Posted by: simmo22hmtholyokeedu | December 2, 2018

Joan Jonas and the Mirror: A Review

The exhibition of Joan Jonas’s works concerning the mirror currently on view in the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum is dizzying. Jonas’s works, in general, are dizzying. With their bizarre combinations of performance, dance, video, and mirrors, there’s almost too much to unpack. That seems to be the point of her pieces, and the museum has done a beautiful job of highlighting that disorder.

On the left wall of the gallery is Wind, a video projection that lasts around six minutes. In it, Jonas, a few dancers and some of her friends perform a strange, ritualistic dance while buffeted by wind. According to what Jonas said about this piece during her talk at Mount Holyoke in October, this piece was initially staged inside but moved outside for shooting. The wind was an unplanned aspect that ended up changing the entire nature of the work. The wind acts almost as another dancer in the piece. Just as the pairs of performers push and balance on each other, the wind supports or topples the dancers in a similar way. As this is an exhibit on Jonas’s relationship to the mirror, reflection also plays a key role in this piece. The dancers wearing mirrored clothing, one of whom is Jonas herself, operate very differently within the work than do the other people. There seems to be, therefore, some kind of power attached to the mirrors, as though the reflection and distortion they cause imbue the wearers with an ability to defy the forces of nature.

Aside from the natural forces at work, the moment in the video which most stuck with me was the one in which one of the performers advances towards the camera with a kind of menacing grin. I thought this encapsulated the mood of the piece perfectly. The smile seems meant to communicate something to the viewer, yet the meaning of that communication seems out of reach. Likewise, the dance seems to be a part of some deliberate ritual, yet the purpose is also unclear. Like many of Jonas’s works, the movement itself seems to take precedence over some kind of coherent message.

The curators of this show have positioned this piece in a really interesting way. First of all, the piece is on the opposite wall as the explanatory text. The reflective panel that frames the text also reflects Wind from certain angles, albeit a slightly hazy and warped version. This is a really effective way of highlighting the distortion of space and that mirrors seem to cause in the piece. Also, though this may be a stretch, I think the choice to seat a metal bench in front of the piece really enhanced my experience. The cold temperature of the metal allowed me to imagine myself within the scene and made me feel almost like I was on the freezing beach with Jonas and the other performers.

The other piece that stood out to me in this show is Mirror Pieces Installation II, which takes up the entirety of the wall opposite the door. This work consists of a conglomeration of mementos from Jonas’s past works involving mirrors, including similar clothing to what was featured in Wind, a triptych of mirrors, and a video of a performance from 1968. In the video, mirrors are placed in the center of the performer’s nude bodies, which duplicates one side so that they are perfectly symmetrical. In front of the group of people doing this action, there is a man who repeatedly dons and removes a mirrored jacket like the one hanging over the mirrors. The layers upon layers of action here are parallel to the multiple mirrors which mediate our experience of the performers. It takes a while to realize that one is not actually watching a video of the performance, only the reflection. Jonas usually claims to use mirrors to distort space, yet here they also work to distort time. We are watching a taped, and therefore mediated, representation of a performance piece which is in turn mediated by the mirror. This distorts the memory of the performance and forces the viewer to watch a strange, false version of the original piece. Also, as the viewer examines the bodies of the performers, the reflection of their own body is shown in the mirror, therefore including them in a performance from fifty years ago.

That this work is what one sees when first walks in is particularly arresting. Almost immediately upon entering the gallery space, one is confronted with a reflection of themselves in the mirror. Viewers are at once involved in the world of Jonas’s works, however disorienting that world might be. From there, one can either enter the icy, turbulent world of Wind, the mediated world of Mirror Pieces Installation II, or the miniature world of My New Theater. The curators at the museum have made Joan Jonas’s works so much more accessible because of the tangible relationship between artwork and viewer that they have facilitated through the placement of the pieces.


Works Cited:

Simon, Joan. In the Shadow a Shadow: The Work of Joan Jonas. Gregory R. Miller & Co., 2015.

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