Joan Jonas @ Tate Modern
2 May 2018
Written by Maggie Kuzan

Joan Jonas (b. 1936, NYC) is an American artist who has been a pioneering presence since the 1960s and 70s within the medium of performance and video. Her solo show at the Tate Modern presents an array of works dating from her earliest videos in the late 1960s to her recent installations commenting on timely ecological concerns, such as the beautifully arranged ‘Stream or River, Flight or Pattern’ (2016-2017, Fig. 1).

Jonas is fascinated by storytelling, the construction of myths, parables and folklore. Found objects such as masks, sticks, fabric become props in her theatrical landscape, as seen in performance piece, ‘The Juniper Tree’ (1976, Fig. 2), a retelling of the Grimm Brothers Story of an evil stepmother and her family. Howling and bellowing singsong fills the space, referencing the myriad visages emerging on silk from white and red brushstrokes. A cluster of spotlights congregate at the centre of the piece, their addition to the scene casts beautiful shadows of fluid drapery and harsh lines against the neutral backdrop.

By honouring as much attention to the sensory and auditory aspects of lived experience, Jonas produces a multi-dimensional approach to storytelling. I become immersed in her installation-videos, a member of her play and not simply a passive onlooker (this sensation is further amplified in her ‘My New Theatre’ series she began in the 1990s – a series of elongated standing wooden box structures with a widened opening through which you can peer into and watch a performance on a video monitor). There is a playful, voyeuristic tone to these pieces – the shielded screen means that nobody is able to tell what you are watching unless they decide to sneak into the booth with you.

The curatorial aspect of the exhibition mirrors Jonas’ horizontal and multifaceted approach to making art. Rather than consuming her work chronologically, works are presented thematically, with a deliberate overlapping of gaggles of sounds and voices generated from the videos. There is a strong polyphonic element in her installation-videos – we hear the dusty chalk scraping the surface of a blackboard in a circular motion in ‘Lines in the Sand’ (2002). This video-installation and the subsequent performance piece ‘Helen in Egypt: Lines in the Sand’ (2002)’ retells the poem ‘Helen in Egypt’ by Hilda Doolittle, reimaging the story of Helen of Troy with Helen as protagonist. As Helen was the cause of war, Jonas stages her performance in Las Vegas, explicitly commenting on the events of 9/11 from a critical feminist perspective. Through turning to these archetypal transgenerational stories and retelling them through a critical woman’s gaze, Jonas’ works questions the way in which stories are passed down and recorded. I begin to wonder which narratives are erased from the Western imagination? How about the histories of women and people of minority backgrounds?


One of the most affecting videos in the exhibition is 'Volcano Saga' (1989, Figs. 3 & 4), a dreamlike voyage of an Icelandic folktale about a woman named Gudrun who experiences four dreams and calls to the aid of a soothsayer. The narrative is interspersed with enchanting imagery of Iceland’s otherworldly haunting landscape. At times the characters are cut into the frame, floating and drifting over the poetic backdrop; a mountain stream gushes as Gudrun reclines in thin air, her speech is drawn out and longing. The DIY and late-twentieth century video aesthetic reminds me of cheesy analogue karaoke backdrops, maybe that is why I connected with it so much (and the fact that the role of Gudrun is played by a young Tilda Swinton). Jonas’ works demand a lot of attention and concentration, but they are incredibly rewarding – only once you immerse yourself within them, become an active participant in her story, does the set begin to open itself up before you, like the peeling of onion skins.


The unforgettable imagery of Iceland makes a recurrence in the Tanks, on the basement level of the building, outside of the main paid exhibition. The cavernous mammoth dark space lends itself beautifully to Jonas’ installation-video, ‘Reanimation’ (2010-2013, Fig. 5) – gusts of howling winds, chimes and clatters of crystal, and choral melodic singing resonate against the circular walls, creating a sort of rich aural and textural painting. I could have stayed in this space much longer than time allowed me to; it is by far one of Jonas’ most striking works. 

The Tate has orchestrated a responsive, sensual show, which undoubtedly crowns Jonas’ colossal achievement as a leading presence within the arts since the mid-twentieth century. However I can’t help but wonder how much less space the institution has devoted to Jonas’ exhibition in comparison to Picasso’s, which is running simultaneously on the other side of the site at the Elay Ofer Galleries. I think back to the last paid exhibition I saw in the Blavatnik Building, which was Turkish painter Fahrelnissa Zeid’s retrospective – a woman artist of colour. The dwarfing of a woman artist’s work by a white male artist, who is revered by many as the greatest modernist painter, is nothing new or surprising, however it does make me think to what effect the repeated action of worshipping these male artists does to maintaining and preserving the myth of the Western white male art canon.

Fig. 1

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Fig. 5

This exhibition has now passed.

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