Academic journal article Afterimage

They Come to Us without a Word: Joan Jonas 2015

Academic journal article Afterimage

They Come to Us without a Word: Joan Jonas 2015

Article excerpt

Despite the positive reviews of Joan Jonas's installation They Come to Us without a Word at the 2015 Venice Biennale, (1) some visitors with whom I spoke felt bombarded with information or perceived the installation as fragmented. First, it is worth exploring this resistance to the acclaimed multimedia installation to understand the reasons Jonas should be celebrated. In fact, it is one way to understand the work of an artist who states, "Don't try to understand my work, just experience it." (2) Second, Jonas's request "to just experience" is fine if one is passing through the installation, but not an option if one is writing an essay about the work and not parallel to it, as is the tendency in the fine catalog essays accompanying the exhibition, which were written before the authors could see the completed installation. (3)

Jonas's remark, which echoes Susan Sontag's well-known admonition against interpretation's tendency to de-sensualize, is paradoxical in light of Sontag's corrective call for an "erotics of art" because much of Jonas's project references the saturnine--Thatiatos as opposed to Eros. (4) The death and dying themes were manifest, for example, in the string of recorded Cape Breton ghost stories, the rumbling Norwegian Sami chants by Ande Somby, and the artist's attention to threatened elements and species. This mood presented a foil to the ephemeral hope suggested by the children of Jonas's friends--youths ages five to sixteen--within the videos, and the addition of percussive compositional excerpts by Jason Moran.

Located in the Giardini area of Venice, one of the two major sites of the Biennale, the installation occupying the United States pavilion transformed five rooms, including the rotunda. (5) Jonas employed props and artifacts, videos within videos, muffled speaking and chanting voices on recorded sound tracks, as well as pigmented inkjet exhibition copies of drawings, some originally painted with a stick. Each room had a title and dominant melancholy motif suggesting loss, environmental threat, or transience: "bees," "fish," "mirrors," "wind," and "homeroom." Two high-definition video projections, one addressing the room's motif and the other a ghost narrative, were in all the rooms; Homeroom included a third high-definition video projection. (6) Similar, but variegated, strategies defined each space. Children were heavily featured in all the films.

In the room called Bees (2014-15), images of--yes--bees overwhelmed the space. Two videos were projected simultaneously, one onto the wall and another onto a screen mounted on a modest stage positioned in the room's center. Sixty-five loose stencil-like drawings (actually ink-prints) of bees--which looked like easel-sized Rorschach tests as they became increasingly abstract--covered the walls; they were difficult to see because the room was somewhat dark. One bee looked like a woman (perhaps a queen bee?), and in the video on the freestanding screen (whose image could be experienced from either side), one saw several children walking in choreographed circles, moving not unlike the large crawling bees projected into the children's space. (7) Two girls stacking wood appeared in the projected video, as did the artist's poodle, Ozu.

Below the screen were long wooden sticks wrapped in wire, echoing the installation of nine narrow tree trunks procured from the Venetian Lagoon and vertically bundled in front of the pavilion. (8) Substantially larger than orange traffic cones, three white paper cones sat on the floor near the suspended screen. A sound track--a ghost story--was hard to hear, in part because it was muffled, and also because additional sound tracks emanated from the next room. This first room included a vitrine with folk masks and instructions for the children's dance. Handwritten on the wall was a quotation from Halldor Laxness's 1968 novel Under the Glacier: "If you are going to tell me the story of the dandelion and the honeybee, John, I shall hit you. …

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