An acclaimed multi-media performance artist, Joan Jonas is also a major figure in video art. From her seminal performance-based exercises of the 1970s to her later televisual narratives, Jonas' elusive theatrical portrayal of female identity is a unique and intriguing inquiry.
Trained in art history and sculpture, Jonas was a central figure in the performance art movement of the mid-1960s. In works that examined space and perceptual phenomena, she merged elements of dance, modern theater, the conventions of Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater, and the visual arts. Jonas first began using video in performance in Organic Honey's Visual Telepathy (1972), in which a live camera and monitor functioned as both a mirror and a masking device, a means of transforming and layering images, space and time.
In the same year Jonas began making single-channel videotapes. Reflecting the conceptual performance and body art movements of the 1970s, Jonas' early video works break new ground in their application of the phenomenological properties of the new medium to a self-reflexive study of female identity. Her classic early works, including Vertical Roll (1972), explore the phenomenology of the video medium — its one-on-one directness and function as a mirror — to create a theater of the self and the body.
Jonas' investigation of subjectivity and objectivity is articulated through an idiosyncratic, personal vocabulary of ritualized gesture and self-examination. Often performing in masks, veils, or costumes, Jonas uses disguise and masquerade to study the personal and cultural semiotics of female gesture and symbols. The layering of mirrors and mirrored images is one of her most powerful metaphorical devices. Among Jonas' signature formal strategies are the manipulation of theatrical and video space, the use of drawing to add a rich density of texture and content, and objects that convey meaning as cultural icons, archetypes and symbols.
In the 1980s Jonas began developing her emblematic, personal grammar of gesture, ritual and sound into intricate, multi-textual works that exhibit a sophisticated layering of nonlinear narrative forms with performance, theatricality, and electronic manipulations of space, time and image. Her elliptical, fragmented video narratives often merged such storytelling forms as fairy tales
(Upsidedown and Backwards, 1980), science fiction (Double Lunar Dogs, 1984), legends (Volcano Saga, 1989), myths and dreams with topical and autobiographical references. Just as Jonas' works of the 1970s exploited the rudimentary technological properties of video as conceptual devices, so these later works utilize sophisticated electronic techniques to achieve a multi-dimensional theater that explores the fragmentation and loss of memory and identity in postmodern culture.
From her earliest, face-to-face confrontations with video as a mirroring device, to her densely collaged narrative texts, Jonas herself always appears as a performer, confronting the viewer in an enigmatic theater of self-discovery.
Joan Jonas was born in 1936 in New York. She received a B.A. in Art History from Mount Holyoke College in 1958, studied sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and received an M.F.A. in Sculpture from Columbia University in 1965. She was awarded the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award in 1988, the Third Annual Polaroid Video Art Award in 1987 and was also the recipient of the Hyogo Prefecture Museum of Modern Art Prize at the Tokyo International Video Art Festival. Jonas has received grants for choreography, video and the visual arts from the New York State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. She was artist-in-residence at the TV Lab at WNET/Thirteen in New York, and was selected for the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst Artists-in-Berlin program. Since 2000 Jonas has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Jonas has performed and exhibited her work extensively throughout the world. In 2004 she was honored with a retrospective at the Queens Museum of Art in New York, titled Joan Jonas: Five Works. She has also had major retrospectives at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands, and Stadtsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. In 2005, Jonas presented a site-specific, five-channel video installation at Dia:Beacon, New York, titled The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, which subsequently traveled in 2007 to Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Torino, Italy; Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles, and Yvon Lambert Gallery, New York. Other one-person exhibitions and performances include Kunstmuseum, Bern; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; The Kitchen, New York; San Francisco Museum of Art; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; University of California, Berkeley; Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris and New York; Pat Hearn Gallery, New York, and Sonnabend Gallery, New York, among others. Group exhibitions include the Whitney Biennial, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Long Beach Museum of Art, California; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Documentas 5, 6, 8, and 11 in Kassel, Germany; P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York; Kunsthaus Graz, Austria; Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, and Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinema et de la Video, among many others.
In 2015 Jonas was selected to represent the United States in the 56th Venice Biennale. Her new installation for the five galleries of the United States Pavilion, They Come to Us without a Word, was commissioned by the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Jonas also created a new video performance, with music by Jason Moran (They Come to Us without a Word II), in conjunction with her installation for the US Pavilion at the Biennale.
Jonas lives in New York.