Posted by: livcacciatore | December 18, 2018

A Review: The Joan Jonas Experience

Walking back into the little room is completely immersive. The echo and expanse of the art museum is immediately shifted to a small intimate space. Even when absolutely packed with people the draw of the projection on the wall is total. Sitting on the bench in the middle of the room is key. From here there is nothing but the screen in front of you, music comes from all around you, and you become a part of the piece.

The screen is dark and deep blue at first a strange figure in the foreground. (I learned later that this is an example of how the piece would function at Jonas’s shows, projected behind her while she performs on the stage. But for now it is just a confusing shadowed figure.) Next the scene changes completely, going from darkness and shadows to bright, bold sunlight. The perspective is strange and difficult to understand, but recognizable forms bring the piece into focus.

Two women dressed in colorful skirts and funny paper hats, and a white dog following them about can be seen exploring and playing in a beautiful pastoral landscape under a bright blue sky. The figures moves at varying paces, the video speed is consistently accelerated, causing them to move in an unnatural way. At different random moments the video is slowed, but if it’s hyper slow or just normal speed it is difficult to tell. Gentle tinkling music accompanies their actions, some kind of chimes and piano, it’s playful and light, but doesn’t seem to following any commanding rhythm. Instead it vaguely informs the emotions of the viewer while playing as freely as the women do. And the women too move about without rhyme or reason, guided by a child-like logic, that we as adults always forget. That that goes there because. Because why? Because that’s where it goes. And that’s all there is to it. This whole piece perfectly encapsulates that feeling. Things happening simply because and the viewer is swept through the action not knowing what will come next. And yet, the scene feels safe. No other subjects enter it except the two women and the dog, and the sunny day and delicate music, and bright colors, promise softness and good things, allowing the viewer to relax into the chaos of this Wonderland.

The illusion is no secret either. On the left of the screen is a camera on a tripod pointed right at us! But not at us. It takes a few moments to realize that the camera is in fact us. That the devise which is allowing us to view this moment is present in the scene. The piece is aware of itself and the viewer, but the camera doesn’t glare at you, it’s not large or central. Instead it merely acts as something grounding in an otherwise nonsensical visual. If we can see ourselves then this must be a mirror, the whole scene being acted out in front of a mirror through which we can see. At this point one is tempted to try to envision the entire set up. How is this happening? How many mirrors are there? What are all of the angels to make this possible? It’s possible to determine this, but if you’re like me, after a few moments, you remember that that’s not the point of art, and go back to enjoying the piece.

There is a moment that seems to be a kind of climax, the music becomes more frenzied and the quick movements match this energy. One of the women turns a sawhorse balanced on top of another sawhorse back and forth, the energy is elevated, the music breaks, and nothing really happens. The sawhorse is taken off the other sawhorse. This is an excellent subversion of expectation. What about this piece requires a climax? Why did the viewer suspect they might get one? This is yet another reenforcement of the piece’s lack of classical logic. But perhaps for the characters that’s what that moment was. It doesn’t really matter. The women go on playing as the dog weaves in and out of frame.

This piece is destabilizing. It subverts the viewers expectation for story and logic and shows them a nonsensical world. But at the same time, the piece is safe, it’s warm, it holds the viewer with the promise that the lack of these things aren’t a concern. The piece will provide you with the experience you’re supposed to have, for me, a nostalgic look back at childhood, exactly how it feels to be a child. And there’s something so wonderful about surrendering these expectations. To be as a child, to be completely immersed in an imaginary world, where all your rules make perfect sense. Why? Because they just do.


– On the experience of viewing Joan Jonas’s Mirror Improvisation¬†at the Mount Holyoke Art Museum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: