Enter the fascinating universe of Joan Jonas

Yesterday I found myself immersed in the work of Joan Jonas, lost in thought in the vast, subterranean Tate Modern Tanks and then in Herzog & de Meuron’s twisting, spiralling Switch House. Walking through her life’s work, I felt compelled to enter her imaginary, real, brilliant, often bizarre and always colourful worlds. Then downstairs in the Tanks, we were treated to a special preview of Mirror Piece II, a long-admired performance from 1970. Live art feels so intimate, and this was pure visceral joy.

Jonas is a pioneer in the world of performance and the visual arts, and this is the most comprehensive and captivating exhibition of her work ever shown in the UK. Unfolding over ten days and six nights, BMW Tate Live showcases Jonas’s performances and installations including ground-breaking works not staged for 40 years.

The artist produced a vast and complex body of work to include film stills, sketches, video installations and live performances, and it has been a challenge for the curators here to find new ways to share the way Jonas uses live theatre situations to explore storytelling, conveying her movement back and forth in time, how she constantly remakes and rearranges existing situations.

Jonas creates miniature performance theatres – at once a balance of the instance and preserving the past, keeping memories, re-imagining past textures, re-thinking ideologies. These are action sculpture and her work is always alive – the past and present in constant dialogue.

‘I always thought the activity of putting one object next to another was like making a visual poem,’ writes Jonas about the props she has displayed as a sculpture in the opening room. Her work draws from curious cultures and religions, from imagery, fairy tales. Jonas has long been fascinated by oral storytelling, and you sense this walking around and into her giant-size moving screens.

In the late 1960s and 70s, she shot stills in New York, capturing the textures and the colours of a city on the edge of bankruptcy. Later she began working more directly with narrative exploring women’s place in history, ‘as outsiders, witches, storytellers,’ she says. ‘I’ve always been interested in the poetics of how women are depicted, which is political, of course.’

Jonas’s work is presented at the Tate in dialogue with an intergenerational selection of artists – Jason Moran, Mark Leckey, Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Jumana Emil Abboud – demonstrating the powerful impact she has had on contemporary artists today. Throughout these ten days, visitors are invited to explore a series of installations in the Tanks to include her acclaimed Reanimation, a spellbinding environment made from projected footage of Arctic landscapes and light refracted through dozens of hanging crystals.

What makes the Tate Live series so special are the six-night live performance programmes. They will open with Jonas performing live with her long-time collaborator, the jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran. The third and fourth nights will be dedicated to three seminal performances from a formative period in Jonas’s career: Mirror Check, Mirror Piece II and Mirage, the latter performed by Jonas herself for the first time since 1980. The final weekend will focus on Chilean-American artist Sylvia Palacios Whitman, a peer of Jonas who also came to prominence in New York in the 1970s, performing for the first time in the UK and will debut a new collaboration with photographer Christopher Rauschenberg, son of artist Robert Rauschenberg which, in the spirit of the avant-garde, will be kept a surprise.

Nargess Banks

BMW Tate Live: Ten Days Six Nights (16 – 25 March 2018) is curated by Catherine Wood, senior curator of international art (performance), Isabella Maidment, assistant curator of performance and Andrea Lissoni, senior curator of international art (film).

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