchen Spring Gala Benefit.

Jonas was named Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon 2016. In 2018, Jonas won the Kyoto Prize for Art.

Jonas’ has received awards from Anonymous Was A Woman (1998); the Rockefeller Foundation (1990); American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award for Video (1989); Guggenheim Foundation (1976); and the National Endowment for the Arts (1974).

Public collections
Joan Jonas is represented in New York City by Gavin Brown’s enterprise and in Los Angeles by Rosamund Felsen Gallery. In addition to working on her art, Jonas has been serving on the advisory board of the Hauser & Wirth Institute since 2018.

Jonas’ work can be found in a number of public institutions, including:

Museum of Modern Art, New York
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Tate Modern, London

The Exhibition
Joan Jonas conceive a new complex of works, creating a multilayered ambience, incorporating video, drawings, objects, and sound. Literature has always been an inspiration and source for Jonas, and the project for Venice will extend her investigation into the work of Halldór Laxness and his writing on the spiritual aspects of nature, but will focus on other literary sources.

Jonas has continued to work with a multimedia approach throughout her career, being one of the first artists to explore the potential of the video camera as a tool for image-making and the TV monitor as a sculptural object. At the same time, Jonas experimented in her performances with incorporating the body into the visual field. Her installations and performances bring these components together through drawing, props, and objects to create works reflecting her research in relation to space, narrative, or storytelling, and materials as they are altered through various technologies such as the mirror, video, and distance. In Venice, she will work with these diverse aspects of her practice to create five distinct rooms, with common themes unifying and resonating in the entire space, relating to the present condition of the world in poetic terms.

Jonas’s work developed out of her art history studies and sculptural practice, and expanded to performance and film in the 1960s through her involvement with the New York avant-garde scene. Her work has had a significant influence on contemporary art to date, as she has continued to be a major figure in the fields of performance and video art throughout the past five decades.

In conjunction with the presentation of her new work at the U.S. Pavilion, the List will present Joan Jonas: Selected Films and Videos 1972-2005. Curated by Henriette Huldisch, this exhibition will present seven of Jonas’s most significant, single-channel video works, selected from her 40-year career, in the List’s Bakalar Gallery from April 7 through July 5, 2015. The intimate exhibition will provide important background and context for Jonas’s new work on view simultaneously in Venice, and will share with local audiences the pivotal videos and performances that led to the artist’s selection as the U.S. representative for the 2015 Venice Biennale. Works in the exhibition include:
Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972)
Songdelay (1973)
Good Night Good Morning (1976)
Mirage (1976)
Double Lunar Dogs (1984)
Volcano Saga (1989)
Lines in the Sand (2002-2005)

They Come to Us without a Word, which includes video, drawings, sculptural, and performative elements, evokes the fragility of nature in a rapidly changing situation. Each room of the pavilion represents a particular creature (bees, fish), object (mirror), force (wind), or place (the homeroom). Fragments of ghost stories sourced from the oral tradition of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, are part of a continuous narrative linking one room to the next. These spoken fragments function partly as a reference to what remains. Jonas states, “We are haunted, the rooms are haunted.“ An outdoor piece, in the pavilion courtyard, consisting of dead tree trunks held together by wire, echoes the themes of the installation.

Four of the rooms feature two videos each, one representing the main motif of the room, and the other, the ghost narrative. Jonas developed the videos in New York in 2015 with children, ranging in age from five to sixteen. The children performed in front of video backdrops that contained excerpts from Jonas’s earlier works as well as landscapes the artist shot in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Brooklyn, New York.

A selection of objects that were used as props in the videos are placed in each room alongside Jonas’s highly distinctive drawings. The installation is animated by a soundtrack designed by Jonas, using excerpts of music by jazz pianist, composer Jason Moran and songs by the Norwegian Sami singer Ánde Somby. The customized lighting is conceived by designer Jan Kroeze.

Mirrors cover the paneled walls of the pavilion’s rotunda, where Jonas has suspended a crystal-beaded chandelier-like structure from the ceiling. The rippled mirrors were conceived by Jonas and handcrafted in Murano.

Joan Jonas received a Special Mention award from an international jury for the 56th Venice Biennale for her evocative video and sound installation. Jonas’s installations, video works, and performances bring these components together with drawings, props, objects, and language, reflecting her research into how the image is altered through the mediums of mirror, distance, video, and narrative.

Performance art
In conjunction with the exhibition, Jonas presented performances of Moving Off the Land, a mesmerizing tribute and poetic response to the power of the ocean. The multi-layered performance brings together readings, dance, live drawing and projections to portray the ocean’s biodiverse inhabitants and endangered marine cultures.

Joan Jonas’s multimedia installation They Come to Us without a Word was recreated and presented as a series of performances in July 2015 at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, Venice. This process of translation between media is an ongoing practice in Jonas’s work. For the performances the artist re-edited video footage created specifically for the U.S. Pavilion. With They Come to Us without a Word II, Joan Jonas continues to investigate movement, space and time in relation to sound, and the projected image. In this work Jonas refers to aspects of disappearance in the natural world through shadows or ghosts, as humans continue to disregard the environment.

Conceived and directed by Jonas, They Come to Us without a Word II featured newly composed music by Jonas’s longtime collaborator, the American jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran.

“These natural phenomena that Joan Jonas conjures, as she performs with sound and drawing and movement and other stimuli, are present for themselves in their own right, and convey to the viewer what they are and what they do, the artist acting as a conductor or messenger of their being.” (Marina Warner)

“Although the idea of my work involves the question of how the world is so rapidly and radically changing, I do not address the subject directly or didactically,“ said Jonas. “Rather, the ideas are implied poetically through sound, lighting and the juxtaposition of images of children, animals, and landscape.“

Joan Jonas continues to investigate movement, space and time, in relation to sound and the projected image with her world premiere performance at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale. For the performance Jonas re-edited video footage created specifically for the U.S. Pavilion. Some of the children featured in those initial videos also performed live in the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale.

United States Pavilion
The American pavilion is a national pavilion of the Venice Biennale. It houses the United States’ official representation during the Biennale. The American pavilion was the ninth to be built on the Giardini, but unlike other pavilions, which are built by governments, the American pavilion was privately owned. The three-room Palladian building was constructed in 1930 for the New York Grand Central Art Galleries. Ownership transferred to the Museum of Modern Art in 1954 and to the Guggenheim Foundation in 1986.

For the United States’ national representation, a committee of experts select from proposals written by institutions. The Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions is assembled by the National Endowment of the Arts and Department of State. The months-long process involves an application nearly 100 pages in length and a final embargo before announcement.

The United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was constructed in 1930 by the Grand Central Art Galleries, a nonprofit artists’ cooperative established in 1922 by Walter Leighton Clark together with John Singer Sargent, Edmund Greacen, and others. As stated in the Galleries’ 1934 catalog, the organization’s goal was to “give a broader field to American art; to exhibit in a larger way to a more numerous audience, not in New York alone but throughout the country, thus displaying to the world the inherent value which our art undoubtedly possesses.”

In 1930 Walter Leighton Clark and the Grand Central Art Galleries spearheaded the creation of the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The pavilion’s architects were William Adams Delano, who also designed the Grand Central Art Galleries, and Chester Holmes Aldrich. The purchase of the land, design, and construction was paid for by the galleries and personally supervised by Clark. As he wrote in the 1934 catalog:

“Pursuing our purpose of putting American art prominently before the world, the directors a few years ago appropriated the sum of $25,000 for the erection of an exhibition building in Venice on the grounds of the International Biennial. Messrs. Delano and Aldrich generously donated the plans for this building which is constructed of Istrian marble and pink brick and more than holds its own with the twenty-five other buildings in the Park owned by the various European governments.”

The pavilion, owned and operated by the galleries, opened on May 4, 1930. Approximately 90 paintings and 12 sculptures were selected by Clark for the opening exhibition. Artists featured included Max Boehm, Hector Caser, Lillian Westcott Hale, Edward Hopper, Abraham Poole, Julius Rolshoven, Joseph Pollet, Eugene Savage, Elmer Shofeld, Ofelia Keelan, and African-American artist Henry Tanner. U.S. Ambassador John W. Garrett opened the show together with the Duke of Bergamo.

The Grand Central Art Galleries operated the U.S. Pavilion until 1954, when it was sold to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s shows were organized by MOMA, Art Institute of Chicago, and Baltimore Museum of Art. The Modern withdrew from the Biennale in 1964, and the United States Information Agency ran the Pavilion until it was sold to the Guggenheim Foundation courtesy of funds provided by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Financial support by Philip Morris and private money raised by the Committee for the 1986 American Pavilion at the 1986 Venice Biennale made the exhibition at the United States pavilion possible. Since 1986 the Peggy Guggenheim Collection has worked with the United States Information Agency, the US Department of State and the Fund for Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions in the organization of the visual arts exhibitions at the US Pavilion, while the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has organized the comparable shows at the Architecture Biennales. Every two years museum curators from across the U.S. detail their visions for the American pavilion in proposals that are reviewed by the NEA Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions (FACIE), a group comprising curators, museum directors and artists who then submit their recommendations to the public-private Fund for United States Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions.

Traditionally the endowment’s selection committee has chosen a proposal submitted by a museum or curator, but in 2004 it simply chose an artist who in turn has nominated a curator, later approved by the State Department.

Venice Biennale 2015
The 2015 Art Biennale closes a sort of trilogy that began with the exhibition curated by Bice Curiger in 2011, Illuminations, and continued with the Encyclopedic Palace of Massimiliano Gioni (2013). With All The World’s Futures, La Biennale continues its research on useful references for making aesthetic judgments on contemporary art, a “critical” issue after the end of the avant-garde and “non-art” art.

Through the exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor, La Biennale returns to observe the relationship between art and the development of human, social and political reality, in the pressing of external forces and phenomena: the ways in which, that is, the tensions of the external world solicit the sensitivities, the vital and expressive energies of the artists, their desires, the motions of the soul (their inner song ).

La Biennale di Venezia was founded in 1895. Paolo Baratta has been its President since 2008, and before that from 1998 to 2001. La Biennale, who stands at the forefront of research and promotion of new contemporary art trends, organizes exhibitions, festivals and researches in all its specific sectors: Arts (1895), Architecture (1980), Cinema (1932), Dance (1999), Music (1930), and Theatre (1934). Its activities are documented at the Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts (ASAC) that recently has been completely renovated.

The relationship with the local community has been strengthened through Educational activities and guided visits, with the participation of a growing number of schools from the Veneto region and beyond. This spreads the creativity on the new generation (3,000 teachers and 30,000 pupils involved in 2014). These activities have been supported by the Venice Chamber of Commerce. A cooperation with Universities and research institutes making special tours and stays at the exhibitions has also been established. In the three years from 2012-2014, 227 universities (79 Italian and 148 international) have joined the Biennale Sessions project.

In all sectors there have been more research and production opportunities addressed to the younger generation of artists, directly in contact with renowned teachers; this has become more systematic and continuous through the international project Biennale College, now running in the Dance, Theatre, Music, and Cinema sections.