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Joan Jonas

American Performance Artist, Film Maker, Installation Artist

Joan Jonas Photo
Movements and Styles: Performance Art, Video Art, Feminist Movement

Born: 1936 - New York

"I rehearsed my work only at night, and when I rehearsed, I stepped into another space that was not the same as my everyday space. You could almost call it a séance."

Summary of Joan Jonas

Joan Jonas's practice is one full of the synergy, dynamism, and constant flux that is present in life itself. There is nothing static or easily definable about this art. Jonas works as a Performance artist, but within this realm she incorporates drawing, dance, noise, video, travel, and at the same time introduces various sculptural objects, photographs, and props. She also interweaves a plethora of literary sources, including poems, myths, and fairytales, and as such, presents a highly complex and multi-layered private imaginative world to a public audience. The result is not usually simple, and often viewers feel overwhelmed, as though they cannot grasp any sense of linear narrative in the artist's work. This is the honesty and integrity of a Jonas piece; she exposes without restraint that the self is fragmentary, anxious, and ultimately nonsensical. Since the early 1960s, and still today, albeit now with more institutional support, Jonas continues to examine her own identity, often in relation to other artists, cultural rituals, gender equality, societal gaze, and contemporary politics.

Key Ideas

Jonas is not afraid to let pieces take on a life of their own. Jonas's performances are more like paintings in this way; they start and then evolve intuitively. It is a major achievement to be able to make art without imposing limitations. Most performances by others are more tightly planned and wholly envisioned before they begin.
Jonas is interested in the relationship between humans and animals. She suggests that to live spiritually is to live alongside creatures, and for Jonas, this is usually a dog. In art history, interestingly, a dog is curled up by the feet of the figure of Melancolia (1514)in Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving, presenting the dog a suitable companion for the curious and reflective mind. Kiki Smith visits the same themes, and Joseph Beuys, when locked in a room with a coyote, positioned himself a shaman, acknowledging the same sense of "magical intrusion" that Jonas's speaks of when in the company of animals.
Jonas brings movement to static Surrealist works, for example, Jonas's My New Theater pieces, in which videos are displayed in wooden boxes with props inside recall the creations of Joseph Cornell. Her whole career echoes the important Surrealist question, Who Am I, and the recurrence of the mirror reasserts this idea. Her use of funnels, trumpets, and spheres are motifs also found in the canvases of Remedios Varo, and all such parallels remind the viewer that Jonas too is interested in mixing the conscious and unconscious together. Like the Surrealists, she is an artist working to celebrate the imagination, to unite disparate elements, and to dissolve boundaries.
Today, Jonas re-visits old performances and restages these in new locations, with new props, and with new performers. As such she successfully communicates that everything evolves and changes, and that in fact, to freeze anything in time can only be something of an illusion. She reveals that although traditional art may bring peace and space for reflection, it only serves to provide contrast to the chaos and endless shift in life, whilst her work, by contrast, holds a mirror up to this.
Joan Jonas Life and Legacy

Joan Amerman Edwards was born in New York in 1936. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she spent most of her childhood living between Manhattan and Long Island. Jonas has said that she knew that she wanted to become an artist from around age six and that this ambition was highly encouraged by her surrounding artistic family, especially by her father who was an aspiring writer. Her mother was an avid collector of curiosities and often took the young Jonas to art galleries and to the opera. Jonas's aunt was a painter, and her stepfather a jazz musician and a magician.

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