Joan Jonas' Volcano Saga

Featuring Tilda Swinton, the performance artist presents an immersive installation based on a 13th century Icelandic legend

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Video and performance art doyenne Joan Jonas has two shows on concurrently at London's Wilkinson Gallery this month.  'Volcano Saga', Jonas' 1989 video featuring Tilda Swinton, is displayed as an immersive installation combining sculpturally arranged objects and drawings in a darkened room with projections.  Based on the 13th century Icelandic Laxdeala Saga, the work explores myth and dreams in the artist's signature visual style, blending seemingly simple gestures and actions with high technology.

Upstairs at the gallery 'Drawing Languages' is an exhibition of works that deal with the vocabulary of drawing, often through performance processes and gesture.  Engaged with the creation of performance and video via ritual, myth, mark making and narrative for over fifty years, Joan Jonas' claim on the history of twentieth century art is unequivocal.  This show gives an access into some key aspects, including the recurrently used animal head motifs that often appear as mask-like or attached to human bodies. We spoke with Jonas about her associative approach to narrative and objects…

Dazed Digital: Your attention to, and use of language and narrative, has been described as 'non-linear' and 'decentralized'…
Joan Jonas: It runs through my work from the very beginning, the way I began to think about working with time-based form.  I studied art history and sculpture and when I began to work in performance, and then video, I began to think of what kind of sources I could use to make this transition.  I always liked poetry, so I looked at literature and in particular poetry for form because poetry is condensed, it's on the page.   It's condensed and visual in a way, it has a structure to it.  So in the beginning when I was using words I was thinking of that kind of structure, and also myth - the way James Joyce used myth.  In 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' Joyce used the myth of Daedalus to represent something about the artist.   I was also looking at film and the history of film, silent film and film in the 70s, and I think I was very inspired by ideas from that.  The structures in those early films are not coherent narratives.

DD: You often come to ideas through objects, how do you go about finding the specific objects, and how does that translate through to the final work?

Joan Jonas: I collect objects, I find things I'm interested in and I buy them or people give me things knowing what I'm interested in. When I go to Mexico I always buy masks and I collect masks of animal heads..  Hardly ever do I find an object knowing exactly how I'm going to use it except for my more generic objects like poles and sticks and circles.   I chose those forms because I felt something about the basic graphic language of the circle the square, the line.  I was always attracted to sticks and long poles because they extend your body, so sometimes the object has something to do with the relation of the object to my body, but I have to use it first and experiment moving with it so I work improvising with the objects.

DD: You don’t outsource any of the work.  Why's that important to you?
Joan Jonas: It's just my work - I'm a visual artist and I make it myself.  I think it has to do, maybe, with having a camera in the late 60s / early 70s and that whole revolution in the way artists related to media because you could do anything yourself all the time, you didn’t have to go to a studio.  Over the years of course I've gone to studios.  There was a period in the 80s where it was harder to have a camera and nobody had editing equipment because it was expensive, so I went from doing everything myself in the beginning back to doing that again in the 90s when cameras were once again made affordable. It's very important to me, it's like my handwriting.

DD: You work is often associated with feminism, do you still feel engaged with that in a strong way?
Joan Jonas: I'm not actively involved in the discourses, but for all women my age or who were involved in feminism, it made an indelible mark on us.  It's something that will always be there, so even if you're not reading feminist critique you're aware of the issues still.  I think it's something that is always with you and you never are not a feminist. 

DD: Your work has spanned decades, so the technology available to you has developed, what's the relationship to that in your practice?
Joan Jonas: Everybody trusts in the digital, but everything becomes obsolete.  HD just means a clearer image and when I first saw it I thought it was too slick because it's not soft.  It’s a more complex technology so I'm a little bit angry - in order to download it to my computer we need special programmes. To me it doesn’t really matter what the technology is, what matters is the content then I think about the best technology to use. I don't like the idea that it would be difficult for me to shoot in film now, because film has its own beauty, so to not have that as an option is a tragedy.  I think what is interesting is how new technology can be used to present one's work on the web or in the museum.  But I'm not one of the artists who are experimenting with those things at the moment, though I never know what I might do into the future.

Joan Jonas: Volcano Saga, 10 Oct 2011 - 15 Jan 2012; Joan Jonas: Drawing Languages: 10 Oct 2011 - 15 Jan 2012

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