Prophecy and Poetry Converge in Joan Jonas

Having represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, the foundational video and performance artist’s multimedia installation They Come to Us Without a Word makes its American debut.

The Venice Biennale is the art world’s most prestigious international showcase, an every-other-year event that, like the Olympics and the Oscars, involves high drama well before the actual start. The biggest news is always about one topic: Which artists did a country choose? For the United States, the single choice is vetted through the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which gives the artist a kind of ambassadorial imprimatur.

It’s all prone to intense scrutiny, and intense debate about where American art is headed — as in 1990, when word artist Jenny Holzer became the first woman to represent the United States, and then made marble flooring that incorporated such phrases as “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” and “Any surplus is immoral,” which she took from her provocative Truisms and Inflammatory Essays.

The choice of Joan Jonas in 2015 was another bellwether moment for the Venice Biennale and American art. At age 78, Jonas was given long-overdue recognition for her seminal output as a video artist and a performance artist, and Jonas used the attention to stage an elaborate multimedia work called They Come to Us without a Word, which took over the Biennale’s entire United States Pavilion. Who’s the “they” and who’s the “us”? The work — which makes its U.S. debut at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, where it opened last week — is a prophetic and poetic statement about the environment, the impact of human intrusion on bees and other living beings, and the way ghost stories and oral traditions convey uneasy questions that demand answers about the immediate world. 

Jonas is in many of the videos. With her lined face and expanse of white hair, her mask-wearing theatricality, and her ability to engage in green spaces, Jonas acts as a kind of environmental Moses who role models for the children she filmed in like-minded settings. In one video, Jonas plays a make-believe instrument as she stands in a scenic outdoor park or garden. The wind is blowing at Jonas’ blue dress and the plant she’s entwined with while we hear fragments of her voice saying, “I was just picking up my foot. I can see him lying down in the water. Was he underwater?” The video then shows Jonas walking amid a grove of trees as she wears a black, mesh-like mask, stares into the camera, and tiptoes away like a dispossessed oracle as a man’s voice relates: “No. He has his hands under his head, and it was his head mostly that was in the water. A big puddle of water. I didn’t know him.” It’s as if Jonas is questioning mankind and nature about their sanity, even as she’s losing hers.

A native New Yorker, Jonas mined the ghost stories in They Come to Us without a Word from her experience living during the summers in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia — on Canada’s East Coast. The installation is organized into five darkened galleries, each with a different focus (Bees, Fish, Mirror, Wind, and Homeroom), but they’re united by the fragmented stories, elliptical videos, and displays of paintings and masks that create an atmosphere of a beautiful world that’s on edge. “Ghosts are very much alive [in Cape Breton], as in all parts of the world,” Jonas has said. “We are haunted, the rooms are haunted.”

In person, Jonas talks deliberately, never raising her voice, and never offering stern lectures about the environment or her message. She’s not in a hurry, and nor is her art urgent, even as it asks art-goers to make connections to issues that are. They Come to Us without a Word was partly inspired by Under the Glacier, a 1968 novel by Icelandic Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness, whose characters live in a surreal world as they search for truth and meaning. Jonas was doing a project, Reanimation, that was related to Laxness’ work.

“I’ve always been involved with the landscape and the issues of nature, but when I began to work on that [project], I thought, ‘Oh, the glaciers are melting.’ And my work always takes place in the present,” Jonas told journalists at Fort Mason on the eve of the exhibit’s opening. “Halldór Laxness writes so poetically about nature, and he had this wonderful quote, which is in this show, about bees — and can a more super communion ever happen than a flower calling a bee to its pollen. I get emotional when I hear that. And bees were in trouble. And They Come to Us without a Word — without saying it directly — is a little bit about, ‘We’re in trouble,’ while showing the beautiful aspects of nature.”

The ghost stories, she says, relate to “the creatures that are disappearing and the idea of a ghost. That’s not explicit, either, but I don’t have to explain everything. Everybody will have their own experience.”

After representing the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, Jonas received another major honor that is widely anticipated in the art world: The Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy. Awarded every four years, it has previously gone to such artists as Nam June Paik, Roy Lichtenstein, and, in 1986, Isamu Noguchi — who was also selected that year to be the artistic face of the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. Jonas received her Kyoto Prize last year.

She first made a name for herself in the late 1960s with short films like Wind, a spare, soundless look at performers battling the elements of wind. Film and stage give Jonas — who’s slight of stature — the ability to act out narratives that are sweeping in scope. Even as an octogenarian, Jonas has the enthusiasm, energy, and joking manners of a younger person. She showed that at last week’s press event when — standing with Frank Smigiel, Director of Arts Programming & Partnerships with the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture — she was asked about the creatures that line some of the galleries and are in her videos.

“There’s the frog on the wall,” Smigiel pointed out.

Jonas paused for a few seconds. “Yeah,” she said, on the verge of making people laugh. “I needed a frog.”

“They Come to Us without a Word,” through March 10 at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, 2 Marina Boulevard. Free; 415-345-7500, fortmason.org

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