Museum of Modern Art | December 18, 2009 – May 31, 2010
At a time when installation art has achieved general favor, the Museum of Modern Art has recently begun a series of re-presentations of seminal experiments from the 1970s, before the formal risks of performance became formula. Joan Jonas’s twice-restaged 1976 performance installation, “Mirage,” quietly smolders. Next door to the fiery career retrospective of Marina Abramović and the laser intensity of “The Artist is Present,” Jonas’s single room becomes a parasympathetic space, where the moving image is sculpture, objects are charged by ritual and repetition, and pathways between left and right brain lace together ancient symbols and modern rubbish. When Jonas performs on video, her force of consciousness bubbles to the surface of the medium. Against the will of the censor, she pries open its logic with her own concatenations.
Sculptural objects, videos, and projections, combined with two adjacent performance stages emerge from her darkly painted room. Spotlights shine gently on the two stages, where performance artifacts are set: wooden hoops, a male Grecian mask, and an overturned conical aluminum sculpture. A crop of tall silver cones glints between the platforms, while chalk drawings on the floor of a lower stage attest to the artist’s shadowy presence. On the opposite side of the room, two upended television sets play videos of the artist performing rigid poses and dance movements in her loft, her head hanging from the top of the frame, or repeating the words “good night.” Jonas’s earlier video, “Left Side Right Side” (1972), is a clear precursor to “Mirage”; it doubles the artist’s image through a video monitor and a mirror in order to manipulate the left-right reading of the screen, creating a dyslexic tableau that confounds opposition between subject and object. In each of the three video monitors and two wall projections of “Mirage,” alterations in scrolling speed and direction of the frame, flipping from negative to positive, and repetition are the perceptual rudiments of Jonas’s hallucinatory, deceptive play.
Above the main stage, parallel images of the artist at work and dated television stock footage locate the performance and surrounding cultural ephemera as discontinuous by-products of the year in which they were made—1976. The psychic space affected in this diptych is fleeting, apparently schizoid, and yet full of latent associations. At a given moment, Dan Rather reports the news while Jonas scrawls numbers on a chalkboard. Nixon talks to the cameraman in a stray news segment on a wreath-laying ceremony, while Jonas draws a nine-pointed star, erasing and then redrawing a spray of lines. Jonas’s repetitive drawing and erasure reveal small variations within her choreography and the intent of her hand, recalling the caves of Lascaux or some other prehistoric logic. What kind of repetition, then, does the Noxzema advertisement on the right half of the screen hold for us? A splash of water on a young girl’s face, a smile, and a white background signifying antiseptic purity—recycled tropes of an enduring commercial campaign. Yet, tangentially, these halves of the screen make points of contact, heightening the awareness of the whiteness of Jonas’s chalk line, or her ablutions that wipe the chalkboard to a tabula rasa.
Within their hypnotic structure, the films supply the coda to the sculptural elements. In another episode, Jonas and another woman appear on the steps of a Wall Street building at night, blowing on the long aluminum sculptures like horns and dragging them on the asphalt, where steam escapes from a pothole like a stovetop kettle. Later, footage of volcanoes erupting becomes a keynote image recalling the vertical ruptures of the unconscious. Association weights the presence of the objects on the stage, which are already implicitly narrative.
Interchangeability, flux between light and dark, male and female. In a video interview for MoMA, Jonas describes her work as androgynous. Earlier works were more involved in the search for a feminine vernacular in art, she explains, and, unlike sculpture and painting, video was more open, less dominated by men.
As a field for deep subliminal play, Jonas’s work also excavates and validates other visual cultures as it claims territory for contemporary consciousness and politics. The shadow plays in India and Indonesia come to mind: behind a thin muslin scrim a reanimation of myth takes place, usually for the duration of the night, whether or not the human audience is present. It is remarkable that the incantatory tradition of shadow theater continues despite the assimilation of the television; the human audience for these divine plays might be tucked away in a room glazed by the new white light of the television, yet artist-priests continue to wield gangly-limbed puppets in the pitch of night by candlelight. Jonas, whose work has its own devotional following, plays on a delicate edge of diminishment and exposure, casting her radical theater of shadows.