Experiencing Joan Jonas’ works is not easy, particularly, in times when the museum visitor is expected to behave more as a passer by than as an informed aesthete that would take the time to appreciate what such works have to offer. Joan Jonas’ retrospective at Tate Modern, however, demands, at least, two solid hours to get acquainted with a series of inter-media installations comprising video and props which, in some cases, have been used in previous performances and create a multilayered visual experience where time becomes flexible. Having pioneered performance art as a medium since the sixties, Joan Jonas has been at the forefront of the neo-avant-garde since its emergence through, firstly, happenings and later, performances, as they appeared in the New York art scene as an artistic form. The ephemeral quality of both happenings and performance art have proved, however, insufficient for the exploration of time and its relationship with the artistic activity that Jonas has delved into a few decades ago and that interested not only her but also friends and collaborators such as Richard Serra.
Jonas’ works comprise video, objets trouvés, drawings, chance and… why not… her dog who glues old works and, as she puts it, allows her the ‘re-fashioning’ of new ones. In her works, there is poetry that is read off-camera and matters more because of the conviction with which it is read than becase of its narrative. There is also coreography which is treated as in Japanese Noh theatre (with which Jonas became acquainted in one of her many ‘research’ trips) and, I would add, Charles Chaplin movies, as black forms into a white screen creating a different kind of visual imagery. Most importantly, Jonas dissolves the boundaries between the performances through the use of props that are reminiscent of previous ones using time as something to play with.
Her performances are about time both from an existential and from a formal perspective. From the latter point of view, hers are inter-media video-performative-installations that challenge the idea of art as either diachronic or synchronic. Let me be more clear, according to Rosalind Krauss in ‘The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalistic Museum’, during the last thirty years, the experience of art has past from being a chronological experience (in the context of a museum that places works of art according to a chronological criteria) to an immersive one where what is sought after is intensity as such. According to her, theatricality is not concerned, as in, firstly, Diderot and more recently, Michael Fried, with staging something detached from the viewer and only linked to him through a tacit agreement with the director of the play -which we came to know as ‘suspension of disbelief’- but instead it is simulachral. In other words, Jonas doesn’t agree with Marina Abramovic that performance is an anti-theatrical ritual of self sacrifice that creates the conditions for something unexpected to happen. Jonas, instead, questions the idea of a pure present which, according to her, should be understood as full of multi-dimensional fractures. Abramovic’s ‘pure present’ brought about the belief that that it could be re-enacted and commodified according to certain guidelines. This makes the art of the Serbian, one of forgetting instead of one of remembering. By contrast, Jonas’ idea of presentness is one that can be grieved and remembered and thus, perpetuated. That is why she does not believe that performance art should be ‘re-enacted’ but remembered in other works and installations. This is the reason why the experience of her retrospective at Tate Modern is an exercise of weaving memories through images.
It is one year of my mom’s death and this is relevant for me at an existential level because, as Jonas suggests with her presentation of time, I remember my mom through certain images that create ‘phantasms’ inside me that, sometimes, haunt me and, sometimes, leave me alone. Grief is not linear but haunts us from within in and that is exactly the experience that a patient viewer will have in this outstanding show at Tate Modern. J A T