Joan Jonas’s new installation Moving Off the Land II, filling Ocean Space in the former Church of San Lorenzo in Venice from March to September 2019, inaugurated a new institution. Ocean Space will present artistic projects and research sponsored by TBA21–Academy (part of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna), which fosters deeper understandings of the ocean through art and which commissioned Jonas’s piece. Despite the complexity of this multimedia environment, its ecological message is immediately clear. And in spite of its strong educational content it remains an outstanding work of art—a multilayered narration that compels repeated readings. Importantly, Jonas weaves into this environmental visual symphony her questioning of the archetypes of gender. The impact of the work derives from the role the artist assumed in her collaboration with children: one of a spiritual guide revealing knowledge. Considering the ocean as the cradle of life, and its importance for cultures throughout history, Jonas’s work draws from various sources and presents a novel proposition both for ecological art and feminist art.
The installation had its beginnings in the performance Moving Off the Land for which Jonas drew on literature, mythology, and her own notes about the ocean “as a life source and home to a universe of beings.” She developed it gradually while performing it between 2016 and 2019 in Kochi, Vienna, Reykjavik, New York, at Tate Modern in London, and in San Francisco. The installation filling the cavernous Church of San Lorenzo is composed of videos presented in wooden “theaters,” large monochromatic drawings of sea creatures on paper and sailcloth suspended across the nave and hanging from scaffoldings which obscure the walls of the partly revitalized church, and an aquarium and mirrors made by Venetian glass makers. Similarly to the way the artist layers various spatial and time dimensions in video, using mirrors adds another dimension to the entire installation: the artist implicates the viewer into the work. The three bigger “theaters” can accommodate a few people inside. Two smaller ones, with a bench in front, contain a monitor placed at eye level—the image is smaller, but the viewing more individual.
Five videos—Mermaid, Mirror Pool, Octopus, Whale and Fishermen (4-13.5 min)—depict ocean life and the interplay of Jonas and six children with the film material. The superimposed images come from the videos Jonas made in aquariums around the world and the threatened environment off the coast of Jamaica, underwater films of biofluorescent creatures recorded by David Gruber, footage from Cape Breton, sequences filmed in the studio in New York with children, and the performances Moving Off the Land recorded since 2016. Each video has its own individual sound, and additionally the whole space is suffused with an aura of whale calls. Sounds play a key role in creating a multidimensional, but homogenous environment: they envelop viewers, while sonic layers are interwoven similarly to the way images are superimposed on each other.
The images of fish, anemones, octopuses, or crustaceans are projected onto the children standing in front of the screen. Using Jonas’s signature props, such as cardboard carton or textile screens, the children create effects that are akin to applying a magnifying glass to the projection of the head of a fish or a fragment of coral, or otherwise interfering with the video, which incorporates their activities as yet another visual layer. In other scenes, they declaim texts summarizing scientific research describing behaviors of underwater animals that evidence their intelligence and emotions. They recite long lines, bristling with facts and professional vocabulary, with engagement that conveys authenticity. The exercise shows the child’s process of gaining knowledge, moving from curiosity to an interest in influencing reality, and acquiring the necessary information and skills for that to happen.
Jonas herself sometimes participates in these activities, absorbed in “automatic” drawing of fish with Japanese ink on paper sheets placed on the floor, using a brush on a three-foot-long handle. The drawings are made with quick gestures, often in less than half a minute, during performances. A young man holds them up to show the audience, causing the wet paint to drip down, while the drawings become incorporated into the video projected onto all these actions. In other scenes Jonas touches projections of underwater animals as if she were stroking them. Some images are accompanied by her calm, low voice reading fragments of prose by Herman Melville and poetry by Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova and T.S. Eliot; myths and folk tales; and John Berger’s and Sy Montgomery’s texts about nature and science. She tells a story about an octopus in the New England Aquarium in Boston, which every night lifted the cover of its tank, crawled out, and climbed up another basin to catch fish. Elsewhere, the artist talks about the earliest myth of sirens— the Syrian goddess of fertility, Atargatis. We also see Jonas herself as she dives or draws her hieroglyphic fish drawings on the ocean shore.
The relation between the artist and the children—interactions between them, shared rituals, the interweaving of voices—affects our emotions, and to a large degree the work owes its directness to the kids’ participation. The old, petite, but physically fit woman shows them the way, like a witch leading us into a secret world to reveal the knowledge that the species inhabiting the Earth are related to each other, and so perhaps are equal to ourselves. Witches—women who had knowledge of herbalism, medicine and nature—were respected in pre-Christian societies. But even if Jonas plays a role of a “witch” here, she is one who guides us into the world of science and reason, while imparting to it magic and meanings referring to ancient rituals.
Throughout the history of culture, a woman is most often identified with the role of Mother. Rarely is she represented as Teacher. Jonas does not assume the role of Nurturing Mother, exploited in art both classical and feminist, or even of Caregiving Mother. She takes on the role of a She-Guide, a woman who passes on knowledge. She has access to nature that viewers do not have. Like a siren, she is the bridge between sea creatures and us, represented by the children. They symbolize innocence and future: Greta Thunberg’s generation, who already realize that they will have to confront the worst ecological disasters in the history of mankind. Like a Greek chorus, they “serve as an intermediary in universalizing the story, and in relating the tragic action to the audience’s present,” as Peter D. Arnott has written in Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre.
Opposition to the concept of art that celebrates single genius, a man who creates the ultimate masterpieces, is one of the topoi of feminist art. Moving Off the Land II is an outstanding realization of this idea. To a rare degree the work is free from the artist’s need to express her ego. Jonas invited many collaborators to her project; she herself is busy giving, sharing knowledge. It is not a work about her. Jonas admits early influence of feminist ideas; her first works explored the roles played by women in society. The image of her aged body, clad in a short summer dress, diving in the sea stands in contrast to, or, rather, shows a transformation from, the image of the artist inspecting her naked body with a hand mirror (Mirror Check, 1970). Immersed in the underwater world, wrapped in a cloth, her slim, energetic old body not only poses a contrast to the depictions of women in art—not least a significant part of feminist art—but also challenges the focus of art and of the attention of man on himself. To understand the genius of this work, one can think of it as a philosophical and visual juxtaposition to Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of Vitruvian Man (c. 1490), in which he made Man as a depiction of an “ideal” human body and also the center of the world. Jonas’s work is suffused with humanism, albeit not of the kind derived from the story of the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis, according to which God gave man the dominion over animals, but from rational situating of man not above but among other species. This is art that offers reflection on our place in the world and the catastrophic state we brought the planet to, without moralizing or provoking fear with apocalyptic images of extinction that awaits life in oceans and on land.
In this aspect, Jonas’s art brings to mind the poetry of Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012), who likewise saw the existence and rights of animals as equal to those of humans, and was able to make her readers reflect upon the being of a tiny tarsier or regard the migration of birds which know no borders created by man. Both the artist and the poet employ minimalist means of expression, taking care to express their message lightly, undergirded by gentle sense of humor. For both, being a woman proved a challenge to the wide recognition of their breakthrough ideas and artistic strategies early on. When Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in 1996, publishers in many countries desperately sought translators for the unknown writer. Similarly, when Jonas was announced as the U.S. representative at the Venice Biennale in 2015, many in America asked who this most famous unknown artist was.
In the beginnings of her career, Jonas had no interest in ecology even though since the 1970s she has spent her summers by the ocean in Nova Scotia, where the landscape naturally began to form the background of her videos. It’s only in the last decade that her concern for the biosphere has become a motivating force. Reanimation (2010-2012), explored the landscapes of Iceland and Norway, and their representation in the ancient sagas and the writings of Halldór Laxness. In Jonas’s postmodern conceptualization, people abandon belief in their privileged role. Her immersion in water in Moving Off the Land II is a symbolic affirmation of humanity being part of nature and its desire to communicate with other species. Nor is Jonas counted among the pioneers of feminist art, although the feminist movement strongly influenced her oeuvre. Yet her latest works, created with the sense of the world being endangered by human predations, contribute a new chapter to ecofeminism.
The interest of feminist art in the 1970s and 1980s in nature and ecology took various forms and followed many paths. From the literal melding with the earth—Ana Mendieta’s imprints of her body in the soil, sand, and grass, made to “re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe” (Silueta Series, 1973-1980); through photomontages of Mary Beth Edelson, who in the 1970s aligned herself with the feminist neopagan movement of the Great Goddess seeking to “reconcile the experience of a united spirit, body and mind;” to purely ecological projects resulting from the awareness of pollution hazards—by Agnes Denes (Rice/Tree/Burial, 1968), and nuclear contamination—by Helène Aylon (Earth Ambulance, 1982).
Woman’s role in society has been linked to the forces of nature from the earliest beliefs and their visual representations. Importantly, this association has served both patriarchal culture and feminists. Respect for nature was linked with the concept of motherhood in the cult of the Mother Goddess or the worship of Earth as a provider. Until the mid-twentieth century, men and women were believed to have opposed, fixed, innate traits. Gender essentialism is based on the conviction that woman’s essence originates from her biology, and that it is universal and generally identified with psychological qualities that are seen as specifically feminine.
Critical analysis of the roles assigned to women by society—including portraying them in history as goddesses, orators, and shamanesses—was the main motif of many of Jonas’s earliest works. The artist’s attitude towards archetypes and tropes springs from her analysis of the meaning of myth and the function of the narrative and storytelling rather than from the fascination with beliefs. Jonas offered the most interesting alternative to both the classic history of culture, with its gender essentialism, and to second-wave feminists, who, after Simone de Beauvoir, theorized that gender differences are socially constructed. Her examination of gender identity based on role playing in her art since the 1960s was ahead of the theory of gender performativity introduced by Judith Butler in the 1990s, which described gender as constructed by constant repetition and acting it.
By expanding the field available to female exploration by transforming the role of a witch into its enlightened version: that of Guide/Teacher in Moving Off the Land II, Jonas does not exactly reject women’s archetypal roles, but combines them and transforms into a new role that women can play in postmodernity—the world in which both gender roles and the separation of human and animal realms have been questioned.
Editor’s note: A different version of this text was published in Polish by National Sculpture Center in Orońsko in Orońsko Sculpture Quarterly. The essay has been translated and modified by the author for Degree Critical‘s audience.
Monika Fabijanska is a New York-based art historian and independent curator who specializes in women’s and feminist art. She curated a critically acclaimed exhibition, The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S. at John Jay College, CUNY, ranked by Hyperallergic the fifth best NYC art show in 2018, and reviewed by The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Art in America, and The Brooklyn Rail. www.monikafabijanska.com