Posted by: Isabelle Kirwin | October 13, 2018

Review: “Promise of the Infinite: Joan Jonas and the Mirror”

Review: “Promise of the Infinite: Joan Jonas and the Mirror”

In Dance 390, the capstone course for senior dance majors, I visited the Joan Jonas exhibit in the MHC Art Museum. We experienced each of the four installations, then discussed as a group with museum director Tricia Y. Paik. She focused our discussion mainly on Mirror Pieces Installation II, which is positioned directly across from the doors to the museum proper. Three full-length mirrors, frameless, lean against the wall beneath two hanging garments. The left garment is a black dress with small rectangular mirrors affixed to the chest, elbows, and skirt hem. On the right is a men’s double breasted wool jacket, also black, with mirrors on the lapels, front panels, and hem. Somehow the last noticeable piece of this installation, a black cubic monitor – outdated in style, facing toward the mirrors – is playing a recording created by Jonas in 1969. On Super8 film transferred to HD video, the monitor plays Jonas’s Nudes with Mirrors so that it reflects in the leftmost mirror of the three in the gallery.

The viewer is watching a reflection of the film, which consists of a line of nude people, all women but one, holding full-length mirrors in order to reflect perfect vertical symmetry of their bodies. Another man, also nude, walks through the line of people to retrieve a mirrored jacket, a replica of which is hanging above the mirrors in the gallery. He dons the jacket, then removes it, in a cyclical pattern, walking sideways along the line of mirrored people. They do not acknowledge each other, but the mirrors on the man’s jacket force each person to confront a collection of fragmented images of bodies reflected onto the jacketed man’s body. This experience of the people in the recording is relegated to only one corner of the installation, leaving the remaining mirrors open for reflection of us as viewers. As the nude people see fragments of themselves reflected in the jacket, we too see ourselves, both wholly in the full-length mirrors, and in fragments in the jacket and dress hanging above. This implicates the viewer in the work, including ‘outsiders’ in the work’s performative nature. The mirrors become confrontational, and I found myself moving in order to avoid my full-body reflection. Though I could never see myself reflected in the mirrored garments, I could see other people’s fragmented reflections in the small mirrors and assumed they could see mine as well. Like the people in the recording, I knew my reflection was being transmitted to others, but I did not know what fragmented part of myself comprised these images.

I turned away from the mirrors, and spotted two quotes printed on the wall across the room. One was from Jonas herself, quoted in 2001: “In addition to creating space, a mirror disturbs space, suggesting another reality through the looking glass – to see the reflection of Narcissus, to be a voyeur, to see one’s self as the other…to see one’s self also among, as one with, the others.” Of course this references Alice Through the Looking Glass, and Jonas often receives inspiration from literature, but I feel that Mirror Pieces Installation II relates more to the final part of the quote, seeing one’s self (not oneself, but the self one has) as conflated with the selves of others. The second quote, printed above the first, creates a strange opposition to Jonas’s idea. Quoted from The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges says “In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances.” Despite Jonas’s literary inspiration sources, I find that this decontextualized Borges quote undermines Jonas’s work. Jonas’s mirrors are never faithful; they distort reality in a way that forces the viewer to confront themselves and their perspectives, creating reflection both internally and externally.

The introduction to Jonas’s work in the museum describes her use of mirrors as indicating “that images are not facts, but reflections of our individual imaginations and assumptions,” again incorporating the viewer into the work. This was of course a groundbreaking element of Jonas’s work, and much of her impact in the art field, and Jonas demonstrates the value of reflection by revisiting her own past work. The video of Nudes with Mirrors was filmed by Jonas in 1969, but she created it purely for experimental purposes, with no intention of using the recording as performance based art. She created Mirror Pieces Installation II, incorporating the 1969 film, in 2014. Both dates are listed on the installation’s label as 1969/2014. Dr. Paik describes Jonas’s revisiting of earlier work as part of the “active life of time based performance work,” similar to dance and other performing arts because of its temporality. Though the museum has rented archival recordings, the performances Jonas creates exist only as they are being created, and are not easily reproduced for galleries or collectors. In fact, Jonas resisted the commerciality of visual art, the containment of her work in “the White Cube” of the gallery space.

This resistance forms a conundrum. How is Jonas to be represented in the art world if she rejects the most accessible public exhibition of her work? Obviously she has figured out a way, or else she would not be the most prolific visual art alumna from this college. But the question of how to represent the unrepresentable is a big issue in time based art, and I know as a dancer and choreographer that video never captures the experience of live performance. With Mirror Pieces Installation II, Jonas cleverly created a unique experience that circumvents these challenges. The mirrors create a live performance with the viewers as performers, an experience that is not reproducible even as the installed materials remain the same, and the recorded video continues its cycle.





Works Cited

Jonas, Joan. Mirror Pieces Installation II. 1969/2014. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, MA.

Paik, Tricia Y. “Joan Jonas Discussion.” 12 Oct. 2018. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, MA.


  1. This is a wonderful reflection on such an abstract and very subjective piece of performance art. I love the mirror as a piece that not only can reflect oneself but can also distort, complicate and convince in a way that is unlike any other apparatus available. The description of her short multimedia film is so vivid and what is particularly striking is the wearing and removal of the jacket that the man does on repetition. I think it leads back to the conversation of gaze and accessibility to someone’s body. Not only is he able to look at the female body, but the female looks back on him with her body reflected onto his in the mirrors. It subverts all expectations and fragments the human body in very interesting ways.

  2. The idea of accessibility to another’s body is very interesting, and I had not thought about it in those terms. I wonder how that accessibility changes when one’s own body is projected onto another?

  3. Wonderful review! We will discuss mirrors and some of the issues that you and Lily raise over the next few weeks when we look at photography by Cameron and Hawarden and also read Alice Through The Looking Glass. Were you able to attend Joan Jonas’ lecture? She had a few more recent works when video images of bodies are projected onto other bodies, including one in which a lobster’s body is projected onto her white jacket.

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