Joan Jonas at Tate Modern

Our arts editor, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou, reflects on the use of myth in the work of pioneering visual artist Joan Jonas.

The tale of the Corinthian Maid is an apt one for visual artist Joan Jonas. It speaks of all that is essential to myth: love, loss, and the desire to make the former outlive and outsmart the latter. Sources differ on the details, but according to Pliny the titular maid traced the outline of her lover’s shadow on a wall by the light of the moon. Once her soldier-lover had left for war, the maid consoled herself with his silhouette. In his absence, he would ever be present. And so, says Pliny, went the birth of painting.

Jonas may not be a lovesick youth – although at 82 years of age she still has the unbounded energy of one. What she shares with the maid is a propensity to make art out of almost nothing. Like the maid she draws lines that live, as opposed to mere marks that gesture to an absent object. Like the maid she sees light in shadows, palpability in phantasms of the past. And like the maid she is the maker of myth; the artist who, through drawing, painting, video installation, film and performance, makes, remakes and unmakes the mythical while creating her own mythos. An endless poēsis would, therefore, be the best phrase to describe her work in Tate Modern’s current exhibition, Joan Jonas. Like the maid she invents, stylus in hand, drawing on walls, on floors, on paper, on rocks and in sand; she resurrects and reanimates long forgotten images, transcending space, time and culture with one deft dab of paint or smudge of charcoal.

Joan Jonas (b.1936), They Come to Us without a Word II, 2015, performance at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, Venice, Italy, 2015. Photo by Moira Ricci. Copyright Joan Jonas: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York: DACS, London.

It is this characteristic reinvention of the mythological and folkloric that is first seen in Jonas’ 1976 performance, The Juniper Tree. Inspired by the Brothers Grimm tale of a stepmother who kills her stepson, it was the first and only piece created especially for children. In the original, the stepmother chops up the body, broils the bits of child-flesh in a sinister stew, feeds the blood pudding to his unwitting father, whilst the stepsister buries the remaining bones underneath the eponymous juniper tree. Transforming these tiny relics into a beautiful bird, the tree symbolises life, growth and perpetuity; the chance for the child to live again, perhaps to seek justice, in yet another form. None of these dark and magical twists are lost in Jonas’ piece; if anything she refuses to stem the flow of bloodied violence or cut out the fantastical. Boasting a plethora of props (each pregnant with poetic meaning in the Tate’s recreation of the set), garments, masks, dancers, singers and live-action painting by the artist herself, Jonas’ Juniper Tree is more a ‘reaction’ to than a ‘representation’ of Grimm’s original. Thus through the jamboree of dance and song, it is Jonas’ mature-beyond-her-years voice, her visual and verbal language, that cuts deep and sharp like the stepmother’s blood-stained knife.

Joan Jonas (b.1936), The Juniper Tree, 1976/1994, Installation, Tate purchased 2008. Photo by Seraphina Neville. Photo courtesy of Tate Photography.

The Tate’s exhibition doesn’t contain the 1976 film of The Juniper Tree, but it does have a slide-show of it, together with the original promotional posters and audio recording. Best of all it presents the original set, now turned installation, demonstrating how Jonas’ works, like the tiny boy of the Germanic folktale, adopts new forms, shapes and life with each new exposition. In this assemblage, folkloric tropes and themes are at once rearranged, broken and expanded; a string of 29 wooden beads running along the middle of the installation could symbolise the passing of seasons, the reconstituted bits of body, the time it takes for the child to metamorphose from bone to bird to boy again, or the number of bones themselves. Blood too is everywhere implied, but as a creative and destructive streak: white silks are daubed in red, replicating faces and organ or animal-like outlines; red silks are similarly embellished with white. These are the live-action paint-drawings that Jonas made during the original 1976 performance, which uncannily pick up on and subvert one of the ominous lines native to the tale and whispered by the boy’s late biological mother: ‘If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow’. In an act of care and pity, the stepsister wraps her butchered brother’s bones in a white silk handkerchief; Jonas pulls such silken tenderness away to expose the brutal transformations, rituals and repetitions that such stories try to fold up and bury beneath the roots of trees.

The Juniper Tree at once reveals and conceals the seeds – the motifs, methods, symbols and preoccupation with mythology – that would flourish in Jonas’ later works. Mirrors, movement, doubles; the continuous Corinthian-Maid-like propulsion to draw and read live; the construction and deconstruction of set and story; the use of music to further disrupt such elements: all become the staples of her most memorable works. Volcano Saga (1985-9), Lines in the Sand (2002), the pioneering films in miniature known as My New Theatre series (from 1997 onwards), Double Lunar Rabbit (2010) and the most recent Stream or River, Flight or Pattern (2016-2017) all betray this visual grammar and a dedication to dislocate and, at times literally relocate, the mythical away from its country and culture of origin. The result moves beyond the Jungian notion of a universal consciousness or poetic of myth. Instead, Jonas extrapolates the latent or subterranean themes of these well-known stories; she reassembles the bones of the dead, amplifies their unique voices, and grants them an audience and a stage from which to tell their tale, not the one we think we know.

Joan Jonas (b.1936), Lines in the Sand, installation (view from exhibition). Photo by Seraphina Neville. Photo courtesy of Tate Photography.

One such character who steps up and out of the well-worn fabric of her mythical past is Gudrun, the heroine of the thirteenth-century Icelandic folk epic, Laxdæla Saga. Initially a one-off performance, Volcano Saga was developed into a 28min video in the 80s starring a fresh-faced Tilda Swinton as the questioning, knowledge-seeking heroine. Already a regular in the work of Derek Jarman, Swinton is a luminous presence here and acts as a possible double for Jonas herself. Visiting her seer cousin Gest in a hot spring, Gudrun describes four dreams that feature a concatenation of loaded images: a gold ring, a silver ring, a veil and a golden headdress. Sitting too close for comfort, Gest turns psychoanalyst and interprets the dreams to be premonitions of Gudrun’s future marriages. But for Jonas this isn’t about fidelity to the original epic or whether Gest’s interpretation turns out to be true. Rather, it’s about Gudrun’s relationship to herself, her environment, her own psychic turnings and her attempt to make sense of all three. Using a blue screen, Jonas places a reclining Gudrun against a backdrop of rushing water, near seaweed-strewn marshland, close to a Viking settlement, against mountainous slopes and above a gushing waterfall. The displacement of her body, whilst recounting the dreams, anchors Gudrun’s psyche in the sublime Icelandic landscape. But it also dislocates her from the troubling fate of the saga and frames her as a near elemental force of her own, outside of men and marriage.

Joan Jonas (b.1936), Volcano Saga, 1989, (video still of Gudrun), courtesy of Tate.

Interpolating this episode with recordings of other tales, footage of the island, a monologue of the artist’s time in Iceland and an audio track of wind played throughout, Jonas overlaps Gudrun’s tale with other female-driven, female vocalised narratives – including her own. What we get is an abstraction of the linear and the literal; an opening for female vocality, narration and expression to poetically and suggestively seep in (even when one narrator mentions her selective mutism). These female speakers remain audible and figured above the wind of male interpretation.

Joan Jonas, Volcano Saga, 1989, (video still of Gudrun), courtesy of Tate.

In one of Jonas’ most ambitious and immersive performances, Lines in the Sand (2002), female audibility and the abstraction of old, linear (male-defined) narratives again comes to the fore. Taken in part from H. D.’s poem Helen in Egypt (1961), Jonas’ film-come-performance-come-video installation relocates the heroine to Las Vegas, specifically the Luxor hotel, and its desert environs. In accordance with Stesichorus’ Pallinode, H. D. locates Helen in Egypt, where she is both ‘ghost’ and ‘reality’; in Troy she was but ‘a phantom’, the imagist poet insists, ‘an illusion’ that the Greeks fought for, but in the realm of hieroglyphics she is ‘real’ and it is here that we hear her side of the story. No longer the face that launched a thousand ships, Helen is a sombre voice reflecting on the tragic cost of war. Taking her cue from H. D., Jonas refers to this in her original 22min video and 47min recorded performance, both of which are included in Tate’s large-scale installation of Lines in the Sand; she plays around with the tension between the real and the illusionary, she alludes to Helen and H. D.’s persona of her throughout but never actually gives the Spartan Queen to us.

Joan Jonas (b.1936), Lines in the Sand, 2002, installation & video, Museu d’Art Contemporary de Barcelona, 2007. Photo by Juan Andres Pecoraro. Copyright Joan Jonas: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York: DACS, London.

Made at a time when the US had invaded Iraq to look for the equally phantasmal weapons of mass destruction, Lines in the Sand is Helen-haunted, but never Helen-centred; that is, Jonas’ magnificent work, with its dancers, video feedback loop, projections, giant sandpit and pyramid-like building blocks, infers this Egypt-claimed queen but never directly discloses her. She thus becomes the Helen in our minds, free of her Greek and Trojan associations, but not necessarily settled in her new Egyptian setting. She is a roving presence in absence, an untethered spirit that’s seen and unseen, a shady outline with a questioning blankness in the middle. With Lines in the Sand, Jonas is at her most Corinthian Maid-like: she draws on paper and in sand; she traces and chases shadows; she finds the real in the illusion, she takes pride in naming apparitions and making their stories known.

Joan Jonas is at the Tate Modern until the 5th August. To find out more about Joan Jonas and Tate’s current exhibition of her work, see here:

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Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou is currently studying for a PhD in English Literature at UCL and is the editor of the Dance section of London Student. For over a year, she was the editor of the Art, Books and Dance sections of London Student. Hannah is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Lucy Writers' Platform, a website that's in collaboration with Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, and is devoted to showcasing the work of women writers. She regularly writes for online magazines and blogs, such as The Cusp, British Society for Literature and Science, the Lucy Cavendish College Blog, Nautilus Newsletter, British Association of Modernism and has upcoming reviews in the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies and The London Journal. She is interested in writing about contemporary art, fiction, fashion and feminism. For more information, please contact:

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