“My Flesh May Feel Fear, I Myself, Do Not”: Joan Jonas at Tate Modern

FADE IN. INT: Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, Stockholm (2010). An audience faces a darkened studio stage, the distant floor punctuated by two horizontal mirrors. A woman enters stage- right pausing at a microphone in a long black gown with rectangular and square mirrors attached to the the hemline, chest, and cuffs. As she moves these mirrors softly clash creating a sound not too dissimilar from claves. Unravelling a scroll which falls to the floor, she recites extracts of abstract and intriguing narratives in calm tones with interchanging tempo. Upon her exit three figures enter stage-left, two carry a catatonic woman like pallbearers placing her on the floor, followed by more barefoot figures carrying floor length mirrors in shield formation, their reflective surface facing the audience. What follows is a concoction of flawlessly choreographed movements; the catatonic figure, resolute in form, is relocated, figures and object become interchangeable as the mirrors are manipulated in varying configurations, to face the audience, the ceiling, refracting light, and the performers themselves, dissecting and generating hybridised form. In one instance the figures group in a tight circle and spin, mirrors outward facing, their reflections creating a steady lighthouse effect, with primal calls stinging the silence. As the performance nears an end, each figure hums a balmy tune in unison.

Like many of Joan Jonas’ (b.1936) work, ’Mirror Piece I: Reconfigured’ (1969/2010) encapsulates the artist’s curiosity in revisiting her own history, highlighting in the process a vast contextual archive of contemporaneous influences and present day attitudes to performance practice in general. Trained as a sculptor, Jonas’ interactions with choreographers Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer in the 1960s, would ignite an experimental relationship with performance art spanning five decades. In meticulous detail and exacting delivery, Jonas’s work draws upon a multitude of themes and material, often with elements of ritual at the fore. ‘The Juniper Tree’ (1976/ 1994) saw Jonas reference fairytale as source material for the first time in a performance exploring repetitions of storytelling through painted motif, recorded sound, and theatrical set design. The innovative ‘Helen in Egypt: Lines in the Sand’ (2002), based on the epic poem by Hilda Doolittle, explored historical constructs, female perspectives, and identity, through video, photography, painting and sculptural elements including a sandbox.

Taking as it’s standpoint Joan Jonas’ multidisciplinary approach and extensive influence, Tate Modern are undertaking the largest UK survey of the artist’s work this spring. Here, After Nyne talks with Andrea Lissoni, Senior Curator, International Art (Film), about Jonas’ remarkable career and influence…


This is an extract taken from After Nyne: The Music Issue. To read the full interview, grab your very own copy via our stockists page. 

Image: ‘THEY COME TO US WITHOUT A WORD II’, 2015, Joan Jonas (b.1936) Performance at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, Venice, Italy, 2015. Photo by Moira Ricci. ©2017 Joan Jonas: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York: DACS, London.

Words: Laura Frances Green