– Spring/Summer 2004

Get Rid of the Knots

Mark Kremer

Joan Jonas's work takes as its subject the precise rendering of inner life in all its imprecision. In her early performances, metaphors about man and his social surroundings are concealed somewhat, but in later work the symbolism becomes overt.

A particular set of props provides Jonas with company through the years. They are tools to transform such things as dreams, the will, fear, desire and longing for beauty so that the world can be addressed in those terms. After a certain point in her career, storytelling finds a way into the work and becomes crucial. Jonas uses ancient tales as well as stories from the present to reflect her early motifs and themes and puts them into a larger context.

The development of the artist's production follows a cyclical pattern in which the early work already contains certain concerns that will crystallise over time. It is possible to distinguish several stages in the work's development and this text is built around three of them. One exemplary work of Jonas's (or a number of connected works) will be our guide at each stage. Much of her oeuvre, as it is theatrical by nature and hence cherishes the moment it is presented before an audience, is no longer with us in its original form. It has vanished into history. But I will step ahead light-footedly because the secondary sources that have remained speak of the presence the work once had. As a start, let's chart the ground that bore this body.

1968-72: The Hardcore Years

Toughness is a dominant trait of Joan Jonas's early work. Outdoor pieces such as Wind (1968) and Delay, Delay (1972) are about setting the

  1. The artist's work is extensively documented in Joan Jonas. Scripts and Descriptions 1968-1982 (exh. cat.), Berkeley: University Art Museum and Eindhoven: Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1983; Joan Jonas. Works 1968-1994 (exh. cat.), Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1994; Joan Jonas. Performance Video Installation 1968-2000 (exh. cat.), Galerie der Stadt Stuttgart; Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2001. I am greatly indebted to the third source. It contains Jonas's descriptions of her work, and Joan Simon's text 'Scenes and Variations: An Interview with Joan Jonas', pp.25-35.

  2. Joan Jonas. Performance Video Installation 1968-2000, op. cit., p.108

  3. Chris Burden has given this as a major reason for his mid-1970s shift to sculpture and installation. Mol later, in 1995, 'expressed the astonishment he felt when looking back on his performances, because it seemed to him now that the potential had much more to offer than the ultimate execution, as if by its enactment the spell was broken'. See Pieter Laurens Mol, Grand Promptness, Breda: Artimo, 1996, p.66

  4. Joan Jonas. Performance Video Installation 1968-2003, op. cit., p.108

  5. Joan Simon, 'Scents and Variations: An interview with Joan Jonas', in Ibid, p.27

  6. See (especially) Dario Gamboni, Potential Images. Ambiguity and Indeterminancy in Modern Art, London: Reaktion Books, 2002, pp.68-85

  7. J. Simon, op. cit., p.25

  8. Joan Jonas. Performance Video Installation 1968-2003, op. cit., p.108