A spritely figure dressed all in white, 77 year old Joan Jonas recently bounded around the stage at Roulette, interacting with small objects, drawing materials, video projections and music performed by the jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran. In their collaborative performance Reanimation, they respond to one another’s work in a live improvisation.
The piece, originally presented at MIT in 2010 and now presented as part of Performa 13, was inspired by the poetic novel Under the Glacier (1968) by the Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness. It combines a video installation of icy Nordic landscapes, music, text, drawings, props, and reanimated videos from her past work to create to a chilly, otherworldly atmosphere that invites reflection on the conundrum of melting glaciers. Like the book, Reanimation extolls the beauty of glaciers and conveys a certain spirituality grounded in nature. Lost in the imagery of frozen Norwegian landscapes, ice, snow, bare trees, desolate buildings, and fish, I felt something akin to the contemplative nostalgia I feel when looking at Caspar David Friedrich’s sublime painting Monk by the Sea (1808).
Jonas generates that atmosphere by using objects to create or enhance images to express the ideas she believes are otherwise inexpressible. ‘I think of the work in terms of imagist poetry; disparate elements juxtaposed… alchemy,’ Jonas stated in a 2013 interview with Amy Budd for the Afterall article “Artist at Work: Joan Jonas”.
Desiring the audience to see the way she does, Jonas alters images by working with distance, or closed-circuit video, or mirrors, for instance.
At times, she perches at a workbench situated on one side of the stage, where a camera zooms in on her hands as they manipulate marbles, mirrors, animal figurines, and other small objects to ethereal effect and projects the action onto a central screen.
In one sequence, she traces lightening storms with chalk, while in another she draws female figures with dog heads on pieces of paper held up to her body while projections of snow-capped mountains run across her. Her gesticulations and Moran’s notes feed off each other, sometimes escalating into a wild frenzy.
“What I was interested in,” Jonas explains in the program notes, “was the perception of the audience looking at something and understanding how looking at this image will alter not only their way of seeing the image but their way of looking at the world.”
Occasionally, during the performance, Jonas emits sounds or recites a few lines from Laxness’ novel, at which point the familiarity of the human voice is startling in its contrast to the enigmatic quality of much of the performance.
One such passage, about the improbable steadfastness of the Snow Bunting, exemplifies Jonas’s reverence for the miracles of nature: “Such a bird is about the weight of a postage stamp, yet he does not blow away when he stands in the open in a tempest.” Laxness might as well have been referring to the artist herself. Her early gravitation to performance in the 1960s and adherence to the notion of art as a process propelled her to prominence during an era when male artists dominated the scene.