– Spring/Summer 2004

Joan Jonas: Images and Sounds in the Material of Time

Susan Morgan

A darkened corridor leads away from the busy brightness of a museum lobby. Walking along this passageway, you are aware of the faint sound of a woman's voice thrumming in the distance. At first, the steady stream of her words is barely audible. She speaks low, her diction clear but muted. The sound emerges from a dimly-lit interior room, a triangulated gallery space in New York's Queens Museum; it is an improvised space - an inner sanctum, part make-shift theatre, part anthropological display - that houses an installation of Lines in the Sand (2002), a multi-media performance work originally created by Joan Jonas for Documenta11.

Within this room, you can distinctly hear the soundtrack of a woman, the artist [Jonas], speaking. 'There was something beating in my brain,' she confides quietly. 'I do not say my heart. My brain. I wanted it to be let out. I wanted to free myself of repetitive thoughts and experiences - my own and those of my contemporaries.' The timbre of her voice is sonorous and curiously timeless. In describing an early work of Jonas's, her 1970 performance Mirror Check, the painter Mary Heilmann wrote: 'Her flat, hoarse yet resonant mono-tone catching haltingly in her throat. She is nervous and composed at once.' That particular, ineffable quality continues to infuse the sound of Jonas's work; she speaks hesitantly, conveying a sense of nascent thought opening slowly into language.

Jonas's deliberate narration of Lines in the Sand accompanies a video projected onto a screen above a sandbox the size of a small room - a mutable territory reminiscent of a children's playground, a miniaturised desert or a Zen garden constantly raked over into