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Features / April 28, 2016

Joan Jonas: A US Legend Raises Cape Breton’s Ghosts

DHC/ART Foundation, Montreal April 28 to September 18, 2016

“Probably the first paint was animal blood.” So says John Berger in Why Look At Animals?, quoted in the catalogue for Joan Jonas’s They Come to Us without a Word, which I’m flipping through as Jonas walks me through Montreal’s DHC/ART exhibition space while preparators install components of her multimedia installation. I’m here a week before her show opens, so her paintings of fish and bees—staggered rows of blotchy, colourful Rorschachs on white paper, attached unfussily to grey walls—are some of the only pieces up so far. I think of insects caught on flypaper, whacked with a rolled-up magazine or pinched between pages of a book, and whole salmon or cod laid flat on yesterday’s newspaper, wrapped by the fishmonger.

There are rippled, distorted mirrors and a low-hanging crystal chandelier already installed in the Mirrors room; some multicoloured Japanese bamboo-and-paper kites in the Wind room; and large, double-sided projection screens in each room that I try to visualize displaying the beautiful images from the catalogue. Jonas is describing in detail what the installation will look like as we move through the rooms in a circuit, like a scout bee doing her round dance upon returning to her hive.

They Come to Us without a Word was originally designed on the occasion of the 2015 Venice Biennale for the United States Pavilion, which is entered through a rotunda that leads into four rooms and a courtyard—sort of an abstracted honeycomb shape. The Mirrors room was central in that configuration. The other rooms all had singular concentrations: Bees, Fish, Wind, Homeroom. In Venice there were nine 14-foot trees bundled together upright with copper wire in the pavilion’s courtyard, old trunks collected from an island in the Venetian Lagoon; in Montreal, the venue for the North American premiere of the installation, there will be a Tree room filled with logs from a local lumberyard.

I ask Jonas how she felt about being asked to represent an entire nation, especially one as complicated as the USA. “I tried not to think of it that way,” she tells me. “I tried to think of it as just speaking for a familiar community, for friends—not just people I know, but whoever is sympathetic. I don’t think one can possibly represent a nation.” She admits that the idea bothered her in the beginning. “Of course,” she says. “It’s terrifying. So much pressure and attention is on you. I very much wanted to do a piece that was strong.”

Jonas is widely credited as being a vanguard figure in intersecting the mediums of performance, video and installation, now a ubiquitous trinity in contemporary art, but she hasn’t ever been attention-seeking. Eventually, she got used to the idea and was able to simply accept her fate. “When you go there,” to Venice, she explains, “it becomes more about communicating from one culture to another, and that I think is a valuable part of it.”

Jonas, a New Yorker born and bred, has been straddling the disparately paced cultures of SoHo, New York, and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, since the early 1970s, after she made a trip to the latter with Rudy Wurlitzer, Philip Glass, JoAnne Akalaitis and Richard Serra. She bought land in Inverness and now spends time every summer staying at her modest home and studio there (it’s not winterized, otherwise she might be there more often).

Most of the video footage in They Come to Us without a Word was shot in Cape Breton between the 1990s and now. The title of the Montreal exhibition, “From Away,” directly references Atlantic vernacular for people not from the area. Even though she’s been there for more than 40 years, Jonas is still “from away,” though she says she isn’t treated as an outsider. The people are too friendly for that.

“Cape Breton has given me so much,” Jonas tells me. “A lot of my work has been deeply affected by that place.” I ask her what about the area has moved her in particular. “The landscape, of course,” she says. “The air there reminds me of the mountains in New Hampshire, which I used to visit as a child. Walking in the woods as a child, that’s where I learned to be alone, and also to be inspired. I loved it. It was magical.”

She’s been greatly inspired by the people of Cape Breton, too, and their folkloric traditions.

“When I started going there in 1970,” Jonas says, “there were still these old people there who had a link to the past, who still spoke Gaelic, who were superstitious in ways that were familiar to me because of my interest in folktales and fairy tales from Irish and Scottish traditions. It’s a place full of stories and folklore—and fiddle playing! Many aspects of the culture immediately spoke to me.”

One of the first performances she did in the area was Nova Scotia Beach Dance (1971), which audience members viewed from the vantage point of a cliff. “I used material that I found on the beach as props, posts and long poles. I often find things in the environment, like a bricoleur just collecting materials, and then I find ways to use them.” Props figure often in her work, particularly mirrors and masks. They exist, in a sense, as leitmotifs that trace connections through her works, linking them.

Jonas wore a doll-face mask in Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972), her first video work, as a way of “exploring whether there is such a thing as female imagery.” Her performance is very much inspired by Noh theatre (she spent five weeks in Japan with Serra in 1970 and became deeply interested in the tradition), in which actors play both male and female roles. “[Organic Honey] was also a way of exploring my own self-image, who am I as a woman, and dressing up and taking on the disguise of other types of women,” she says.

The women’s movement became important to her politics early on, and she formed consciousness-raising groups with fellow women as a way to meet, talk about issues, share experiences and understand what their places were in society. “When I went into art school, there were no women teachers. Even when I was teaching, I was often the first woman, or the only woman. Many women went into performance, dance and video then, because the fields of sculpture and painting were so dominated by men.”

“Those consciousness-raising groups radically changed my relationship to other women,” Jonas tells me. The Juniper Tree (1976) and Volcano Saga (1989) also focused particularly on women and the roles they play in myth and fairy tales. “I still think about the roles that women play and how they function, but not all of my work is just about women anymore. I’m not actively involved in the women’s movement now, not politically, but I think my work reflects how I feel about being a woman and also the idea of how a woman can have a strong position in the world.”

Images shuffle in my mind of women meeting with other women, fish swimming, a bee doing her round dance and mirrors, and a memory surfaces of being at this women-only water-circuit spa and seeing variously shaped and aged nude bodies of other women in real life for the first time. I think of Jonas’s 1970 performance Mirror Check, in which she scrutinized every inch of her body using a handheld mirror. She was invited by the Guggenheim to direct a restaging of this piece with 10 performers in 2013. I asked her if she ever thought about performing it again herself, decades later. “I always thought I would,” she starts. “I mean, I could. I’m just not totally comfortable. At one point, I thought, you know, Rodin, at the end of his life, he had this very old model, and he sculpted her. I always thought that was really beautiful. But, I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m not sure I ever will.”

She’s interested in making visitors to her installation take a good look at themselves, though. In works such as Mirror Piece I (1969), she’s turned the mirror on the audience, using it to implicate them and destabilize their surroundings. She uses these distortion tactics elsewhere in They Come to Us without a Word, by dressing the children performing in front of the video backdrops (aged five to 16, belonging to friends of hers) mostly in white clothing, in effect extending the projection screen to contain their blobby little bodies. As they perform simple actions under Jonas’s instruction—she hosted bee-dance workshops in New York with them over a series of Saturday afternoons leading up to the Biennale, which they’ll maybe look back on one day in the same way that Jonas recalls her time spent under the tutelage of dance luminaries Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer—their figures are subsumed by the video footage, simultaneously morphing the screen and being morphed by it. Jonas is formally trained in sculpture, and elements of her performance and video work retain those interests—though the sculpture is always unstable, unfixed, made of collapsing and coalescing shapes.

She’s also received formal education in art history, and has conducted much personal research into mythology and fairy tales. “I’ve read the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, French fairy tales, some Russian, lots of Japanese, Icelandic,” she lists. Icelandic sagas by Halldór Laxness figure prominently as sources of inspiration.

The only audible words in They Come to Us without a Word are fragments of Cape Breton ghost stories, read aloud by Jonas and others. “They form a kind of broken narrative that runs through the whole piece,” she explains. They come from oral histories recorded by folk historian Ronald Caplan, who collected personal accounts from locals in Cape Breton’s Magazine. “They’re memories of their families and ghost stories. It’s an oral tradition, so it’s recorded just as they said it. I like that simple language.”

I ask her if she’s ever seen a ghost herself, or experienced anything paranormal. “You know what, I’m very rational, and as far as I know, I haven’t. But it’s not like I don’t think I could. But I’ve experienced a feeling of spirits and presences.” She turns the question around, asking, “What is a ghost? In every culture it’s different. I just showed this piece in Singapore, for instance, and in that part of the world everyone believes in ghosts. There’s a radio program there that people call into once a week to tell their ghost stories. So ghosts mean different things in different cultures.”

“I don’t explain it in the piece,” Jonas divulges, “but one can feel that the ghosts [in They Come to Us without a Word] represent the ghosts of all these creatures, and us, in the world.” The installation’s titular “they initially referred to fish (Jonas came up with the phrase when she installed her 100 blue-ink fish drawings, also included in the DHC show, at a show in Japan), but it’s expanded here to apply to all the creatures in the exhibition: the bees, the fish, the trees; the horses, her beloved dogs Sappho, Zina and Ozu; her past works, whose elements appear in fragments in this new piece; the children, who will have to deal with the fallout of ecological disruption that this work addresses; the ghosts of Cape Breton, whose stories are funny and no-nonsense in that typically East Coast way, providing levity to a rather melancholic subject.

“Time is one thing we can all agree to call supernatural,” reads a quote from Laxness in the catalogue. Entering the space of They Come to Us without a Word is to feel, like Berger in Ways of Seeing, that “the field that you are standing before appears to have the same proportions as your own life.” Walk inside the rooms, and you somehow enter into a vaster space, a space as ancient as climate, land, spirits and animals, as hopeful as children, as simple, noble and vital as dogs, fish and bees.

Rosie Prata

Rosie Prata is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She is currently an editor at Monocle, and her writing has also appeared in Canadian Art, the Globe and Mail and elsewhere.