Post-internet confusion before the internet – Joan Jonas review
Tate Modern, London
Papier-mache animal heads and Vietnamese kites, Tilda Swinton and tap-dancing – it’s hard to cut through the clutter of the New York veteran’s hyperactive art.
There is a lot going on in Joan Jonas’s art, and a lot to Jonas herself, a veteran of the late 1960s downtown New York scene. Performance artist and maker of large-scale installations, interpreter of filmed folktales and myths, choreographer, collector, reader, actor, traveller, a maker of drawings – everything she does is a kind of performance.
Joan Jonas in a mask, not being Joan Jonas. Jonas wearing the papier-mache head of an animal. The artist howling like a wolf, and drawing birds and fish, stags and faces. Feminism and animism, storytelling and dancing, dressing and undressing, examining her body with a hand mirror, clowning on a Venetian mosaic floor.
Jonas dancing to a jerky harmonica in her studio, her dog Zina watching the speeded-up, frenetic movements with something like patience. A frequent if unknowing participant in Jonas’s work, the dog has seen it all before. Here’s Jonas looming in a convex mirror and wishing us good morning and goodnight. She appears and disappears, in a series of daily returns. I’m reminded of the postcards Japanese artist On Karawa sent every day, telling his recipients that he was still alive. Jonas, now in her 80s, is still working and performing, revisiting earlier works and continually reconfiguring her art before our eyes.
This makes for complicated viewing. Works run into one another, or split into a melange of drawings and objects, sculptures as stage props and props as sculpture, different events happening on different screens. Larger-scale works incorporate several video screens, as well as drawings and other objects. Sound leaks from work to work, voices and music and ambient noise. Just as you grasp a thread of plot, an action, a voice or a bit of dialogue, it is snatched away. The tempo and mood keep shifting. Hers is an art of constant interruption, spillage and surprise. All this is deliberate – when Jonas had the American pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, I felt as if I had been plunged into her life, swerving between the studio and the beach, and caught between the personal, the diaristic and the solipsistic. This can be wearying. Sometimes, you don’t know where to look.
All this feels very current, like a post-internet confusion before the internet happened. She has gone from grainy late 1960s video to hi-def, via all the tricks of the developing technology. But somehow her body as much as her voice is always there, and the materiality of the world around her. Hoving in and out of view and following her intuitions, Jonas aims for a kind of poetry that she doesn’t always achieve. There is always so much stuff getting in the way. Here is a drawing of a gurnard. There’s a woodpecker. And, on a table, Jonas’s collection of folk art: carved owls and seagulls, wooden fishing lures and a rubber stag’s head, once worn in Lena Dunham’s Delusional Downtown Divas web series. I’m not sure where this gets us. Among her video works she has had Tilda Swinton acting in an Icelandic saga, and used Seamus Heaney’s Sweeney Astray, a translation of the 12th-century Irish tale Buile Shuibhne. All this could be great, but isn’t.
Literature – Borges and William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, poet Hilda Doolittle’s Helen in Egypt and the Brothers Grimms’ The Juniper Tree – all have their place, along with Vietnamese kites strung from the ceiling, filmed cockatoos swaying in plastic bins and young women playing with a shroud of gauze. Somewhere, a conversation is going on, but I don’t quite catch it. I hear wailing, and I think it might be me. The difficulties are compounded by the catalogue, with its essays set in a horribly cramped typeface. The captions, in a smaller size font, are impossible. This, for a collaboration with three major art institutions (in Munich and Porto as well as London) is incompetent. The essays themselves are plodding and sub-academic arguments. I feel as if I have been plunged into an art theory time-warp. Several interviews with the artist are more helpful, but the whole thing is a bit of a fog.
Some works are made to be seen in miniature theatres, as you sit and gaze into wooden boxes where videos play against a far wall. Designed for an audience of one, these little screening boxes make you forget scale and distance. I peer in one, and watch tap-dancing Cape Breton islanders, with fiddlers by waterfalls. In another, people in a cabin dance with wooden chairs, banging and twirling them about the room. This is fun. The little kid caught up in all this choreographed cacophony doesn’t seem so sure.
Since the late 1960s, Jonas has spent part of each year working in Nova Scotia, and Cape Breton’s coast has become a recurring presence in her work. The earliest work in her exhibition is her 1968 16mm black and white film Wind. Jonas and artist Keith Hollingworth wander a wintry beach, dressed in costumes with mirrored panels. Their outfits look vaguely constructivist. A further group of performers wearing black masks and capes cower and lean into the wind, finding it hard to stay upright in the furious weather.
Wind, and a number of other parts of her show, is shown in one of Tate Modern’s Tanks. She has drawn on the concrete walls, and in another, four-screen work, music surges portentously. It sounds like Vangelis. From Friday, a number of the artist’s live pieces will be performed. I have higher hopes for these than for many of her multimedia installations.
There is a lot to admire in Jonas’s art; its energy and curiosity, and the way she runs with her intuition, unabashed and unafraid to see where things will go. There are great moments, but too often they are subsumed in trivia. Not much of it moves me, and often her art seems like a grand exercise in misdirection. Who is Joan Jonas, and where is she? Drawing lines in the sand, a shadow on the beach grass. That’s the bit I like best, unaffected and unadorned.
- At Tate Modern, 14 March-5 August, performances 16-25 March. Box office: 020-7887 8888.