Posted by: Casey L | November 18, 2018

Jonas and Vroman: Art Museum Visit Review

Having just finished reading Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, the concept of reflection was at the forefront of my mind during the class visit to the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. The two works I studied and both Alice stories were inextricably linked, so that as I took notes, the connections spilled out more quickly than I could write.

The first more structured part of the museum visit was spent watching Joan Jonas’ work Mirror Improvisations and doing a close reading in the context of our class. After thinking through our initial impressions, we were asked to consider connections to the course and Jonas’ use of the mirror. I had briefly visited this same piece with another English class and admittedly had not had much of a reaction, lacking the context to interpret it.

With the course in mind, I had the necessary interpretive tools to read the film. As in the two Alice stories, the film begins outside of its own Wonderland. Jonas, the other subject, and the dog are first shown outside of the mirror from the direct perspective of the camera. Once thrust into the mirror world, time jolts and slows, and actions become absurd. By the end, there is no resolution or falling action, rather a few seemingly random conflicts (sword-fighting vs. creature encounters) and construction to no end in itself (compare with the courtroom nonsense in Alice).

Joan Jonas plays on age and perspective in her piece. She and the other woman dress up as children may dress up as princesses, with tulle and paper hats thrown on top of everyday clothing. At the same time that they imitate the play of children, they are projected as larger than life from the low perspective of the mirror. Like in Alice, size and age are in flux in this mirror world. The film’s music is random, existing in a tension between childlike smashing on piano keys and adult, sophisticated jazz. Another connection to Alice in Wonderland is Jonas’ dog, as the non-human becomes incorporated into play. In multiple shots in the film, the dog is larger than the human figure, reminiscent of the terrier that Alice encounters.

Jonas and the woman are able to watch how they will appear on film in the mirror. They look at the mirror as though making eye contact with the viewer but really looking at themselves and the camera lens at the same time. Jonas subverts the truth-claim of film, its supposed ability to reveal more than photography. How do worlds change when seen through a mirror? How can the camera be a part of reimagining the world? There is something larger—stories and ideas—that cannot be captured by the camera. The subjects understand what they represent, but viewers cannot access their reality.

After discussing the film—I found a lot of what I was writing were thoughts in common with classmates—we were sent off for the second part of the trip. With two quotes from Joan Jonas in mind, we were to read an object of our choosing that related to Jonas’ thoughts about mirrors. I was drawn from afar by a piece that initially resembled Victorian photocollage. Upon closer inspection, I saw the work was composed of four cards arranged in a fan reminiscent of photocollage, with faces and bodies pasted on ordinary items. However, the subjects represented were Native peoples from New Mexico rather than members of the Victorian aristocracy. I turned to the first quote by Joan Jonas in 2001: “In addition to creating space, a mirror also 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.”

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Made circa 1900, what would be the end of the Victorian period in the UK, the cards feature photographs taken by Adam Clark Vroman and produced by Lazarus & Melzer. My discomfort with the cards was framed by Jonas’ quote, which connects to anthropological projects of the late-19th and early-20th century surprisingly well. The specific kind of fascination that must have been felt when viewing these cards is within the context of colonialism, an erasure of the genocide of Native peoples in favor of presenting a depoliticized “mirror world.”

Seeing scenes and people that parallel one’s own fits into this idea of voyeurism of self and the other. As the object label notes, the images did not name those featured and were meant to be “iconic representatives of an entire people, rather than … individuals.” The card placed on top is of a Native woman, labeled “An Isleta Belle,” presumably referring to the Isleta tribe in New Mexico. By framing the photograph as one featuring a beautiful woman, the (non-Native) viewers are asked to make an immediate comparison to women in “their world.”

Unlike in Jonas’ piece, the connection to her quote and our course is not via the mirror, but is still via visual representation of the other/self. Each card’s photograph has an edge that is slightly fuzzed out, emphasizing them as near-fantasy insights into a realm that the viewer contemporaneous with the photographs would recognize as other and yet part of a shared humanity: apart in culture and land, but (however wrongly) sharing a country. The arrangement of the four cards disrupts this voyeuristic ability to peer through the scenes and fully imagine oneself in them, or compared to them; with the exception of the top card, the others are tucked behind.

In the end, the museum visit was a reminder of how our current studies and thoughts shape our interpretation of art. We wove through the museum, threaded by our shared experience in the course, what we wanted to find in connection to our ideas. We sought images that we were able to read, and when we looked at works of art, our internal selves were reflected back at us.

 

Sources:

Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition. Edited by Martin Gardner, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Jonas, Joan. Mirror Improvisation. 2005.

Vroman, Adam Clark. The American Indian Souvenir Playing Cards. Lazarus & Melzer, 1900.


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