Joan Jonas

The layers, the layers, the layers of things

Joan Jonas

The artist Joan Jonas doesn't fit neatly into any particular -ism or easily defined art jargon tag because she defies them; Jonas just is. She works between and around category, transcending materials and methodologies to form a creative expression that is uniquely hers.

With roots in sculpture and video, such as her groundbreaking Vertical Roll (1973), Jonas' art practice transitioned onto the stage to mix live performers, music, props, and video projections ensconced in symbols, myth, and ritual-making. Her work has been shown at Documenta (Kassel, Germany) four times, as well as the Tate Modern (London) and the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam) in a major retrospective.

Jonas' performative work The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, originally commissioned by Dia Beacon, will be performed in the intimate McCullough Theatre, presented by Texas Performing Arts in conjunction with the Fusebox Festival. It is based on the writings of German art historian Aby Warburg, who is best known for his work on the ways iconology and memory affect perception. Warburg's 1896 journey to study the rituals of the Pueblo Indians, as well as his nervous breakdown and recovery in a Swiss sanatorium, cast an internal heartbeat in The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. From there, Jonas works her magic to create worlds within worlds, in varying time signatures and shape-shifting images. The Austin performances feature jazz innovator (and newly appointed Kennedy Center artistic advisor for jazz) Jason Moran performing his original score live.

Austin Chronicle: The use of poetry is pervasive in your work. How has that influenced your process?

Joan Jonas: I am really inspired by the structure of poetry. If you look at a poem on a page, you see its structure. Then you read it and there is a different rhythm and a sound – a way the words have been arranged. I am also inspired by the structure in experimental films with the repetition of certain motifs.

AC: Do you incorporate video onstage now?

JJ: I first started working with video in 1970 and immediately put it into my performance pieces. The closed-circuit system allowed me to have a cameraperson filming a detail of the live performance that was then projected so the audience saw a detailed live performance simultaneously with a live performance. It has acted as a layering device, allowing me to present several different viewpoints simultaneously. In The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, there is a huge backdrop of video projections both live and prerecorded.

AC: Circling back to poetry and layers –

JJ: I was influenced by and thought about early imagist poems of the modernist poets like H.D., Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams, how combining two or three elements can make another element.

AC: Can you give an example?

JJ: Pound's "In a Station of the Metro": "The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough."

AC: The power in your work is just that – how the combination of layers create this other world through new elements and perception.

JJ: What I would ask of the audience is to try to not to figure it out. Just to watch and try to be in the piece, and then to let it in moment by moment. There are things going on at that same time, so sometimes you might get focused on one detail of the piece and so you miss other parts. But I don't think that should be a worry. It is important to look at the whole picture.

AC: How did it come about to have Tilda Swinton in your video work Volcano Saga?

JJ: It's a simple story. When I was thinking about Volcano Saga, I was in Berlin. A friend of mine who is a filmmaker knew her, and we asked her to do it.

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Joan Jonas, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, Texas Performing Arts, Fusebox Festival, Tilda Swinton

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