Joan Jonas: Myths, Mirrors & Monitors


In conjunction with Joan Jonas’s visit to Northwestern University, Block Cinema presents a screening of work by the pioneering artist. Jonas, who represented the United States at this year’s Venice Biennale, is a central figure in the history of video and performance art. Her works from the late 1960s and early 1970s continue to be crucial to the development of contemporary art across media including performance, video, conceptual art, and theater. Jonas’s practice explores ways of seeing, the rhythms of ritual, and the authority of objects and gestures. The screening features two of Jonas’s early performance-driven pieces from 1972 (Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy and Duet), and two rarely screened works from the 1980s (Double Lunar Dogs and Volcano Saga, which stars a young and riveting Tilda Swinton).

Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972, 17:24 min)

Organic Honey's Visual Telepathy is based on Jonas' 1972 performance of the same name, the first in which she used video. In an enigmatic ritual of identity, Jonas performs as herself and as her masked double, Organic Honey. Dressed in a feathered headdress and costumes, Organic Honey is the embodiment of artifice, masquerade and narcissism — a female alter-ego whose guise is a frozen doll's face. This elliptical, nonlinear narrative performance explores themes that are emblematic of Jonas' early video work: The study of female gestures and archetypes, both personal and cultural; the use of disguise and masquerade, ritual objects and ritualized self-examination; and an inquiry into subjectivity and objectivity. The work's formal elements — the layering of mirrors and mirrored images, manipulations of reflective space and spatial ambiguity, and the use of drawing to add a further layering of meaning — are also Jonas' signatures. -EAI

Double Lunar Dogs (1984, 24:04 min)

Based on Robert Heinlein’s 1941 story “Universe,” Double Lunar Dogs presents a vision of post-apocalyptic survival aboard a “spacecraft,” travelling aimlessly through the universe, whose passengers have forgotten the purpose of their mission. As a metaphor for the nature and purpose of memory, the two main characters (portrayed by Jonas and Spalding Gray) play games with images of their past; but their efforts to restore their collective memories are futile, and they are reprimanded by the “Authority” for their attempts to recapture their past on a now-destroyed planet Earth. -VDB

Duet (1972, 4:23 min)

Newly re-mastered through EAI's Videotape Preservation Program, this tape is a classic early video performance. In this seminal exploration of the phenomenology of video as a mirror and as "reality," Jonas, face-to-face with her own recorded image, performs a duet with herself. -EAI

Volcano Saga (1989, 28 min)

Based on the thirteenth-century Icelandic Laxdeala Saga, this narrative reverie is a televisual retelling of a medieval myth about a young woman (played by Tilda Swinton) whose dreams foretell the future. Shot in the dramatic natural landscapes of Iceland and in New York, this performance-based work uses ancient dream analysis as a starting point for a densely textured tale, in which the young woman's interpreter (played by Ron Vawter) hears her dreams and sees their meaning. Jonas employs multilayered digital effects to create a ritualistic dreamscape of the young woman's imagination and desires. The ghostly overlays, otherworldly images and mythical text imbue Volcano Saga with a haunting beauty. -EAI