The Unspecific (But Straining) Politics of Joan Jonas

Joan Jonas, "They Come to Us Without a Word," 2016. Courtesy the artist, The Kitchen, and Paula Court.

Long an idiosyncratic priestess of the limbo between myth and art, Joan Jonas has moved into pagan revivalism. They Come to Us Without a Word II, recently performed at New York City’s The Kitchen, is magic-lantern theater, a site where human ghosts meet the innumerable animal species they’ve consigned to oblivion. It also features a tricky familial drama, as Jonas is forced to confront her maker. In the 1970s, Jonas’s methods of theatrical alchemy were concocted in the twin crucible of avant-garde performance and germinal television technology. The problem is that the latter has since become a loyal functionary of capitalist hypnosis, which numbs our sensitivities to the very social and environmental traumas Jonas is here addressing. In response, she attempts a sensational détournement, repurposing dazzling image spectacle into a kind of jerry-rigged arcane magic, as an antidote to false-consciousness. This is a solution that’s heartening in the realm of theater, where imagination rules – but not so much in our accepted reality, where wizards and witches have no jurisdiction. More spirit medium than environmentalist agit-prop, They Come to Us incants a world in which imagination and reality are coterminous. Jonas falters when she uncritically reproduces the worst characteristic of mainstream media. Arousing us with a twinkling vision of the “rapidly and radically changing” world – her words – she neglects the most upsetting consequences of that change – irreversible losses and palpable traumas, both human and animal. Otherwise, she illuminates the shadow region between fantasy and radical possibility, like tracer fluid for a deluded body politic.

Jonas is a master impresario, a brilliant manipulator of sensation and emotion. In The Kitchen’s black-box theater, she has enraptured her audience with melancholy, bliss, saccharin, and tragedy. Motifs suggesting animal worship coruscate in overhead projections, fragmented by props and meandering children. The latter, dressed in chiffon white, are upright and sprightly. They are joined by Jonas, who, while stooped, capably moves with them, and carries props. It’s as if The Lord of the Flies has been double-exposed over Terrence Malick’s sun-dappled pastoral. As in the latter’s Tree of Life (2011), wonderment at a shimmering afterlife is here conflated with social-scientific inquiry. From time to time, Jonas drifts towards a mic stand to recite ghost stories from the provincial lore of her seasonal home in Cape Breton, Canada. Her child performers are, in this way, framed as wraiths. Later, she reminds us like an oracle that “the youth inherit multiple crises and uncertain landscapes.” It’s clear that Jonas cares deeply for her diminutive cast. But this solicitude only serves to remind us of the oft-escapist intonation of her apocalyptic fairy tale. She is dealing in the lives and futures of tangible humans, who are right here, in front of us. In a very real way, she employs these children in order to trigger our own empathetic instincts, vis-a-vis the planet’s future. Given that she’s already gone this far, shouldn’t we expect a more brutally honest picture of the misery awaiting – a desire to make us feel the pang of ecological plight, rather than just swooning at dazzling effect?

These “uncertain landscapes” were pictured with ruthless lucidity in Cormac McCarthy’s 2011 novel The Road. While exaggeratedly masculine in its love for fire and brimstone, McCarthy’s book gives ecological collapse a similar cosmological purview to Jonas’s. In one cruel scene of The Road, we follow a starving child who, searching a cellar for food, instead finds a cache of half-alive humans, rations for a blight without end. Whereas McCarthy’s approach resembles shock therapy, Jonas is attempting re-enchantment. When she bespeaks ecological catastrophe, tragedy agitates wonder, before retreating into a twinkling haze. Shortly a songstress appears at the bottom of the stage to serenade us with the hardship of (white European) rural life. In 1972, Jonas titled a video work I Want to Live in the Country. Revived through this serenade, and only thinly augmented by theatrical irony, that desire betrays more than a touch of the wistful colonialist sublime. Jonas’s invocation of doomed youth clangs deafeningly off catastrophes left absent, for example the plague of suicides in Canada’s outlying Indigenous communities. It’s not that Jonas should be bidden to historical veracity, showing us anguish in the way of disaster porn. But given her ambition to rekindle a lost spirit-world – especially in a rural, North American context – it seems a touch indulgent to avoid mentioning the spirit worlds that were for several thousand years transposed over this exact landscape, via the stories and rituals of people forcibly displaced.

It’s stirring to watch Jonas’s child performers scrawl tangles of line into shards of blackboard, as piano notes provided by (jazz musician and frequent artist-collaborator) Jason Moran rain down. As the children are bathed in projections of animals, coupled with references to forthcoming catastrophe, the effect produced in this performative drawing is of youthful zest short-circuiting as it contacts adult circumstance. This method of braiding criticality and theatricality allowed Jonas to cut thrilling tributaries adjacent to her more canonized peers – Bruce Nauman, Martha Rosler, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta. Both embracing artifice and inclined to structuralist interrogation, Jonas began using actors early, situating herself as a hybrid choreographer, ventriloquist, and theatrical psychotherapist. This contrasted sharply with the narcissism that Rosalind Krauss considered endemic to video art, with the artist’s body so often front and center, even in the service of critique. In Organic Honey Visual Telepathy (1972), Jonas had an actress strike a mirror, shattering the membrane of self-obsession. They Come to Us… seems nearly populist in comparison to this early work’s grey-scale terseness. No one that I spoke to left the theater less than spellbound – a strange scene, so many adults absorbing catastrophe as children to kaleidoscopes.

In addition to playing out in the time-space of theater, the performance eschewed plot progression in favor of a rapid constellation of asides. Wielding a staff tipped by chalk, Jonas draws a large glyphic crow on black paper. She then crumples the paper, giving drawing a ritual function as opposed to its usual role within an economy of precious objects. But soon the drawing reappears, hanging in the set’s background, and with it the crow, which now has the feeling of a persistent specter. Often, Jonas stands at a digital projector, transposing and juxtaposing mythological animal motifs. She traces a photographed cardinal in red marker before removing the original to reveal a transparency, splitting the indexical photograph from the signatory code. This kind of storytelling has multiple precedents. Contextualizing the Icelandic author Haldór Laxness’s 1968 book Under the Glacier, an inspiration for Jonas, Susan Sontag describes “dream novels” in which “time and space are mutable … space is multiple …” Jonas has equal disregard for genre boundaries as for divisions between reality and fantasy. In this way her work feels perennially decontextualized, always beautifully estranged.

But given her subject matter, how content should we be to float in fascination, when empathetic and ethical acuity seems urgently required? Having already made reference to Fukushima’s torrid afterglow, Jonas recites passages from the New York Times urging Germany to abandon nuclear power. Of course these are moving issues, but the global breadth of the headlines evades the penetration that more detailed accounts would facilitate. And so her incisive weaving of plight and naiveté often drifts into a transfixing but generic cosmic sublime. Elsewhere, Jonas’s cross-pollinating of puerility with adult sobriety has a sophisticated structural intelligence, as she mimics childish cognition in order to deliver her soothsayer’s message into jaded minds. The geographer David Harvey has explained how Karl Marx’s Capital (1863), in addition to featuring a pantheon of fantastic creatures, structurally echoes the way that children apprehend the world through constantly-shifting linkages of association. Similarly, the grist of They Come to Us… arrives in its cultivation of a wildly imaginative – if often febrile – relationship to the natural world, and realms of human life extending before and after our own discreet bodies.

Deftly, Jonas contrasts the epic scale of her subject with the modest aesthetics of shadow play – as the children dance in front of and behind the scrims, they make haunting silhouettes. It’s a crafty method for pursuing moral responsibility – how else to describe her want to surreptitiously recalibrate ecological consciousness? – while keeping on the side of levity, not sanctimony. In this method, Jonas has a colleague in philosopher Bruno Latour. His play Gaïa Global Circus (which ran at The Kitchen in 2014) took its name from the Greek Goddess who personified earth, and who has been revived in discourse on the Anthropocene (the proposed name of a new epoch in which humans have substantively altered the planet’s composition) in order to cast planet earth as an imperiled entity, rather than an inert mass. Latour’s invocation of this deity as both a character in, and a setting for, a circus about disbelief and re-enchantments splices absurdity with planetary responsibility. The same is true of Jonas’s magical atmosphere, in which she alternately flits about the stage wearing a golden insect helmet, and morphs into a nautical goddess wielding an enormous oar. Parsing meaning from these scenes is approximate in difficulty to clutching a swarm of mosquitos. But this is how Jonas’s fantastical realism does its work. This chaos of fractured images continues the metaphorical shattering of self-centredness she began in 1972, broadening that critique in order to encompass the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Here, fragmentation is a cogent reflection of our relationship to nature, a mimicking of the intense confusion which scrambles our ability to thoughtful dispose of egg cartons, let alone cast off with Greenpeace. As with all critique through mimesis, this work’s efficacy as environmentalist tirade is difficult to gauge. Its rapturous framing of plight also discloses a discomfiting nihilism.

Jonas’s sorcery is hypnotic in its mirroring of human-ecological pathos. But with the fourth wall undisturbed, her magic remains essentially make-believe. It seems, then, that she is spinning a scintillating yarn, producing sufficient imaginative latitude that we might ruminate on our complex imbrication in this planetary disaster. To believe that this must be Jonas’s goal is not to slag her as a pedagogue – a role she eschews, saying that she does not want to address her subject “directly or didactically.” Even so, perspicacious lessons emerge. Despite good intentions, for example, most of us display no more belief in our inseparability from nature than in fantastical spirit creatures. Species and cultures evaporate from the earth in waves, and we scarcely blink. Enrapturing us in this shameful predicament is a magical feat. That Jonas does so through fantastical theater, amidst the chilly intellectual pretenses of contemporary art – all the more so.

Midway through the piece, two small chairs appear in front of the projector screen. Jonas and a counterpart sit, facing one another. One holds a ball of yarn, the other its loose end. The warmth of animals comes to mind, and with it, winter’s torment. Jonas’s counterpart pulls at this string, making a knot that will eventually form a ball in her own hands. Jonas tumbles her diminishing sphere, helping the process along. It’s a tender ritual, in which a dense mass is kindly unwoven and transferred. I can think of worse metaphors for the transfusion of Jonas’s catastrophic fantasy – itself haunted by unfortunate blind spots – into our spectacle-weary minds.


* An incorrect version of this text was published on June 3, 2016; the editor apologizes.

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